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Coping On Father's Day Without Dad

NPR icon by Marc Silver
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Richard Nowitz

Steven's father had been diagnosed with cancer. The doctors didn't think he would make it. Pale and bald, he didn't look himself. Steven wanted to take a picture, made a video, just in case. Dad refused. "I got so mad," Steven remembers. "I regret not just coming up to him and saying, 'Dad, five minutes.' "

Steven's dad died on June 12, 2011. "The only time I can hear his voice is on our answering machine for two seconds," Steven says. "Hi, Heinz family, leave a message."

Teens who've lost a dad to cancer are a lonely bunch this Father's Day. I met many of them while researching the book my daughter Maya and I wrote: My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice from Real-Life Teens.

They weren't shy about sharing their pain — and their philosophy about coping with the loss of a parent. They really did bare their teenage souls.

These kids have learned lessons that make them wise beyond their years. They've learned that life isn't fair, that prayers don't always get answered, that losing a loved one is a true test. "At my dad's rosary service, they read something he wrote when he was really sick," says Alison, of Idaho. It was one word: "Why." He wasn't asking, "Why me?" she reflects. He just wanted to know: "Why did this have to happen?" She adds: "And so that's a question I have."

Bianca remembers her dad, when he was dying, telling her he'd be there for her graduation, for her wedding day. "And then he died two weeks before Christmas," she says.

The therapists I interviewed for the book said a dying parent shouldn't make promises that can't be kept. Five years after her dad's death, Bianca has a different perspective: "I'm glad he made those promises. If he hadn't, I would feel like he didn't love me."

When I met Bianca, she said that she and her mom were going to take a hike the next week and spread some of her father's ashes in a beautiful Virginia park. But she didn't want to spread all of them. A lot of teens feel that way if their parent has been cremated — the idea of letting all of the ashes scatter to the wind kind of freaks them out. Those ashes are a tangible symbol of their missing parent.

On Father's Day and every day, these kids take solace in last moments spent with Dad. Reilly remembers those last minutes with his seemingly invincible dad, a former Navy SEAL, now lying in a hospital bed and heavily medicated. "I kept telling him I loved him," Reilly says. "He opened his eyes and looked over. It was hard for him to talk. I would keep talking, being all gooey. I knew he was still around. I knew he heard me."

As for Steven, he's had ups and downs. At school, some administrators have suggested that it's time to get over it, to buckle down and pay attention in class. But teen grief, like adult grief, isn't confined to a few weeks.

It can linger for months, years. It can fade away and then roar back — maybe when baseball season starts if Dad used to take the kids to the game, maybe on the anniversary of Dad's death, maybe on Father's Day. "Slowly but surely, things do get better," says Bianca. But she adds, "Don't get me wrong. I have my days when I feel like it's just awful."

As child life specialist Kathleen McCue, of the cancer support group The Gathering Place in Cleveland, put it: "There is no wrong way to grieve other than not to grieve."

Even without a father who's there to hug and love them, these kids find ways to feel close to their departed dad. Morgan's dad taught her to play tennis, to snow and water ski. Every time she raises a racket or puts on skis, she remembers her dad. "There's not a day that I don't think about him," she says.

And for those teens who, this Father's Day, face the possibility of losing their dad, Bianca has this advice: "Spend as much time [with him] as you can. And say whatever you need to say. I regret that, so many times, I didn't say, 'Dad, I love you.' "

Silver lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington with his wife, Marsha, who was diagnosed with cancer when Maya and her sister were teenagers. Marsha is in good health today.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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