Journalist and author Allison Gilbert has become a prominent voice in the field of bereavement writing, helping readers actively remember and honor their lost loved ones. Having lost both of her parents by age 31, she went on to write the insightful books Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents and Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children.
Her newest book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive is a unique guide to “active remembering” as a method for maintaining bonds with those who have died. Passed and Present provides 85 concrete, practical, and creative ideas for celebrating and honoring loved ones. It offers an incredible array of options – many that you’ve probably never even imagined before — and plenty of tips for how to initiate them.
With Father’s Day approaching, I reached out to Allison as an expert for tips about coping with the holiday when a father has died. As Allison explains, we can still celebrate our fathers in their absence, but sometimes this takes a conscious effort.
Thank you, Allison, for sharing your knowledge!
Can you tell us a little about your father and your relationship with him?
My father, Sidney Philip Gilbert, was a successful architect and used his influence to make an extraordinary impact on the world. At the height of the Cold War, he began organizing his fellow architects to take a stand against nuclear proliferation. My father founded Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) and he worked hard to build meaningful relationships between US and Russian professionals. None of this seems particularly extraordinary today, but these kind of exchanges had never occurred before.
In the years leading up to his death, he lived in Moscow for six months out of each year. And we got closer. I was so proud of him. And I really enjoyed visiting him on his newfound turf. Seeing him be so happy…made me very happy.
He died just three days after September 11th, three months after we went out to dinner to celebrate his 63rd birthday. We ate Italian food and it was our last fun evening together. I remember that he coughed a little bit that night, but it hardly seemed odd to me. Turns out he had lung cancer. He’d smoked for years, but had quit two decades before that evening in New York City.
What was the first Father’s Day without your father like for you? Do you remember how you spent it?
That first Father’s Day was especially difficult for me because by the time he died I had already lost my mother. Father’s Day just seemed to stir up double the amount of sadness. I felt a profound sense of orphan-ness. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned to celebrate my dad’s memory on Father’s Day. Taking steps to proactively keep his memory alive gradually replaced this incredible pain with a profound sense of gratitude. I had a Dad worth missing.
How does proactively keeping a memory alive differ from remembering a lost loved one or reminiscing about times you shared?
The difference between the two is absolutely vital to recognize. To fully heal from loss, individuals must approach remembering the same way they’d find a new job: they must be proactive. Some of us look for work on job boards. Others network with friends and colleagues. No matter the approach, job seekers must take ownership of the hunt. The goal is the same for sustaining connections with the family and friends we miss most. We must do something.
For a long time, I couldn’t articulate why I’d struggled so deeply years after my parents died. Turns out I got used to support just being there. In those first few awful days and weeks after they passed away, I didn’t have to work hard to find a friend to talk with about my mom or dad. But consider the vacuum that happens later. Five years later, fifteen — those conversations often didn’t occur without effort. That silence was one of the hardest post-loss blows.
I also felt paralyzed by my parents’ belongings. What should I do with my father’s collection of neckties and my mother’s colorful assortment of scarves? A mountain of bric-a-brac moved with me from home to home, following me around like Pig-Pen’s dirt cloud. At times, my sadness and isolation seemed inescapable until I figured out what I needed to do: I had to shift from passive mourning to active remembering.
How did you do this?
I brought my parents up in conversation. I also began to cook a few reminiscent foods, frame unusual objects like passports and business cards to spark even more discussion, and plan a small number of outings for my children to the neighborhoods where their grandparents grew up and the offices where they worked. Yes, these activities required some planning. But they made me stronger and happier.
Grief experts like J. William Worden and Therese Rando have long argued that sustaining connections with loved ones is essential for moving forward. But it’s up to each of us to crack these opportunities open. So much of the time grief makes us feel out of control. Taking steps to remember restores our sense of agency. It fuels our capacity for resilience.
What’s your favorite or the most memorable way that you’ve honored your father since he died?
After my father died, a dear friend of our family gave my stepmother the most remarkable gift: a basket full of daffodil bulbs. The idea is for the recipient to plant one bulb for every year the loved one lived. Daffodils are the perfect flower for such a project: as perennials, they’ll come back spring after spring—and they’re virtually indestructible. To me, the best part of this present was that planting the bulbs became an activity we could share with friends, family, and neighbors. My dad was 63 when he died so having the opportunity to partner on all that gardening helped. But the real upside wasn’t just the chance to share the labor. Working together also gave my stepmother the much-needed opportunity to hear stories about my dad and keep his memory alive.