This isn’t your typical Father’s Day story about a superhero dad juggling many children with ease and grace, gathering them together for a barbecue picnic and receiving fabulous gifts from the heart.
Instead, it’s about coping with grief, from the perspective of a father who lost a young child 4 years ago.
His story resonates with many people. If you’ve lost your own father, Father’s Day may serve as a painful reminder of the void that death created.
It can be especially heart wrenching for dads who lost their children before they had a chance to grow up and become dads themselves.
That is the case for Mike Hillman, of Stow. His son, Elijah, died at the early age of 6 from an infectious disease.
Elijah contracted LaCrosse encephalitis virus after being bitten by a daytime mosquito. The disease is rare with about 80 to 90 cases reported in the U.S. each year.
A first grader at Indian Trail Elementary School, Elijah was a funny and happy young man who could build just about anything with his blocks and Legos.
He was also very caring and thoughtful, remembering to celebrate Father’s Day even when other family members didn’t.
“Somehow Father’s Day had gotten away from me and I forgot all about it,” said his mom, Michelle. “But Elijah remembered. He got up early before the rest of the family and made the most adorable breakfast for Mike. He piled a ton of butter on some toast and fixed him a bowl of cereal. He was a thoughtful, sweet kid.”
Elijah died July 2, 2010, soon after Father’s Day.
“When he brought me my breakfast, he was so excited and he said to me, ‘This is your special day and I made you breakfast,’” said Mike. “Mothers get all the recognition on Mother’s Day since school is still in session and the teacher helps the kids make presents to celebrate. So it meant a lot to me that he remembered me and wanted to honor me on that day.”
While he’s happy to have those memories of Elijah, Father’s Day continues to be difficult for Mike, an IT business analyst at FirstEnergy.
“Every Father’s Day since, I take a moment to think about and remember my child who’s gone,” said Mike. “The worst thing is that I’ve lost a big piece of me being a father. The whole reason you are a father is because of your kids.”
Nancy Carst, a bereavement specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital, said all holidays can be difficult for grieving parents. And while it’s natural for people to feel uncomfortable mentioning a deceased child on such an occasion, she encourages friends and family to initiate those types of conversations.
“If you know someone who is a bereaved father, do acknowledge him on this day, although many people seem hesitant to do this,” said Carst. “He definitely is remembering his child and their relationship, even though he may not say much. Fathers are figuring out ways to keep their child’s memory alive.”
Mike welcomes conversations about Elijah.
“The hardest thing for any grieving parent is that we never hear our child’s name,” he said. “Elijah is and will always be my son. When I get a card where the sender writes in Elijah’s name or someone asks about something that reminded them of Elijah, it brings real joy. It helps to know he is not forgotten.”
“Men tend to cope with action, activity or movement and women tend to cope with emotions, expression and talking,” Carst said. “Honor and be understanding of these possible differences, especially when it is hard to tell he is grieving and he is trying to comfort his significant other.”
Mike was angry at first. Then he wanted to talk about it and he credits Carst for always being there for him when he needed an ear.
Mike and Michelle also took part in several grief support groups, where they met others who were coping with similar losses.
Mike found a way to cope by helping others and becoming involved in the annual Remembrance Service, an event Akron Children’s Hospital holds at the holidays to honor area children who have died.
“One of the special things about the Remembrance Service is that during the presentation, each family’s child has his name shown and read aloud,” said Mike. “I love the service but a picture is worth a thousand words. I mentioned that sentiment to Nancy after the service.”
Carst came calling a couple of months later to ask Mike if he could help make that happen.
He readily agreed and, about 300 pictures later, a new tradition for the Remembrance Service was born.
This Sunday, Mike will celebrate Father’s Day with his stepdaughters, Melissa and Cassandra, and his son, Joshua, 4. And he’ll also carve out some time to think about Elijah.