My father died two months ago.
Apart from a few stilted sentences on Facebook, I haven’t known how to frame those words in this space. I haven’t known how to frame any words, really. My journal swells with a stream-of-consciousness torrent—explosions of anguish, swirling eddies of joy. I’ve stitched together a ragged story of things I never want to forget and things I so violently wish were not true.
But, for all that, I haven’t known what to say. I stand before this awful, stone-faced reality called death, and words are the most futile things in the world, like butterflies hovering around a grinding millstone.
A friend asked gently over tea the other day if I didn’t feel like a tsunami had hit my life, smashing and then washing away everything I once thought permanent, immutable. Safe.
Yes, yes that’s exactly how I feel, though it took her intentional and empathic imagination to name it.
I feel orphaned. At 41 years old, I feel like a child cast adrift on an unfriendly sea. I feel so bewilderingly vulnerable, so disoriented. It’s the strangest thing: all through Daddy’s illness I was mamma-bear motherly, as protective of him as if he were my child. But the minute he was gone—and I mean the very minute—all that collapsed. I was four years old, and I just wanted my Daddy. It was as if the past few years and all the trauma they held had never been. I wasn’t prepared for that—for the onslaught of memory and frailty and fear, nor for the blinding mercy that so instantly gave him back to me as he had always been. I welcomed it, opened my arms as it were to that searing flood. But it nearly swept me away.
Our culture is so inoculated against grief. We’re assured in whispers that it will get better, don’t worry, just give it time. But everything in me rebels against such a “hush-hush” approach. I haven’t the least doubt that it will get better—I do not grieve as those who have no hope, and this story is not over. The only thing I’m afraid of is not doing the thing properly; of not grieving thoroughly, in a holy, healthy way. It’s the last thing I can do for Daddy this side of heaven. And it’s where God is meeting me with treasures of darkness undreamt of in my innocence of grief. I don’t want to miss anything, excruciating as it is.
I wouldn’t go back to that time before my induction into this league of loss—I wouldn’t be again the girl I was before this sorrow broke me, shining its piercing light on my naïveté. I carry that girl in my heart—she will always be a part of me, and I will always need her hope, her wonder, her ideals. Yes.
But I need this acquaintance with sorrow, too. I need my heart joined to the great sorrow of the human race, the rage against death, the longing for all this sadness to come untrue.
I’ve feared for my faith the past three years. I’ve rebelled against and then dully accepted the silence of God. I’ve gotten used to it, in a way.
And then grief comes and rips the scab off the wound, demolishes with its tidal wave of finality every last defense with which we’ve learned to protect ourselves. We’re bleeding and breathless—and still the silence remains.
Only the grieving know this, and do no fear it.
Only on this side of death—the death of one of the greatest forces in my life—do I know just how utterly unshakable are my beliefs about life and death.
Only now do I know just how deathless life and love really are.
Only now do I dare to hope just how close God really is to the brokenhearted.
I don’t always feel it. The seeming of His absence throughout this ordeal has been horrifying at times. And yet—Something has caught me every single time I started to sink; Someone has held me when I couldn’t hold on. When I walked into the room moments after Daddy died (another heartbreak I can hardly speak of—I wasn’t there), an electric current of certainty seized my heart.
He’s not here, sang something deep inside me, something deeper than belief, more relentless than confidence. Everything—everything you have heard and believed about life and redemption and eternity is absolutely true. For the love of God, it’s all true. He’s not here—and yet he continues to be!
“Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity, and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” C.S. Lewis asks in A Grief Observed.
Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus Himself. The Man of Sorrows is intimately acquainted with that particular grief.
But perhaps a larger question for me is—Why do I question Him for bringing grief into my life, but never question with equal wonder and awe just why He would bless me so much?
I had—have—and extraordinary Daddy. I’ve never had a problem with the Fatherhood of God because my earthly father represented Him so well. I can hardly bear the thought of the rest of my life without him, but I’ve got a lifetime’s well of love to draw from. A friend who lost his dad years ago comforted me with the fact that the power of Daddy’s influence over my life would never be lost.
“I promise you,” he said, “you’re only going to see that influence grow and mature over the years. You’ve only begun to see the ways his love has shaped you.”
(He also told me to quit worrying that I would ever forget the music of Daddy’s laughter, or the sound of his voice. “It’s with you for life,” he said. “And it won’t always hurt.”)
Now I understand why the writer of Ecclesiastes says a sad face is good for the heart: I doubt there’s a more clarifying force in all the world than death. Clarity hurts. But I want to press in hard before it fades even the tiniest bit, before life tries to catch me in its current again. There is beauty and joy on the other side of loss. If I didn’t believe that, I would go mad. But I cannot believe that any of this is meaningless. The very life inside me will not permit it, nor the Spirit within my heart crying, “Abba! Father!”
I’ve tried to be very intentional about my grieving rituals, in a Lenten-like spirit exploring this loss and all the ways I want to live in the light of Daddy’s life and death. The legacy he left behind is simply staggering; the people whose lives he touched apparently limitless. The night of the visitation, the line at the funeral home went down the hall, out the door and around the block. And every single person there had a story to tell of how his joy had infected them with courage or hope or redemption.
That kind of life is not lived by accident.
And it’s not lived in vain.
I’d love to recount all the ways that Jesus has been real to us in His people these days. All the ways He has caught me in the dark and told me He is here. Perhaps someday I will be able to. But for now, I want to assure you, friends, that He’s doing it. There’s this daily punch-in-the-gut realization that nothing is going to change the fact that my Daddy died of a catastrophic illness at a young age—and with it comes the desperate longing to go back undo the tragedy of it all. But I believe, in ways I cannot understand or articulate, that God is doing just that. That His mercies are retroactively redemptive.
“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
I also want to take this opportunity to extend my most whole-hearted thankfulness to those of you who have reached out with such extraordinary kindness and sympathy. It hurts me that I haven’t been able to respond to everyone as I’ve longed to in this season—time and words have been in such short supply for so long. But I want you to know what your kindness has always meant in this place, and especially now. Your notes, emails, messages—all have been like rain in a parched land. Please know if I haven’t replied to your words, I most certainly have not forgotten them.
Under the Mercy,