In the days after Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking… there are a thousand ways to lose a father. My youngest girl will probably never know the man who gave her the curve of her smile; the crinkle in her nose; her ability to cross her eyes to seemingly impossible degrees when she’s being silly. Truthfully, she’ll never even know what it is of her that comes from him, unique lineage carved into her DNA and shaping her in ways visible yet unknown.
I don’t pretend to know how this void will shape her life as she grows, but I know it will be with her always… a question mark punctuating many of the things she thinks of herself, this life, and her place in it.
You can lose a dad you never knew and ache always, and it’s a terrible way to lose a father.
One of my closest friends lost her daddy to vicious cancer. I never knew him, but I feel like I do because I see his mark on my friend’s life… in her ability to drive a trailer, change the oil, and let her yes always be yes and her no always be no. And I like him very much.
She’s not the only one, of course, who has had to stand beside an open hole in the ground and struggle to find steady footing beneath her. I’m in the season of life where there are fewer engagement parties and wedding showers and a few more quiet conversations that start with, “Did you hear about Sarah’s dad?” and end with sadly shaking heads. And casseroles. There are always casseroles. Comfort cloaked in cream-of-something soup.
There is a goodbye that is the last goodbye, and it’s a terrible way to lose a father.
It’s been two years since I saw my father or had any contact with him. I’m not angry and I don’t hate him, but he’s not safe. A simple reality that is impossibly difficult to make peace with. It’s an equation I’ve worked and reworked a million times in my head, looking for a different way… a Norman Rockwell way. But at the end of the day, the truth is the truth and I can’t make it what it isn’t. I believe he’s always done the best he can, and I don’t fault him for all the ways his mind twists and turns and creates a version of this world that few understand… But this world of his? It isn’t one I can live in; it isn’t one my girls can enter.
I don’t even fault him for coping with bottles. Life can be so very hard, and we all get by as best as we can. But my children and I can’t be around the aftermath of that. I didn’t know I was strong enough to live in the tension of standing firm while also still longing, loving, and stubbornly clinging to this hope that takes me to my knees praying for healing and a different end to this story. If he were a healthier version of himself, I think my dad would probably be proud of me.
Sometimes you let go of someone who isn’t really gone, and it’s a terrible way to lose a father.
There are a thousand ways to lose a father. Preoccupation. Divorce. Addiction. Career. Neglect. Abuse. Distraction. Abandonment. Despair. Death. I only deeply know the way I lost my own. And over the last few years, I have felt every possible emotion when it comes to loosing dads. Sadness seeping to rage because my relationship with my father isn’t what I want it to be. Envy when I see people who have the kind of relationship with their dad that I wish I could have. Misplaced anger that there were no casseroles in the aftermath of our excruciating goodbyes; that no one really says “I’m sorry for your loss,” because this isn’t the kind of loss anyone knows what to do with… In truth, it’s the kind of loss that raises some eyebrows and questions about what kind of daughter I am.
I’ve felt all the feelings, and I still do. Not a single day goes by that I don’t think of him. But I’m starting to realize I’m not alone. My journey is unique – sure – and the shape of my pain looks different than yours, maybe. But the ache is the same.
There are a thousand ways to lose a father, and they are all terrible. Those of us who have lost our fathers are all walking wounded.
But as true as that is, there’s something else that’s true too. I’ve been held by a Father who speaks peace over me. I’ve been cradled, nurtured and restored. I’ve heard Him speak acceptance to the places where I’ve known only shame; I’ve felt fingertips of healing touch the most deeply-tucked-away wounded places in me. This isn’t some crappy-rainbow-religious veneer I’m slapping over my pain. It’s not a technicolor, saccharine, fraudulent churchy mask I put on to say, “Everything is fine now.”
No, like Jacob in the Bible I walk with a limp after encountering God. My wrestling with God looked like fierce tears, flailing fists, and angry thrashing – and those days are not over. Though fewer now than before, I still have days when my prayers sound more like a litany of lashing-out than a composed acceptance of the way things are. But in those darkest of moments, I’ve learned there’s space in the Father’s arms for all of this. For all the good and bad, loss and gratitude, anger and hope.
Both things are true. It is never either/or; it is always both/and.
So if you are grieving for the father you never knew, the one you wish you didn’t, or the one who said goodbye too soon – (or probably more truthfully, a mix of all three) – I pray you know the tight grasp of God. (And if you are parenting a child thrashing in anger as they grapple with the magnitude of their own loss, I pray you can dig into the deepest parts of yourself — down where you don’t think you have anything left to give — and find the grace that comes from above to be for your child a tangible expression of God’s tight grasp on them.)
I know one thing to be more true than anything else; we are closely held by a God who relentlessly pursues each of us with ferocious love. He will not be stopped; He will never let go of us. And one might expect that to be so tightly held would feel constraining; leaving us like caged wild animals fighting to be free. But astonishingly, I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. I’ve thrashed and flailed against the broken shards of my family — and those shards most certainly have cut deep, leaving me with scars that will never go away. And I’ve held my own trial for God, accusing and building a case for why He didn’t deserve my love. But through it all, He has never, ever let me go.
He has bandaged my wounds and held me steady in the midst of my angry, heaving sobs. He has absorbed my anger and returned only mercy. He has transformed my orphan spirit into the heart of a beloved daughter. He redefined the word Father for me, and He is willing to wait as long as I need in order for the truth of His love to seep deep into my bones. There is expansive freedom in the tight grip of God’s love. He is a Father who both holds us close and wishes to see us freely soar. Both/And.
My prayer for all of us who are walking wounded with father-shaped voids in our lives is that we would turn to the only Father who really can be the Daddy we always wished we had. His arms have always been open.
There are both a thousand terrible ways to lose a father, and there’s a Father we can never lose.
May you know Him and love Him and feel His delight.