Have you ever imagined what it would be like for a meaningful person in your life to suddenly be gone? What would it look like to cross that line between life and death, between love and loss?
In the year after my father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, I spent a lot of time trying to imagine how it would feel for him to be gone. I tried to picture a world in which I could not simply pick up the phone and hear his voice. I tried to imagine how I would feel knowing he wasn’t at work at the car dealership anymore, that he wasn’t at work anywhere anymore, that he wasn’t sitting on the patio looking at his beloved back yard that he had selected every plant and tree for.
My Dad, My Hero
All my life, my father was a safety net for me. When I needed to know how to deal with a challenging person, he’d encourage me how to smooth things over. If I didn’t know which choice to make in a life situation, he’d be there with age-earned wisdom. And he made things possible. To me — forever his little girl — He made all things possible. It was my father (teamed with my mother of course!) who provided the money for my first house. Just wrote the five-figure check. I’d never have had my little house otherwise. When a boyfriend was in trouble years before, he’d given me an envelope with $4,000 cash in it to help pay the lawyer. But it was more than just money. He was always just there. I could be confident walking through my life because of that.
In the last year of his life, I visited my parents’ house in California eight times. These visits were mixtures of laughter and tears. They were both needed and dreaded. Dreaded because strong emotion has always been hard for me. I tend to feel tremendously and bury it below the surface so it doesn’t overwhelm me.
Nevertheless things got said so I didn’t have to regret not saying them later. Moments that can never be taken away got shared: appetizers and bible reading, family dinners, pictures, social outings. All things you might do in the normal course of a life, except now you knew the ending point was inevitably and inexorably upon you. So it was more striking. You tried to hold on to it harder. As though you could.
What’s Worse: A Warning or No Warning?
I always wondered even before my dad’s diagnosis what would be worse: getting that unthinkable phone call that someone you loved, had maybe even just seen, had died suddenly…or…enduring a death over time, watching a person slowly disintegrate and fade away in a haze of lost personality and pain before your eyes.
Having only experienced the second one, I can say at least I was able to talk to him first. At least he died knowing how much I loved him because I got to say it as much as I could. We got to laugh together before he got too bad. We got to cry together as we recognized the impending separation. These things are a comfort.
But to step over that line between a person alive, occupying space, holding their place in your life, and one who has passed out of earthly sight has got to be the most irreconcilable thing I have ever experienced in my life. And it is irreconcilable no matter how it happens, suddenly or over time. You cannot wrap your finite little mind around it. It had the bewildering effect of separating not just me from my father, but me from anyone who had not already gone through losing someone. Despite my attempts to prepare myself, his death was an utter, reverberating shock and not the kind of thing a person ever truly gets over.
So what’s the good news??
He knew Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He finally picked up the proverbial phone that, as he said, had been ringing for years. We had the sweet moments of being baptized together with my mom in the summer of that last year. He seemed to die in relative peace, looking out the window at his beautiful yard.
Why Do I Write This?
I write this for you, who are struggling with the death of someone you have just lost and can’t understand the “why.” I write this for you, who have lost someone suddenly or after a long struggle, and you’re flat on your back from the grief. I write this for you, to tell you the skin will grow back, but the arrow of loss that pierced you will remain.
And it’s okay. It’s okay to miss them. It’s okay to still love them. It’s okay to talk to God about them. It’s okay to keep associating some places with them and smile when you do, even if that smile is through tears right now. Nothing will be the same again so don’t expect it to be. No words can “fix” you or “fix” this loss. Instead it will shape you in new ways. Ways you may resist at first. Ways you may say you never asked for.
And it’s okay to do what you can during this journey. Take small steps. Other moments do nothing. Let your grief out in all the ways you need to and don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you “you should be over it by now.” Lean in to the Lord. Even when it seems that you can’t. A prayer in your head if words are too painful to speak: “Lord, help me. Have mercy. I need you. I can’t do this alone.” Reach for Him. Reach for His word. This is why we as believers can hope as many others cannot. Because death is not the end.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. [1 Thess. 4:13 ESV]
Dedicated to my father, Gary, whose birthday it would have been today.
And to Jessie, who is in the midst of this journey.