It’s been a little over six months since the unthinkable happened to you. I had no idea when you were here last January sitting on my couch, praying on the guest bed, that that would be the year I would lose you. I had no idea that, when we made grand plans to come see you in October, we’d be there anyway praying around your hospital bed. I had no idea death would come and take you. And so slowly yet unexpectedly too. This weekend is your birthday and I’m dreading it more than Father’s Day. I miss buying you a gift, waiting for the call to hear you open it. I miss you. But, in your classic Dad way, you’re still teaching me lessons even through your absence here.
Here’s some things I’ve learned since my dad left us for Paradise.
One. I have always deeply feared my parents’ death. I always dreaded it–that phone call. Fear of that moment has haunted me my entire adult life. I have played it in my head occasionally, attempting some semblance of control over it. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t prepared for it. Even more, I wasn’t prepared for the grief that would follow their deaths. Nearly seven months later, and I still feel like I’m trying to walk through water. Moving through each day is slow and hard. Going from talking about him in present tense to past tense has thrown me into hard sobbing many times. I struggle to stay focused. Reading, writing, crafting have all been hard to start. And finish. I’m surviving. Grief comes on suddenly and in the guise of anxiety. Or anger. Grief destroys your immune system for a long time and toys with your mental health. The grief feels like nausea, coming on suddenly, growing unstoppably. You know you’re going to lose it. You think you can deep breathe or distract yourself and it will subside. But it doesn’t. And then it smothers you–like huge waves crashing over you. You’re drowning. You can’t catch your breath for the pain washing over you. And then, slowly, it subsides. And you’re left exhausted. Empty. It feels pointless. You will be tired and overwhelmed at the simplest things.
Two. People will leave you. They will. Life moves on; time keeps trekking. And people forget. They forget to ask about him, about you, about your mom. They forget to check in. Because it’s been awhile. Because he wasn’t their dad. But, for you, it still feels like it was yesterday afternoon. The time that has passed will surprise you–how can it have been so many months? But it has. One or two or more of those you considered your dearest friends will walk away. They won’t call, they won’t check in. They will fall away…or choose to walk away. And you will feel so betrayed and abandoned. But, then there will be people who surprise you. You grow closer to them because they haven’t left you alone. They haven’t forgotten; they know what it is to walk in the valley of the shadow. And they keep calling. They keep praying. They keep keeping. And it feels good to be cared for. People you hardly know will reach out, asking how you are and how your family is coping. And it’s so comforting that someone finally remembers how badly you still hurt.
Three. Your faith will be challenged. Sorely and intensely challenged. Even if you have a deep, well-rooted faith; even if you’ve walked through great suffering before, even if God has always been your rock, you will question. You will wonder how such a man of faith could be allowed to suffer so horribly and for so long. You will wonder, even for a moment, what kind of a loving God could allow such a prolonged death. You will feel empty of words to pray, and barely be able to sustain a rosary or rote prayer. Scripture will feel arid and empty. Church will feel hours long, instead of an hour, and will break you every week. Your previous go-to faith quotes will all feel like a bad joke. You will call out for His comfort, His presence…and will be met with silence. You will feel like you are spiritually crawling through a desert, searching desperately for a few drops of water. But there will be moments where small miracles happen. You will be standing next to a picture of you two and a miracle two years’ waiting will occur…and you’ll feel a great wind move through you and will feel his presence. And you will know, for certain finally, that he is with Jesus interceding for you. You will have dreams of him peeking at you, standing by you, smiling at you, and he will disappear just as you reach to touch him; you will wake up and know he was checking on you, but your heart will hurt for how close you came to feeling his face again.
Four. It won’t get better. People will tell you it gets better. But I don’t think it does. I have lost three babies, two later in pregnancy. I have lost grandparents. I have lost time and milestones with my husband because of repeated deployments and innumerable Army trips. I have lost the ability to ever have children again. And in my experience of death of babies and people and seasons, it doesn’t get better. Having lost him so soon and after weeks of traumatic suffering will never get easier. The abstract urges to call him will not get easier. The urgent need for his always spot-on advice that will go unfilled will not get easier. Living without a dad and watching others take their father for granted will never get easier. Having just the stuff he left behind–crossword puzzle books, empty and partially filled notebooks, a red 2012 Ford F-150, voice recorders, dreams, goals…and a slab of marble but not having him? No. That will never get easier. I hope breathing gets easier. I hope the ability to pray gets easier. I hope sleeping and staying healthy and each day get easier. But his sudden departure? His holy but hard death? His void? No. That will never get easier.
Death is messy. Death is awkward and hideous. Death separates and ends. There is nothing beautiful about death. There was nothing beautiful or comforting when our Lord suffered through His passion and spent three hours hanging from the cross. But, because of His holy death, greater good comes out of all suffering. Even from death. Death, perhaps, is the greatest teacher. Because the greatest Teacher was not exempt from death.
I never accounted for how painful, how suffocating, and how unending the grief would be. I have no neat words, no beautiful lesson to tie this up. Because I am still learning. Still journeying through the hardest part of this. Each day lived is a victory, each milestone survived a win. Oh, he left behind a void. Oh, he left behind great pain. But my faith is such a comfort. Because even despite all of this, he has reached his eternal reward, he has made it to the place where he belongs. And someday, Lord willing, I will get there too. And, oh the reunion…