It was a Tuesday morning and we were heading to the shops to choose glasses for Noah, my four year old. As we pulled into the carpark a giant tear just slid down my cheek. The day before my dad had been given a cancer diagnosis and although we knew he was sick, because he looked so sick, it was still a shock to get the really bad news from a doctor.
But this tear was not even so much to do with the cancer. The tear was because in some deep part of me I felt a sudden awareness that in our world all is not as it should be. I felt a wave of fear at the realisation life can mean struggle and pain. It was a moment when darkness just seemed so heavy and I felt exposed and small. As my husband unbuckled my son out of his car seat I wiped the tear away and quickly grabbed my bag.
A few hours later my dad took his own life at home.
And this isn’t a post about his death or a detailed account of what happened and why. I’ve been through that a million times. I know it will not get me anywhere. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t change anything.
This is my truth about how being alive and human is both beautiful and brutal. It’s a post about a war that rages all over the earth and how it can crush everything you once so innocently sang and smiled about. It’s a post about experiencing faith when you feel like the oil for your lamp has run out.
I have discovered it is not a crisis of faith to have no words.
When dad died my words just disappeared. They seemed void of any meaning. The things people said or wrote didn’t affect me in the slightest. I didn’t really want to speak to anyone or write or read. Sometimes when people politely asked how I was I would say ‘fine’ and it sounded callous. I could hear myself saying it thinking, my goodness your dad has just died, show some remorse.
But really, I would rather have talked about you and your life, than me and mine. I had no words for my own life and it was an effort to find any. When people called I was glad my husband was there. He carried the conversation, he answered their questions for me. He filled the gaps when my voice trailed off and disappeared.
I dreaded the hope-filled explanations of what happened. I didn’t want to hear anything from anyone, actually. I just wanted to sit in my sadness and grieve the loss of my dad. I just want to quietly remember. I wanted space to let my questions linger a while and I was tired of the inevitable clichés and quick responses.
The shock and grief was tough to articulate, to be honest. I had grown up with a faith in God and gone to church my whole life. And yet when dad died, suddenly and unexpectedly, I didn’t really know what to do with the horror. I wasn’t sure what church had taught me about the darkness. I knew plenty about the light, plenty about celebration and joy and beauty but not so much about despair and heartache and fear. There had never seemed much room for that.
What did God think about my emptiness and the vacant blank stare I held on my face and in my heart and soul?
What was I to do at night when I was too afraid to close my eyes, too scared of what I might see?
What would he make of my anger and the constant tirade of questions I threw at him?
When dad died it was like darkness had arrived at my door and I wasn’t prepared.
One week I was standing in a soft play area chatting to friends and organising my little boy’s fourth birthday party and buying a new handbag. And the next I was at the funeral directors, choosing hymns and a coffin with my mum.
One week grief was the furthest thing from my mind and the next I could hardly breathe from the weight of it.
But organising funerals and writing tributes and driving to crematoriums are not really things you prepare for. Or think about, I suppose.
Often I felt like the light I carried inside me had just gone out.
I felt a bit broken, changed and altered somehow. I worried if I would cart that void feeling around forever. I had family and friends all around me. There was a lot to do, a lot to be organised and always a lot of people. But I felt like it was just me, all by myself, just existing.
I’d never been to the funeral of a family member before. In fact, no one close to me has ever died. I’ve never experienced anything traumatic my one whole charmed life. I’ve observed grief from a distance, sure. Offered sympathy and hurt with those who are hurting, but it’s not the same thing.
In your heart of hearts, in your raw place of grief and suffering, in your rich centre of love and redemption, who do you say God is? There, in that place, who is he to you now? (Sarah Bessey)
I’ll tell you the truth.
I had read before that God was close to the broken hearted and I was glad – for them, for those who had the broken hearts. I was pleased that I believed in a good God who saw people hurting. I had prayed for Him to draw near and carry them.
But I didn’t know God in that way. Not really. I knew God in a way that was thankful for all my blessings and good gifts. The God in my life had always been very real and present, but it was always through a lens of joy and hope and gratitude for the comfortable, content life I led.
And then, all of a sudden I was broken hearted. I was the one limping along the dark valley, in pain and so lost. I had a wonderful dad who lived down the road and set up obstacle courses in the garden for my kids. And then I didn’t.
Silence and presence.
When dad died this is how I felt God. In His silence and in His presence. When it was just me and my grief I discovered God was there in a way that people around me found difficult. I had no words to form a prayer but I felt like God wasn’t bothered and he stayed with me regardless. Just his presence. No pressure to understand or sort it all out or make sense of it. No easy answers.
Just silence and presence.
I felt held and known and protected. By people around me, yes of course, but also in a truly special, supernatural way from a good Father.
I found that in my bewilderment God did not desert me. He did not roll his eyes at my doubt and confusion. He did not scold my lack of enthusiasm for anything spiritual. In fact, I felt like I had his holy permission to grieve in whatever way I liked on any particular day. God could take it. He could handle my anger. He didn’t leave in a huff when I turned the other way in a rage.
He gently remained.
He remained when I got stuck, staring into space, for hours on end.
He remained on the nights I battled lies whispered over and over in the quiet places of my soul.
He remained for the questions and deep confusion.
He remained when I walked the school runs feeling like the loneliest person on earth.
He remained at Noah’s birthday party when brave faces disguised deep pain.
The morning of dad’s funeral my husband left to drop the kids to school or with family for the day. I got dressed and then sat down in our unusually quiet house to read a chapter from Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. The chapter was called ‘Obey the sadness. On grief and Lament’. And in it she shares incredible words from Frederick Buechner,
‘The weight of these sad times we must obey, and must obey just because they are sad times, sad and bewildering times for people who try to hold on to the Gospel and witness to it somehow when in so many ways the weight of our sadness all but crushes the life out of it.’
I felt these words to the depths of my soul.
In my hand I held a tribute I had written about my dad for the funeral. It was full of things I loved about him, things he had taught me and ways he had loved me well. My dad wasn’t perfect, sometimes he got it really wrong, but in his own way he did his best to always make sure I felt loved and cared for. And so for 33 years I experienced the beautiful gift of a good father trying to do his best for his daughter. And to loose that gift is heart breaking.
But the thing about life is, it is both beautiful and brutal. I know this now.
And still, even on the darkest of days I have witnessed such beauty and hope. My kids seem able to talk about dad so openly and freely that often it just leaves me speechless. They remember lovely things that I have forgotten. They talk about heaven with more assurance than I often possess. Yesterday Noah suddenly said, ‘I wish I could see Granda’ because he does and I do too but I probably don’t articulate it out loud very well, or very often. ‘I wish I could see dad.’ I do. When Poppy took her first steps I clapped and cheered but in my heart I was sad. Because dad would have been so proud of her.
He’s not here and I miss him.
There are moments in my life right now that are so full of beauty my eyes fill with grateful tears. And there are times when the sadness descends and the tears are of a different kind.
I am slowly learning to hold onto the truth that I have a Father who remains for it all. And I have a voice and a faith in it all, too.
Grief is not causing me to desert my faith. Grief is deepening it.
Since dad died my greatest need has not been for explanations or assigning blame or finding something to diminish my grief. My greatest need has been for deep assurance that I am gently held and deeply known in every circumstance.
‘Who is he to you now?’
I have found my God to be a good Father who holds me, knows me and He remains.