20 years ago today, my father died unexpectedly when I was just 10 years old. My younger brother and I found out when we got home from school that day. My mother had told my older brother earlier that day before we got home. Though I was brimming with excitement with the knowledge that I was making all A’s again on my report card, when I walked into our house that afternoon, everything would come crashing down in an instant.
Over the course of the past 20 years, each time I’ve reached the month of November, it becomes a sobering time of year for me. Surely, there is the feverish excitement of the holiday season fast approaching, but the hollowness that I felt in 1995 is something that is etched in my memory forever. It is basically a natural instinct for me to become more sober-minded and reflective at the start of every November now. And when I forget and wonder why I’ve become so withdrawn and quietly mulling my life over, I eventually look at the calendar and remember why.
But 20 years is a long time, and I have definitely come a long way since age 10. So I wanted to share some things that I’ve learned from my father that I still remember to this day and things that I’ve learned since that day.
Lessons Learned from Him
- Never stop laughing
My father had a hysterical sense of humor that I’ve largely picked up throughout my life. He could find the most random things funny, and he never minded telling you why he was laughing either. The biggest thing I learned was to always keep a sense of humor and find something to laugh at, no matter what you’re going through.
- Have a thick skin and a good comeback….boys are different than girls
My brothers could be merciless with cracking jokes and picking on me growing up. Unfortunately, I was the type of person who took everything very personally and fell out crying whenever I felt like they were being mean to me. On many occasions when my mom wasn’t nearby, I’d run crying to my father to tell him what they said. He always told me that it was okay and not to take it that seriously, and then he would help me come up with some better jokes to get them back. Obviously, that probably isn’t the best response. BUT, in a huge nutshell, he was teaching me how to have friendships with boys and how different those friendships are then the ones I had with girls. Without realizing it, I think this lesson has had the largest impact on my friendships over the years, and it’s definitely why my husband fell in love with me. J
- Just between you and me times are unforgettable
At some point when I was younger my mother stopped allowing us to participate in Halloween. We were obviously disappointed (she never brought us candy), but I remember our first unparticipating Halloween to this day. I was sick, and our church was having a family game night instead. So my mom took my brothers to church and left me in bed to the care of my father. Within minutes of her leaving, he came to my bed, told me I wasn’t that sick and to put some clothes on so that I could go trick-or-treating. I was protesting because I knew my mom would be mad, but he was so sure we’d be fine. Well, we left the house in the middle of dark (we lived out in the country), walked through the woods to some of his friends’ houses (they didn’t know they were participating so I ended up with some Slim Jims and a clip from the movie Jaws in my head) and to some of his family’s houses for candy. It was absolutely unforgettable for me, and he did get me safely back into bed before my mom came home. Basically, it’s important to have those “just between us” times with your child…obviously when it’s not something the other parent is opposed to.
- Simple things are sometimes the best things
Two things that are forever associated in my mind with my father are popsicles and fishing. Those were the things that we could always expect….a giant popsicle in the evening right before dinner and summer mornings spent sitting on his shoulders as he walked us through the woods to a hidden fishing spot that I couldn’t even find if I wanted to this day.
Lessons Learned Since His Death
- Fathers are Irreplaceable
In a day where people are advocating for same sex couples to adopt children together and in a day where having a child outside of marriage is normal and acceptable or being a single-parent is a mark of pride for some reason, I have learned that fathers are irreplaceable. Obviously, mothers are too, but fathers are truly irreplaceable. Not having a father around and involved in raising and training you up will have an effect on you. So if you have a father living, I encourage you to make every effort to make the most of that relationship.
- Love the people you say you love
One of the first thoughts that raced through my mind when I found out my father died was: When was the last time I told him that I loved him? And did he know I really meant it? Unfortunately, to this day, I have never been able to answer that question. However, I’ve learned to ask myself that question often since his death with those that I love that are still living. Am I making every effort to truly love the people that are still here, or am I counting on the fact that nothing unexpected would ever happen to them or me. This is the number one reason I’ve made my husband wake me up each morning before he leaves for work so that we can pray and so I have a chance to say that I love him again. It’s also the reason why no matter how difficult a day has been, I remember to tell my daughter that I love her each night. Love takes consistent effort and attention, and I never want to have the repeat regret that I could have said and/or done more to demonstrate it.
- There is no comfort in uncertainty
One of the most unfortunate things that I realized pretty quickly after my father’s death was that I was unsure of his eternal state. I remembered no public profession of faith. There weren’t any known fruits of repentance or a change in his heart that I knew about. So I had to quietly accept the fact that I didn’t know where he was going when he died, and that produced a grief that I cannot put into words. But what it has done is made me mindful to take the words of Scripture seriously…making every effort to make my call and election sure, walk worthy of the call to which I was called, redeem the time, teach me to number my days, and so on. If I were to die, I don’t want my loved ones wondering about where I will go, and I certainly don’t want to be deceived about my destination either. Be certain. Be assured.
But the second thing I can add under this heading is the importance of not offering someone false comfort in the death of their loved one. If you don’t know whether someone was saved or not, don’t act like “God has gained another angel in heaven” or that they are now “resting in peace”. If someone has died without saving faith in the Lord, they are not resting in any sort of peace now, nor will they ever. The world is so quick to offer this false comfort when people die, no matter the kind of person that they may have been when they were living. Suddenly we presume upon the mercies of God at every person’s death, although we are told in Scripture that the gate and the way is narrow that leads to eternal life, and few people find it. I’m not saying to stand in judgment at every person’s death, but don’t presume and offer empty comfort to those who grieve because you don’t know what to say.
- It is important to learn how to grieve…something to teach your children too
Unfortunately, my family never learned how to grieve properly, and it’s just assumed that people will somehow “work things out” on their own…even children. I wish this wasn’t the case, but no one knew how to deal with unexpected death. No one knew what to say, how to comfort, how to support or anything like that. So, the day after my father died, I found myself sitting on the school bus quietly going to school. And I did that every single day the remainder of that year, even the day of his funeral (except I wore a black dress that day because I had to leave early to go to the funeral). Ultimately, it took me about 8 years to fully deal with his death…as a freshman in college.
I’ve learned that in a world thoroughly effected by sin and death, it is important to learn how to grieve properly. It’s even more important to teach your children how to grieve properly too. As David said in Psalm 23, we are always walking through the valley of the shadow of death. If that is the walk that we know we will go through in this life, it is far better to learn how to walk through it well and to teach others how to walk through it well too.
Moreover, it is also useful to learn how to walk with others as they walk through it too. I am forever in debt to my husband, who even through the course of 5 years of friendship, 3 years of dating, and 4 ½ years of marriage, has always been there walking with me through some of the most painful moments in my life. It was a sober privilege to finally be able to show him where my father was buried (along with other family members) this past Memorial Day and have that personal moment with him. We are not meant to go through this life alone, and I treasure those people who have personally walked through those quietly, intense moments with me at random points through my life. I thank God for you.
- Doctrine matters…it always matters
If I had to sum up the remainder of my thoughts, it would be under the heading of “Doctrine matters”. When you are wrestling with unexpected circumstances, untimely death, extremely difficult situations, or anything else you always come around to the questions of “Why me?” “Why now?” And even if you never ask yourself those questions, you wrestle with God about why, about fairness, about His perceived involvement or lack of involvement. You wrestle about prayers prayed that seem unanswered, about whether or not this is “more than you can bear”, and you do end up wrestling with that lingering taste of bitterness that will make itself known for a long time afterwards.
I say all of that to say that having a proper understanding of God and how He works and operates is essential to dealing with every aspect of our lives, but especially the very painful times of life. Understanding God’s sovereignty, His good providence, His difficult providence, His pursuit of His own glory, our sinfulness, His holiness, judgment, redemption, salvation, and assurance of salvation is very important to how we actual deal with our lives and how we eventually deal with the difficult pains and griefs of life. Bad doctrine, or inconsistent beliefs about God, or even beliefs about God that have not been fully thought through have a horrendous effect in our Christian lives, whether we want to believe that or not. So it behooves us to pay attention and take heed to what we believe and know why we believe it and to make sure that our beliefs actually line up with the whole body of Scripture, not the portions that we extract to prop up the shaky notions, ideas, and random superstitions we learned from our mommas growing up that we want to hold on to in this life.
At various points in the Christian’s life, God always has a way of stripping us down to the place that all we have is His Word and all we can do is hope and trust in Him. It’s at these points where we realize how shaky some things we are holding on to really are, and the holes in our beliefs become ultra-transparent to us. Dealing with my father’s death over the past 20 years has been just one way the Lord has drawn me closer to Him and made me more assured of what I believe. It’s been hard and really painful at times, but I am thankful that God has steered me ever closer to Himself throughout all this time. And all that I can say at this point is: I still miss him.