It's amazing what three years can do.
My journey of grief looks so different today than it did during the initial shock of losing my 59-year-old father or throughout that first year of every first without him. First birthday, first Christmas, first anniversary of his death. Such difficult, painful milestones.
The waves of emotion use to come on suddenly, swift and strong. I felt totally unprepared for the torrent of tears that could take over a simple moment of watching my boys put together puzzles or seeing a pack of Necco Wafers at the pharmacy's candy counter. That first year my thoughts could be nowhere near my dad and yet if I was scrolling through contacts in my phone and came across his number I could quickly come undone.
But today, the seas of grief are kinder, gentler, like softly rolling swells. I may feel a pang of longing when I see Jude's sweet smile and think about how his grandfather never had the chance to meet this remarkable little boy. Or I can still get teary if Amazing Grace is in the slate of Sunday morning worship songs.
While the pain of losing my dad has faded, the guilt of my grief has also grown dim.
And that's what is on my heart to share because that's the part that no one ever talks about.
You see, when I wrote the words for my dad's memorial service, I felt it was right to honor him by remembering the good. I wanted to celebrate his love for his daughters and the ways he did fatherhood well. It was heart-healing to recall the treasured moments my dad and I shared. And it was uplifting to share those treasures with all of you.
But that's not the whole story.
The rest of the story reads of a dad who was mostly unavailable. A dad who, while married to my mom, worked more than he raised his girls. After the divorce, a dad who loved showing up for the special events but didn't engage in the things of regular life.
Sporadic phone calls. Proud-of-me praise. Unpredictable anger.
Later in life the complexities of our relationship were accentuated by my dad's personal downward spiral. Laid off from a 20 year career. A second failed marriage. Business venture defeat. Deteriorating mental and physical health.
Not every factor was his fault. But naming blame doesn't always take away the pain. Whether my dad's demise was partly because of the deck he'd been dealt or primarily due to his own poor choices, the last five years of his life, especially, caused a significant stress on mine.
For many sad years my dad's life was marked by depression, addiction, despair. My sisters and I were the only ones there to try and help. So when crisis hit my dad and he landed in the hospital yet again, crisis would hit for us, too.
It was draining. No, draining doesn't really cover the toll that it all took.
And yet, in the last months of my Dad's life, after he had dwelled in the bottom of his life's deepest pit, he finally surrendered to God. Wealth, possessions, status, health...all gone. Yes, finally he turned to the only source of life that he could never lose--relationship with his Savior Jesus.
Oh, how it strengthened my faith to see. To see answers to years of desperate prayers! To see that his life wasn't fixed but his heart was with the fixer, the Redeemer.
Yet, even so...
Even so, after my dad had passed, after the memorial was planned and his apartment was cleaned and his things were sorted and saved or sold, after the tasks of death were done, I was left with more than pain to keep me company.
I missed my dad. But I felt guilty for the missing. Guilty that I didn't miss him in life when days and weeks and months went by without a visit. In life he had often been a burden. So why should I be allowed to miss him in death?
Then there was the guilt for feeling relieved. I was actually thankful at times that we were spared from another episode in the hospital. Freed from another call that his finances had been flushed. Even thankful that I had escaped another dinner where he loudly smacked down a plate full of food that was surely damaging his diseased heart even more.
I was grieving the dad I lost and grieving the dad I never had.
I felt isolated in my grief from the start. (My friends loved me but not many of my 20-something peers had experienced the loss of a parent.) And this mix of emotions I didn't expect, couldn't explain, made me hide even further in my pain and guilt and shame.
But like my dad figured out before he breathed his last breath, there is one who always sees us, even in our hiding.
These last three years, I've learned that God can handle my emotions, even the ones I don't want to have. I've learned that not only can I rest in knowing my earthly father is living redeemed, free of his demons, but my Heavenly Father is doing a redeeming work in my life, too.
God won't change my childhood. I won't get back all the fatherly love, support, and nurturing I lacked. But those realities have shaped who I am. And there is no shame in wishing things had been different. I think God wishes they had been different for me, too.
But what do I get?
I get to live in this story. The story God is writing in my life.
The story where I'm learning that thankfulness and longing, relief and regret can coexist in one broken but rebuilding heart.