I have, in many ways, lived a very easy life. Sure, I’ve had my share of difficulties—I’ve lived, after all, in this broken world and not some perfect paradise. And while I know there isn’t a lot of value in comparing my little suffering to other people’s greater suffering, still I understand I have had it easy relative to so many people I’ve known and loved. Yet, this world being what it is, I knew it was only a matter of time before I, too, would be called to walk that road of suffering. And, sure enough, 2019 forced me to walk it. It was my hardest year yet by a long shot. This is true for various reasons, none more so than the sudden and unexpected death of my father in December. What was a tough year became a grueling one on December 9.
It has been more than two months since I got the call that dad had been found unresponsive in my sister’s driveway, that my brother-in-law had done CPR while waiting for an ambulance, that paramedics had now taken over, and that it was not looking good. And even now, two months on, it still does not sound normal to talk about my father in the past tense, even now it feels strange to type the words, “the death of my father.” Still on a near-daily basis I find myself watching videos or reading articles and thinking, “I should send this to dad.” This is all still a long, long way from normal.
In the past couple of months I have spent a lot of time reflecting on that difficult year, but mostly that one difficult loss. It would be unusual to go through something like that and not be changed by it, not to learn something from it. It would be downright wasteful. I’m sure it will prove to be instructive in many ways, but for the time being, I have found two ways in which it has called me to make changes in my own life and my own relationships. One has to do with the nature of the loss of a parent and the other has to do with expressions of care and sympathy.
Until dad died, I did not know how hard it would be to lose a parent. Obviously I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t know it would be this hard. I am sure that’s to some degree because neither Aileen nor I had any experience of it—he was the first of our parents to die. But I expect it’s also because I did not pay careful attention and listen well when friends endured the death of their parents. I had seen friends suffer the loss, but did not learn what I ought to have learned from them. Looking back I can see what they were attempting to communicate, how they were trying to voice the depths of their grief, but I see that I was failing to hear and heed it. I believe next time a friend or loved one is grieving the loss of a mother or father, I’ll be far more sympathetic, far more willing to be there for them. I’ll understand far better how the death of a parent marks the death of a part of yourself.
So one big lesson I’ve learned is just how hard it is to lose a parent. The second is that there is something so comforting about tangible, physical expressions of love, even in a digital world. Or perhaps especially in a digital world.
I genuinely appreciated each of the text messages that flooded my phone with offers of help and promises of prayer. So, too, the emails. They were an immediate and tremendous blessing. But there was something so touching about the cards that began to show up in the mail a few days later. I’ve never been one to care much for flowers, but the few arrangements that came to the door were especially meaningful to me. When we arrived at my sister’s home in Georgia we found the kitchen overflowing with meals, each of them a small token of love. These were tangible, see-able, touch-able expressions of care and sympathy. I was surprised at how much they meant.
And then there was the role of physical presence. When I received the news and told Paul—friend, fellow elder, pastor—he immediately came to our home to be with us, to pray with us. He was there. On the morning of the funeral I was feeling strong and was all business—checking that flowers were in place and ensuring microphones were functioning. But then my friend Janis walked into the church—she is a sister as much as a friend—and it was when I hugged her that I wept. I wept with sorrow, sure, but wept also at the honor of having her physically present—she had traveled with her husband from Toronto to Georgia to be with us. As I stood up to welcome people on behalf of the family and to thank them for coming, I was deeply moved to see other friends who had traveled from afar, at some cost and some inconvenience, just to be with us in our sorrow.
So from all this I have learned the value of presence and the value of tangible expressions of love. Obviously in many cases digital communication is all that is possible, and then of course it is right and good to send a text or send an email. But when opportunity or proximity allows, I know what it means to be with people or, if that’s not my role in that moment, to send something. It’s almost like there are gradations of comfort from text to email to card to flowers to physical presence. In the future, I want to be sure to offer the greatest comfort I can, as is fitting for the situation, even (or especially) when it involves some cost and inconvenience.
2019 has come and gone. It was a year of many blessings, but also many sorrows, and as a family we agreed we did not mind seeing it give way to 2020. And now, as the old saying goes, we do not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. We know we will experience his grace whether this is a year of little suffering or of much. And we have learned some lessons that we trust will be a blessing to others if this is the year God calls them to walk that difficult path of sorrow.