When I think through what it has looked like for me to grieve the fact my dad is not a believer and everything that goes along with that, it can be overwhelming to find the words to articulate those feelings. Honestly, the fact I had to think about it as much as I did in order to write this blog tells me that I don’t think about it nearly enough. I have no particular reason for infrequently thinking about it except that it’s extremely difficult to think about and can become easy to dwell on. Grief over my dad’s spiritual condition has looked differently over time, and I am still very much fleshing out what it looks like to grieve well. There are times when it just feels normal for that to be the reality, so I don’t acknowledge the weight. On the other hand, I often find myself on the end of the spectrum where I grieve “too much”...grief and sadness are the associated predominant feelings and can easily become consuming. There are so many aspects of grief, but this blog gives a window into what it has looked like for me to grieve the lostness of someone I love deeply.
First and foremost, I grieve the weighty truth that if my dad were to die today, he wouldn’t spend eternity with Jesus. I don’t want to grieve in advance and rob today of its joy or fail to trust that the Lord can change my dad’s heart, and I tend to spiral when I start thinking about the reality of his eternal fate. I can become panicky when thinking about how I would cope if he died without knowing Christ. It is the hardest thing to think about. But, it’s not just the end of his life that causes me to grieve. It’s also knowing that as I write this and every single day of his life up to this point, he has lived without knowing and taking hold of the goodness of the Lord. The grief is not just that one day he could be separated forever, but the heartbreaking reality that he is currently living enslaved to sin and brokenness and self and the world. He is not experiencing nor has ever experienced the freedom and joy of new life in Christ.
For a long time, I felt that since his eternal destiny was the priority, there was no space to grieve the ways that my dad not being a believer has led to brokenness in my own life. It felt selfish to think about those negative repercussions. I felt I could not hold him to any kind of standard since he was not a believer, so I could not grieve what was lost for me personally by him not submitting to Christ in the way he parented. But without grieving, I could not experience healing. It was preventing me from forgiving the wounds he inevitably caused. There were losses in my life and family, namely childhood as the Lord intended it to look like. I could grieve that loss for my mom and for my brothers; the reality of that was in my face every day and forced me to lean into it. But I still had not given myself permission to grieve.
This summer through counseling I learned that we don’t forgive people, we forgive wounds. What this means is that there can be real hurt and lasting wounds from things that were unintentionally done or without malicious intent and it can even be from things that were not done. For example, my dad would be devastated to know I viewed these things associated with him as significant hurts in my life. He never intended to cause pain, in fact he has dedicated his life to providing for me in the best way he knew how. A lost person doesn’t realize they are lost and they don’t see sin for what it truly is. My dad did not have the capacity to parent differently because he was not looking to or relying on the Lord. But it doesn't make the wounds that happen as a result of that any less real. It was extremely freeing for me to learn that it was not selfish to grieve the losses I experienced as a result of my dad being emotionally unavailable, not caring about my heart, being physically present but not invested, failing to protect me spiritually and emotionally, making money lord of his life, and ultimately failing to lead our family like Christ. One of the most significant losses was not having someone to speak truth in my life. Thankfully the Lord provided some incredibly life-giving people to speak worth and value into and over me, but I majorly lacked anyone to shepherd my heart and intentionally develop my character. I also grieve the fact that I did not have modeled for me what it looks like to have a Christlike marriage or to protect and lead a family. With that, I grieve the fact any future relationship will be affected (not ruined) by that loss. I grieve the lack of connection and bond with my dad because of our differing goals and perspectives. How deeply I wanted to have a father like the ones I saw so many of my friends enjoy- these dads loved the Lord and therefore loved their kids intentionally. Overall, I just grieve that my family was and is not the one I so desperately wanted to have. No matter how much fun we have together, there is still a very real void.
So, what does it look like to grieve for what you wish you had but also trust the Lord is good and sovereign? Well, for me it’s looked like grieving in a way that doesn’t question God but still acknowledges that my current reality is not the way the Lord originally intended life to look (like in the beginning). But it’s the way He allowed my life to look. And because He allowed it, I know whatever happens will work out for my good and His glory. This disposition has led me to wonder: is it possible that it actually drives me towards the Lord to grieve? Like Spurgeon said, “I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages.” In order to grieve, I have to recall what He desired life to look like. When I lose sight of the fact that He not only cares about family, marriage and fatherhood but also that all of these things were designed with the specific purpose of glorifying Him, then I can become dismissive of the fact that there are real issues worth grieving.
My dad is not abusive or mean; he is actually very kind and gracious and generous much of the time. He set me up for success in a lot of ways and gives very practical advice. But I do grieve that I have never gotten to experience family in the way the Lord intended, and I ultimately grieve that he hasn’t gotten to experience family the way the Lord intended.
Because of my relationship with my dad, I know grief is worth leaning into. Because if we don’t feel it, then we are missing the heart of God. If it doesn’t cause me absolute turmoil that my father doesn’t know the Lord, then I am missing the necessary urgency for eternity. If it doesn’t grieve me that healthy relationships aren’t present because of the state of his soul and lack of submission to the Lord, then I am not looking forward to the day when there will be no more brokenness. When I shy away from the suffering, then I let myself live in the allusion that what I have is enough. Grief forces me to long for heaven. I recognize what should have been and will be again when all things are made right and as originally intended. I first learned this concept through the grief of losing a loved one, but I believe it is true of all forms of grief. Losing my grandma recently made me think about Heaven more than ever, especially because she was so ready and so excited to be with Jesus. I was jealous because when she left, I was still here with all the hard things that come with life on Earth. So, leaning into all the emotions grief brings and acknowledging the brokenness forces me to long for heaven. And I don’t want to miss that.
So if I am going to lean into grief, then I have to know what it looks like to trust God through grief. It is a daily choice to learn to speak truth to myself…. I often find myself saying, “okay I have to trust that these things that grieve my heart all day every day also matter to Him.” So how do I turn my grief over to the Lord and not hold it so tightly? I think it comes down to this question: Do I believe I have a heavenly father who cares I am grieving? I personally did not experience that type of compassion from my biological father. Frankly, my dad wouldn’t have known if I was grieving. And if he did, he wouldn’t have been willing to make himself uncomfortable to discuss it. He cared a lot and showed it in his own way, but it often did not feel like it. (Side note: I am not saying that being a believer makes fathers exempt from failure, just that having the Holy Spirit means they are in the process of becoming more like Jesus).
That is not true of my heavenly father. He moves closer; He does not shy away in times of grief. He is not afraid of being uncomfortable nor is he put off by my raw emotions. He cares. He sees me. He knows me fully, not the presentable, put-together version of me that is handling things well. He knows and loves the real version.
It is especially hard to trust God in and through grief when the situation is likely not changing in the foreseeable future (although not discounting that God is totally able to make that happen any day now). I often wonder how I grieve in the long-term while still functioning in the short-term? It’s hard to do that because usually attempts to carry on with life mean gradually slipping into becoming numb. Friends will ask, “How are you doing with your dad?” My initial response tends to be, “Well I’m the same - He still does not know the Lord but that’s just how life has always been.” Then I realize that I have in fact grown numb and need to lean in all over again, not just leaning into pain but leaning on the Lord.
These thoughts apply not just to fathers, and not just to family. This framework for grief (lean into the hard, trust through grief, see God’s heart, eyes and hope on eternity) is hopefully relevant and helpful to all who grieve, especially for peoples’ souls. It is worth leaning into, feeling fully the weight of it. There are still so many questions to ponder while grieving: How do you find the balance? Can you care too much? How do you not let it consume you? How do you ensure you don’t take on the role of responsibility for their salvation (if that’s you, let’s chat cause I’ve been there). All of these are good questions and that is why we have each other. We are all grieving something, If you think you’re not, then seek out some real and genuine relationships with people who don’t know Jesus. It will break you in the most beautiful of ways.
And always remember, “We grieve but not as those without hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).