Each year, Mother’s Day absolutely dwarfs Father’s Day, and for good reason. Mother’s Day comes first, bouquets for mom are way flashier than letting dad go play golf, and of course, moms just rock. Still, it is fun–and good–to celebrate dad for being dad.
And yet, for many students, Father’s Day is a painful reminder of an ever-present hole in their family. Whether through divorce, abandonment, abuse, death, or something else, nearly 1 in 4 children in America grow up without a dad around. And while that’s no reason to rain on the Father’s Day parade, it is something parents and youth workers should be conscious of in this season. Divorce and death will affect students in drastically different ways, but even something as innocent as a Father’s Day church service can exacerbate what is already a loss felt every day.
Though fatherlessness is by no means a prerequisite for working at Rooted, both of our summer interns have dealt with the loss of a father at a young age (looking at you, cancer), and we asked them to share a few words.
Briefly, who are you, and what is your family like? How have you experienced the loss of a father?
MH: My name is Mac Harris, and I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. As the oldest of three boys, I’ve been used to a chaotic family ever since my younger brothers came around, but nothing hit us quite like that single dreaded word: cancer. Following a year and a half battle with colon cancer, my dad passed away when I was thirteen, and since then there’s been a bigger hole in my life than I usually care to admit. The man who taught me how to fly fish, play golf, and find the best fried chicken never got to show me how to shave, teach me how to drive, or see me off to college.
FC: My name is Frances Conner. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama with my mom and two little sisters. A few weeks ago, I graduated from Washington and Lee University where I studied English and photography. For the first half of my life, I had an incredible father. He taught me how to ride a bike, love the outdoors, and be kind to others among countless other lessons. When I was eleven years old he passed away after battling kidney cancer that metastasized to his lungs. In his early forties with three little girls, he left earth in the prime of his life. It rocked my world.
Grieving looks different on everyone, but how did you initially respond to the loss?
FC: My first response and coping mechanism was anxiety. I grasped for control. I thought that playing out worst case scenarios in my head might prevent them from happening. With time, support, and counseling I eventually became able to find peace in remembering joyful moments with dad and being grateful for the time I got to spend with him. But it took a lot of work to get there, and I still struggle with anxious tendencies today from time to time.
MH: As a family, we dealt with our grief in just about every way imaginable: anger, rebellion, doubt, depression, isolation, trying to forget…the whole nine yards. Personally, I quickly retreated into myself and refused to let anyone in. I didn’t want to talk about my dad, think about my dad, or accept that it was okay for me to not be okay. So I told myself that I had to be strong, be the “man of the house’’–laughable for a 13-year-old–and not let my emotions get to me, because I thought there was strength in appearing unhurt. While burying and minimizing my emotions–both good and bad–is still my first instinct, I’ve learned the hard way that this is no permanent solution.
How did the Church support you in your pain? How have other families walked with you and your family? What do you wish had been done better?
MH: Though it was difficult to appreciate as a kid in the moment, the way the church surrounded and supported our family was a godsend. So many families cooked meals for us, gave my brothers and I rides everywhere, and selflessly poured time and resources into our family. Loving and supporting a grieving mom is one of the best ways to love her hurting kids. Seeing the body of Christ come together and support me and my family was so uplifting, and was something I’ll never forget. Even if most people couldn’t completely empathize with the loss, they lived out their faith and bore our burdens by selflessly caring for our daily needs (James 2:14-17, Galatians 6:2).
On a personal level, a few dads stepped in and collectively began to fill part of the father hole within me and my brothers. They couldn’t be dad, but they didn’t try to be; they just wanted to spend time with us, have fun with us, and be in our lives. These men became as much friends as they were father-figures, and I owe so much to them. For many years, I was reluctant to bring up conversations about my dad, but I am so grateful to those who were willing to embrace the uncomfortable. Their loving vulnerability slowly encouraged me to reckon with the feelings I was so desperately trying to suppress.
FC: Throughout my dad’s stay in the hospital prior to his death, various church members visited to pray for and be with our family. At the time I really worried about my mom. I knew I could be there for her, but I knew I couldn’t fill the strong and stabilizing role my father filled. So, anytime another adult was there to hold her hand and support her, I felt enormous relief.
At the funeral, I remember feeling the urge to stand up and speak. I didn’t necessarily want to, and didn’t, considering it would have required interrupting my pastor. But I felt an overwhelming sense that in spite of all the sadness I knew that our family would be okay. I wanted to stand up and share this with all the people there who seemed worried and sad. I wanted to say: “My dad is in Heaven now, and we will be okay.”
I reflect on this moment now as a message from God that I was able to receive in his presence in our church where I felt and continue to feel so at home. On the Sundays following his funeral, attending church offered me normalcy that was stabilizing. I found refuge in the familiarity and consistency of the place. The smell of the flower arrangements, the rhythm of the hymns, and the neon yellow lemonade, all reinforced for me that even though I didn’t feel good about it all the time, I ultimately knew we’d be alright because God is real.
On the day my dad died, my house was filled with my mom’s best friends and their kids who were my best friends. They were there the moment we got the news and in nearly every moment after that. They gave us unconditional love and endless amounts of food. This nurturing act of providing food in particular proved to be so healing and helpful to our family as my mom navigated learning to be a single parent and experiencing her own grief simultaneously.
I don’t necessarily wish that anything were done differently then, but I do wish now for a chance to talk to my dad’s friends about him. I know that since I was young when he died, there are a lot of stories about him I never heard, and I’d love to know more because it helps me to remember him. I don’t necessarily think of myself as fatherless. I had and have an incredible dad, he’s just not here. Remembering him reminds me of that.
What hope have you found in Scripture that God offers to the fatherless? How does God’s role as Heavenly Father affect you today?
FC: Despite my earthly “fatherlessness,” I find peace and hope in a verse from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” I watched my dad – the strongest and biggest role model in my life – waste away. I saw his physical body fail but through the pain and the grief I learned the most wonderful of truths. As the Carrie Underwood song so poignantly puts it, this (earth) is our “temporary home.”
One of the only consistencies in our human lives is change, and it is inevitable that we all lose loved ones eventually. But in spite of the transient nature of the things that we can see, another consistency in our lives is the presence of our Heavenly father and our ability to find hope in eternal life in him. God’s ever-presentness is something I initially refused to believe. If God is always there, where was he when my dad got sick? When the first cells began to grow? Where was he when the cancer spread? These questions ignited anger and hatred in me.
But I’ve grown to understand that I will not understand, because the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” is something beyond human comprehension. It is beyond anything we have or will have experienced on earth. It is so good that our most painful experiences are merely a “light and momentary affliction” in comparison. Now, I find peace in choosing daily to surrender faithfully and let go of the need to control and understand. And this is precisely how the nature of my relationship to God is similar to a father-daughter relationship. The trust I had in my earthly father to protect me, guide me, and provide for me, I strive to put in an eternal father I cannot see with my eyes. The death of my dad challenged my faith in God and even called me to question his existence, but ultimately resulted in the most important relationship in my life.
MH: Knowing that my dad is in heaven with my Heavenly Father is a great comfort, and something I can always cling to. He’s experiencing unimaginable joys right now, and that is the wonderful truth. I don’t know what heaven will look like, but I am confident that I’ll get to worship with dad again, and God’s glory will be so great that neither of us will be tempted to doze off. More than ever, the image of God as Father carries extra weight for me, and I know that He loves me far more and more perfectly than my earthly dad ever could.
At the same time, knowing and believing that God is my Father doesn’t make the pain go away. On numerous occasions, a well-meaning friend would say something to the extent of “I’m sorry for your loss, but at least God is your Father.” Yes, this is true. And to be honest, this is often what I told myself when I was afraid to let myself be sad. But as Job’s friends teach us, theology alone–good or bad–doesn’t heal a wounded heart.
There is a time to be reminded that I have a Father who adopted me at the greatest personal cost, but there is also a time to mourn. Just because He is working everything for good does not mean He does not lament with me, hurt with me, or weep with me (John 11:35). And just because greater joys await does not mean I don’t wish I could play one-on-one with my dad right now. (As my brother likes to joke, God plays lousy defense).
What closing advice would you share to a parent or pastor unsure of how to love and support the fatherless?
MH: No one really knows what to say to a kid who’s experiencing loss, and no one who’s reeling from death or divorce or abandonment really knows how to respond. So give yourself grace, give them grace, and embrace the awkward and uncomfortable moments. Your presence alone means more than you realize, and once you build up trust, don’t be afraid to ask what seems risky: What’s a good memory of your dad? What makes you miss him? What’s been the hardest change? Even sharing your own memories of their father (if you knew him) can be healing. But do so tenderly, speaking the truth of the Gospel in the love of Christ. As Ecclesiastes 3 tells us, there is a time for weeping and for laughing; mourning and dancing; silence and speaking. There’s no one right formula, but it all starts with giving your time.
FC: No matter how a child loses their father, approach them with love and an understanding that there’s no one thing you can say to fix their situation. If you’re able to make an effort on a consistent basis, (for example, coffee once a month, in the same place and at the same time) do it. This will provide rhythm and stability a child striving to recalibrate the balance in life desperately needs. It will also give them space and time to trust you and maybe even open up. Don’t try to take the place of their earthly father, but point them to their eternal Father so they might eventually find true healing and peace.