I’ve been flying a lot lately, back and forth from New England to Florida where my mom is. My dad died unexpectedly a couple months ago. There are a lot of details to attend to after someone dies.
On one trip, I was flying over the Philadelphia area just after having received a prayer request. David Powlison (CCEF faculty member) was taking a long weekend to focus on a difficult writing project, and he was asking a group to pray for him. He was down there somewhere in the area we were flying over. It was a very clear afternoon so I could look down, and even at 34,000 feet, could see the tiny roads and neighborhoods. It was neat to look down over so many lives and pray specifically for one of them. I was praying that God would bless one man’s efforts, whose purpose in that effort was to bless many.
And that got me back to thinking about my dad. He blessed many. As I grieve his loss, what I am trying to do is see the big picture of his life—sort of like seeing it from 34,000 feet. I am praying that everyone who was blessed by him be allowed to remember those blessings. I am praying that the lessons taught by Dad’s life are in harmony with the lessons that God wants us to embrace.
My dad was a leader of fun, having started several outing clubs of different sorts. One was a ski club for single adults (before he met Mom). He named their ski lodge “Halo Haven” because he insisted that the women bunk in one area, and the men in another. The club changed a bit as the young adults grew older, but it’s still going strong 55 years later as a ski club for all ages where everyone pitches in and helps. I remember the chore chart was called “The Weep Sheet.” It was good fun.
Something else he started was an adventure club for families at our church. The families would go on camping, hiking, and canoe trips together. It was called “The Stroke and Striders.” Pretty clever, huh? It took me a long time to appreciate him fully. I wish I had sooner.
Part of grieving should be remembering characteristics that should be appreciated. If you are grieving the loss of someone, think about specific ways you were blessed by that person, and be thankful. Tell others his good ideas, and your pleasant memories might become inspiration to someone else.
My dad also blessed people by encouraging their spiritual growth and right relationships. I think many of us with long-surviving marriages wish we had started better. I have a hunch that may have been part of the reason my parents chose to serve in a ministry to engaged couples. They led premarital retreats that aimed at putting Christ in the relationship from the get-go. They also led another set of retreats for married couples. I never attended one of their retreats, but they must have been good because there were dozens of people who contacted us after Dad died to tell us of the impact our parents’ ministry had on them.
Part of grieving should be remembering the lessons that were part of the life that was lived. Each of those people who told us about the impact of Mom and Dad’s ministry were, in some way, embracing the lessons again. To be honest, I am remembering some of the things Dad said that I didn’t quite take to heart the way I should have. And to be ultra-honest, I’m also remembering some of the ways Dad taught me in his less-than-righteous moments. Yes, he had those, too. I even learned some good lessons from his bad examples.
If you are grieving the loss of a relationship that was complicated by sin, perhaps abuse or addiction or neglect, then maybe the impersonal view from 34,000 feet is a good place for you to be for a while. Consider this life from a distance. Consider whether there are positive parts you want to keep with stronger memories, and whether the negative parts should be learned from, but then allowed to fade. Tell someone that cares about you about what you’ve decided. We learn from everyone all the time, whether their behavior is good or bad, but we get to decide what we emulate. As you remember the life that has ended, consider what your life should be.
For those of you who are grieving the loss of a relationship that was mostly positive, then there are many things you will want to remember well. Not from 34,000 feet but up close and personal. You’ll want details. Journaling (as I’m doing now!) is a good idea. The hard part is that you won’t remember everything you want to. I’m finding comfort in realizing that the most important parts of my memories of Dad have sort of become part of me. They may not be in my head, but they are in my heart. I am learning to trust God to bring to my mind all that I should remember. And in doing that, I am acknowledging relationship as more important than events. And that’s as it should be. That’s what God has demonstrated toward us since the beginning of time.
Of course, when I get together with my family, I’m sure our conversation will generate memories of all sorts. As my siblings and I share our memories, our relational bond will strengthen. And our sense of connection with our Dad will be solidified. We’ll remember what he did and what we did. The trouble we got into. The ways he got upset with us. The way he loved us anyway.
My encouragement to you—and to me—is to remember what should be remembered, write what should be written, and be thankful that God knows exactly what you’ve experienced and what you’re feeling right now.