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Next month will be the 8 year anniversary of my dad’s death.

8 years.

I can’t quite wrap my head around that number – it is so nearly a decade, and so much has happened in that time yet in some ways it feels like yesterday.

I moved recently, and came across a few of my dad’s old t-shirts, tucked away in my closet – I hadn’t looked at those t-shirts since I put them in my closet when I moved into my apartment 18 months earlier, but not for a second did I hesitate putting them in a moving box, onto my next destination.  Because at what point do you say “I don’t need these anymore.  I don’t need these tangible, physical reminders that there was this person who wore this NYPD t-shirt I brought him back from NYC and that he was so proud of?”  At what point do you say I don’t need to remember anymore?

I used to think the death of someone you love was the worst pain there was – now I realize that there are a lot of other kinds of pain that hurt just as much, that are more nuanced and tricky.  I once heard the phrase “we grieve because we lost something good” and for me that’s so true.  I had a wonderful dad who loved me well and I lost him – that hurts.  But so many people around me are grieving their dad for different reasons – complex, painful, emotional-landmine reasons.  Maybe their dad was physically present but emotionally absent, or he walked away from their family when they were young or he was emotionally or verbally or physically abusive.  Maybe he was weak or cowardly or healing from his own wounds and that meant he couldn’t be the dad his kids needed him to be.  Maybe he tried to be a good dad, a loving, involved, connected parent –  but for a million complicated, human, broken reasons it didn’t quite take, like a car engine spluttering, trying and trying but never quite connecting.

When I first saw Kelly Clarkson perform Piece by Piece, her autobiographical song about her father’s abandonment, I cried and cried.  I felt her pain – the abandonment, the wondering what she did wrong, the yearning for this person who is supposed to love her and the knowledge that he never will – not because she is deficient in some way, but because he’s not capable or willing to give it.

I don’t believe in stack ranking pain –  mine is worse than yours, and hers is worse than mine.  Pain is pain and comparison doesn’t help anyone process or heal. I do think, though, that some pain is more tangled and messy and delicate – not just the loss of something good but grieving that the “something good” never materialized.  Grieving that the love that was supposed to be there wasn’t, and the pain that comes with that.

One of my favorite family stories is how when my mom was pregnant with me, and they found out I was a girl, my dad – my football loving, superstar athlete, good ole southern boy dad – came to my mom with excitement and said “I just realized – this is the best!  We can do everything with a girl!  She can wear dresses and play sports!”  I’m not sure I lived up to the sports part (does reading count as a sport?) but the do anything part – I always felt like I could, because both of my parents made it clear they believed in me, no matter what.  The older I get and the more stories I hear, the more I realize that kind of parenting, that kind of Dad-ing – of unconditional love and support – is a rare and beautiful and precious thing.  That it’s not the norm, it’s the exception – and I feel deep and breathtaking gratitude that I was given that gift.  Because even though my dad isn’t physically present in my life anymore, his love and belief in me still is.

Yesterday at church our pastor John was telling a story about how he was surfing, and this precocious, darling eight-year-old kid named Shane started surfing near him.  Shane was engaged and friendly and fearless in the water, talking to John like they were old friends, surfing on his own, no adults in sight.  John was impressed that this kid was so fearless, and asked him who taught him to surf.  “My dad!” he replied proudly, waving to a man standing on the shore.

John had a lightbulb moment – Shane could be brave because his dad was right there, watching from the beach, cheering him on.  He could be brave because he knew his father was close – supporting him, championing him, on his side.  He could take risks and fail and let a wave knock him down because of the love and trust between him and his dad.  

Shane could be brave because he knew who his father was.

I sat in church with tears in my eyes and that phrase echoing in my head “I can be brave because I know who my Father is.”

I don’t remember much of what I said at my dad’s funeral, but I remember saying this: that the greatest gift my dad gave me was that his love for me – even in all it’s human imperfection – so accurately modeled for me the love of my Heavenly Father  – sacrificial, unconditional, kind, patient, delighting in me not because of what I accomplished but because of who I am.

I know who my Father is.

I can be hit by grief and pain and loss that feels like ice water – shocking, freezing my ability to breathe, think, see – and know deep in the marrow of my bones that I am ok, I am held, that this too shall pass.

I can feel stuck and scared that things will never change, that this is all my life will ever be and sit in the despair and helplessness that brings – like screaming in a crowd and no one can hear you – and trust that God knows the plans He has for me, to bring me Hope and a future.

I can feel pummeled by the relentless assault of bad news and senseless loss of life – Brussels, Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad – and take a deep breath, face the waves and ask “What can I do? How can I help? Who can I love?”

I can be brave because no matter what waves crash down, I know who my Father is.

My dad gave me the gift of his love, and I know where he got it from – that he could be brave and loving and cheer me on because he also knew who his Father was.

Sometimes being brave means asking for forgiveness, or standing up for what’s right, or staying the course when it’s hard.  I don’t know what the next eight years will bring and what being brave will look like in the seasons to come, but I am reminding myself that I can face whatever waves life brings.

I can be brave, because I know who my Father is.


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  1. Amazingly said Mary! So well written. I remember all our fun and laughter in France and how you caused Catherine and I to become addicted to the Gilmore Girls. I’m soooo glad you shared this. Loads of love xoxo SuzQ

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