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Father’s Day for the fatherless adult

Unsplash/Juliane Liebermann
Unsplash/Juliane Liebermann

My dad did everything early. He arose before the sun, was on the road long before rush hour, and arrived at every appointment an hour ahead of schedule. If Dad said we needed to be ready by 12:30 p.m., that meant 11:45 a.m. He would chuckle at my sister and me as we ran out the door with our makeup bags in hand, protesting that we still had 45 minutes. He’d laugh even harder when he did his quintessential “quick stop,” suddenly braking to ensure mascara smudged across our cheeks. Always early. Always funny. That was Dad.

Then he died.

I will never forget that phone call. He collapsed, his brother-in-law said. Resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful. Dad was gone. Just weeks shy of his 53rd birthday, my hero was gone. How was that even possible? We’d talked just minutes earlier while I folded laundry in preparation for my flight to visit him later that week.

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Instead of spending my Sunday methodically checking off my To Do list, I was at the airport in less than two hours with a bag full of unmatched clothes, damp socks and a random bath towel. I sat on the plane, in shock, heading to a connecting location I could not recall. The first morbid thought to cross my mind was that dad always showed up early — even to his own death. As I cried over that realization, I felt the eyes of strangers on me. Pitiful girl, they thought.

The circumstances surrounding my father’s death would play out in the legal system for years. Meanwhile, our family was suffering. How does one cope with the triple whammy of a premature death, the tragic circumstances underpinning that event, and the grief tethered to unexpected loss?

The answer: Not well.

In the years following dad’s passing, our family struggled to make sense of the loss. Many of us sought therapy. The experiences fell flat. It turns out not many therapists are equipped to deal with overlapping grief scenarios. This is particularly true for young adult children.

I remember sitting in a group therapy session at my university, awkwardly eyeing the circle of attendees. Loss as a young child. Loss of a child. A partner. There were numerous types of losses on display, but none resonated with me or helped to bring into focus the agony my sister and I continued to experience. 

That was when I realized there is still so much work to be done when it comes to parental loss. There is very little in the way of resources for young adults who have experienced premature parental death. Of the limited research that exists on parental loss during adolescence and young adulthood, a few themes emerge: Traumatic grief, stress, depression, and other mental health woes.

I can personally vouch for all the above.  

In the years following dad’s death, nightmares followed me. My hands shook at the memory of his final hours. I developed a fear of hospitals. I could not drive anywhere near the road against which his coffin lay nestled in the earth below. I ate poorly or not at all, trading in my gym habits for episodes of binge eating.

My father died right as his daughters were getting their footing. He has missed birthdays, Christmases, backyard barbecues and Thanksgiving movie nights. He missed the completion of the Ph.D. he pushed me to pursue. Worst of all, he continues to miss out on watching his treasured grandchildren grow up. He never got to meet his namesake and only grandson.

Millions of Americans will soon celebrate fathers. As the weather warms up, they will light their grills to whip up hot dogs and hamburgers. They will buy socks, ties, tools and overpriced greeting cards. They will spend the day with the fathers in their lives, listening to classic rock or Gospel or whatever music dear old dad fills the room with. 

Those for whom dad is no longer just a call or drive away will experience a different sort of holiday. For some, it will be mixed with joy and loss, simultaneously celebrating new fathers and fathers who have passed. For others, it will be a quiet day marked only by the absence of a parent they dearly loved.

I am often asked how to help a person struggling with the premature death of a parent. While there is no perfect grief response, these are the approaches that have helped me.  

1. Remember to give people the space to re-grieve. Father’s Day comes with the pain of a reopened wound and a reminder of their absence.

2. Make space for familiar memories. I know I have retold stories of my biscuits and gravy mornings with dad a thousand times; I will tell those tales a thousand times more. I don’t get to make new memories. All I can do is relive what I was given.

3. Skip the advice. Believe me, we have heard it all. Unless someone asks for insight, a listening ear is always best.

4. Celebrate the departed. Even now, my sister and I set aside time each Father’s Day to thank God for the dad He put in our lives. We sing his favorite hymns, set flowers on his grave, and savor the day as we know he would want us to.

My great comfort in life is knowing that my father was a man whose gaze was sharply fixed on the future. He loved the Lord and served Him in every facet of his life, from the boardroom to the church piano. His words echo in my mind even now: “Look up, Sis. Always look up.”

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 tells us, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”

I grieve, but not without hope because I know this span of time without dad is only temporary. There will come a day when I run into the arms of Jesus. I know my dad will be standing just behind Him — joking that I showed up 15 minutes late.

Andrea Lucas, Ph.D., is the newsletter editor and content marketer for The Christian Post. Her forthcoming book, One Day Closer, explores grief and parental loss through a biblical lens.

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