On October 25, 2019, my father passed away.
I understand this might sound strange to some, but that moment, for my father, was actually beautiful and triumphant. For me, though, his passing was a bit more complicated, a mixture of both sorrow and joy. Sorrow at having lost a great man; joy at what my father has gained.
In the Bible, Paul, an early leader in the church, describes death as a gain for those whose faith is in Christ. “For to me,” he writes in the book of Philippians, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” How can he say that? Because those who walk through death with Christ gain true life. They are in the presence of Jesus, experiencing far better than anything earth can offer us. Choosing to see my dad’s passing through this lens has changed how I’ve grieved this loss. It doesn’t eliminate the sadness or pain, but it does help give it new meaning.
Losing a parent means feeling vulnerable in a strange and new way. The best way I can describe it is feeling like I’ve lost a spiritual covering over my life. My father spent the last years of his life battling dementia and the effects of type two diabetes. He was, physically speaking, significantly diminished from the superman I believed him to be as a child. And still, the sheer force of his presence in my life made me feel covered, protected, safe. So while I celebrate his gains, my losses are real and tangible.
- I lost my chief encourager. My dad was very generous with his affirmations of me. I understand now that you never outgrow the desire to make your pops proud.
- I lost the chance at more memories. I have 43 years of shared memories with my dad—the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Now that he’s gone, I cherish these memories all the more. I’ve actually found it quite healing to recall and reflect on as many as I can as this wound begins to heal.
- I lost my “backstop.” Someone recently asked me to name the one thing that defined my relationship with my dad. My answer? He always showed up. My dad was a man of his word, and when he said he would be there, he meant it. One of the funny memories I now recall from childhood was my dad’s annoying tendency to be the first parent to arrive for pick-up after a party or sleepover. As a kid, I hated this! I was having fun and always had to be the first to leave. In many instances, my dad arrived at the location an hour early and spent time alone in the car with his newspaper until pick-up time. It’s funny, though, because today I pride myself on always showing up. I got that from my dad.
I’m going to miss him terribly—especially his encouragement, the memories we would have made, and the way he always showed up. To be honest, I’m not quite sure I’ve fully accepted the finality of his passing. I still find myself anticipating his calls, “just to touch base,” as he would always say when I picked up. I still hear his voice in my head, still hear his laugh when I see something he would have found funny.
But I have hope because where I feel loss, I trust my father has found gain.
- I lost my chief encourager, but Dad gained the ultimate “well done” from Jesus. I never grew tired of my dad’s encouragement and affirmation. One reason was that my dad grew up without a man to affirm him—his father passed away when he was only 8-years-old. I always saw it as an incredible act of generosity that my dad so easily offered to me what he never received for himself. When my father took his last breath, I believe the first words he heard were, “Well done,” an encouragement spoken to him by Jesus himself. And while I long for my father’s encouragement, I know what he is receiving from Christ is filling a life-long gap, and that brings me immense joy.
- I lost the chance at more memories, but Dad gained a healed mind. One of the things everyone knew about my dad growing up was that he had a memory like an elephant. I couldn’t get away with ANYTHING because dad always remembered, in detail, what he or I said in any previous conversation. I think that’s why his dementia felt like such a cruel thing to me. This man, who prided himself on remembering things, lost the ability to remember all but the things in his long term memory. But now, in the presence of Jesus, Dad is experiencing re-creation. I believe he has a new mind, one that not only remembers all things, but that also understands things from an eternal point of view. This, for him, is fueling more joy and peace and true life than we can ever fathom with our limited human perspective.
- I lost my “backstop,” but Dad gained eternal life. My dad always showed up. I could depend on him, and that was an amazing blessing in my life. And as much as I would never want to lose that, I celebrate that now dad has “shown up” in heaven. He’s exactly where he is supposed to be, with God, fully restored.
This loss has been unlike anything I have ever faced before. I know that I will miss my father every single day. But Dad? Dad is living his best life. He’s more fully alive now then he has ever been. He is fully known, fully loved, fully understands, and he will never shed another tear. And that means while his death is worth grieving, his eternal gain is worth celebrating too.
I miss what I’ve lost. But I also know this: one day, his gain will also be my gain. The words of Paul give me hope in the moments of darkness:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
—1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
I grieve. But I do so as one who has hope. And that makes all the difference.