I might not have remembered about Father’s Day on my own this year…except, of course, that I was reminded by the radio, and the advertisements, and kind people wondering what it would be like for us, for the children.
And the children remembered too. They brought it up a couple of weeks ago. Wondered what we would do this year without Daddy.
I asked what they wanted to do. Said, “You know, people do different things when they’ve lost someone important. Sometimes people want to honor someone they’ve loved who’s died by doing something kind or generous in their name…sometimes people find another person who doesn’t have kids of his or her own to be nice to…sometimes people have a party…sometimes they kick back and rest…what sounds good?”
“Donuts,” they finally said. “Donuts. And skip church. And watch TV on the couch. And we’ll make Anahi (the child we sponsor through World Vision) a card.”
Less than five months out from their father’s dying, that sounds pretty okay to me.
They’re grieving brave and open. I’m amazed by these three, daily. And the thing they’ve taught me again and again, in really stunning ways since their dad first entered hospice care, is that they know the questions they need to ask, they know what they’re ready to absorb and receive. There’s a strange sensitivity and wisdom to the capacity of their own hearts that guides me, when I had assumed I was going to be initiating all the guiding myself.
This, I am learning, is one of the many paradoxes of parenting. We lead and we follow. We plan and we respond. We initiate and we wait. Sometimes we get the rhythms wrong, but sometimes we realize that we are paying good enough attention to make space for the right next things to grow and unfold. And sometimes we notice a new thing already unfolded, luminous and lovely, though we didn’t even notice its advent.
Grief is like this, a bit. Growth and grief: sisters in the dark.
This week, I’ve noticed some advice-type articles flying through my feed about approaching Father’s Day as a single parent (particularly as a single mother). I think it’s a fine question to consider. I appreciate some of the encouragement I’ve seen to acknowledge who and what may be missing and why, rather than everyone pretending they don’t notice the pile of catalogs with dude-shirts and “What Dad Really Wants” sales, the commercials for restaurants and tools. It’s always good to be reminded that one oughtn’t bad-mouth any spouse (existing or previous) to one’s kids.
And yet. And yet, yet, yet. There’s no best practice for this. There’s only: grow to your capacity, show up, be present with your children consciously and prayerfully, rest as much as possible in compassion, don’t be afraid.
I mean, people, I love a system; I love a best practice; I love an Ikea diagram and a to-do list. And as I’ve said before, structures can create the exact right conditions for safety and presence.
But every loss is different, every family is different, every child is different, every year is different. And God is in those most intimate, diverse spaces alongside us, whispering into parent-hearts and child-hearts alike, guiding and nudging and leading toward holy healing.
Is every felt impulse from the Holy Spirit during a season of grief? No, of course not, and our children need their adults to exercise wisdom on their behalf when it’s necessary. Yes, we are going to see a counselor. No, you may not eat only ice cream for every meal because you miss your father. Yes, you are going to go to bed when it’s time so you, body, soul, mind, heart, can get the rest you need.
However, only you will know if “finding something complimentary to say about your ex-husband on Father’s Day,” as I read elsewhere, will come across as hopeful or false. It could be a great thing to do. Maybe it’s perfect, in fact, to invite everyone to share a funny memory of the dad who’s not there, for whatever reason: death, divorce, abandonment. Maybe the best option for you is precisely to steer your family ship toward positive, appreciative waters.
But then again, maybe you’re living in the aftermath of life with someone abusive or confusing, and maybe Father’s Day is going to be the exact catalyzing moment that God intends to use to allow some of that confusion or complicated grief to be processed. Maybe it’s enough to watch your children, pay attention to the movements of your own heart, open an invitation without a programmed destination in place. “It’s Father’s Day. How does that make you feel?”
It’s scary, but essential, to trust God to let us know when our children (and we) have to hurt some more, in order to be healed.
My children and I will talk about Chris this weekend; I know we will. We’ll skip church, which is a counterintuitive formational move, but which I think is okay for now; we’ll have house worship and it will last three minutes if we’re lucky and God will be with us and it will be enough. People will pray for us; we’ll be praying for other folks. We will sit on the couch and eat donuts, and streaks of powdered sugar will be everywhere.
And I may say, “What’s your favorite memory of your dad?” Or I might just ask them how Father’s Day feels this year. Or they may bring it up as they pop out of bed in the morning, before I even have a chance to frame a formal question. I’m not sure yet.
What I’m sure of is this: God is as attentive to their individual growth and needs as God has been to mine, sifting strand of hair after grain of sand that make up the webbing of our personhoods, our histories, our souls. God sees those unique and shimmering constellations formed and forming within each child, factors that I struggle to perceive and catalog and understand – how is birth order affecting each of them? What about personality? What are the patterns and reactions of mine that they will be taking to therapy in years to come? What are their fears, their stumbling blocks, the behaviors that they are prone to by genetics and constitution, and what are the behaviors they are establishing to make themselves feel safe in a chaotic world? I cannot see all these things, let alone keep them all straight. I can read books and gather wisdom and observe patterns, but only God can know these three wildly unique human beings intimately enough to know what they truly need, on Father’s Day, on every day.
And God gave them to me, and me to them.
So I choose to trust this: if I am doing my best to listen, doing my own hard growing, working to my human and limited capacity, resting ultimately on grace – God will give me what I need to love well enough, and God will give them what they need to be able to love God and love their neighbor.
And Jesus, who heals, will heal.
And the Spirit, who comforts, will comfort.
And these growing-before-my-eyes children and I, we will grieve and receive and do our best to love.
Donuts on the couch. It will be enough.
If you’re looking for a good worship resource for Father’s Day, for those of your parishioners who are unlikely to be truant like we are, but who may have complicated feelings about the holiday, Elizabeth Evans Hagan has written a beautiful prayer for Project Pomegranate, acknowledging many sorts of complexity and grief, but still allowing for sincere celebration of the good gifts that fathers and those who participate in the vocation of “fathering” offer God’s beloved community.