Facing Father’s Day without a father

dadI’ve written extensively for my county’s newspaper, The Rockdale Citizen, about the hardship and grief associated with motherloss during the holidays and Mother’s Day (read it about it here and here).  What about the loss of fathers during Father’s Day?

Grief hits us most profoundly when special occasions occur, especially firsts.  This weekend, grief will confront me in a unique way because its my family’s first Father’s Day without Dad.

This thought hit me when I was shopping for Hallmark cards earlier this week.  I had to get three instead of four: two for my brothers-in-law and one for my godfather.

I spotted a card that was from a child to “Pop Pop.” That was my children’s nickname for my father.

I looked at the card for a few minutes, wondering whether I should buy it just to have it and put it in my journal.  I moved on, picked up another card with peanuts on it for one of my in-laws instead: “Happy Father’s Day from a couple of nuts.”

The trip to the card aisle reminded me just how helpless we all feel after the loss of a loved one.

For my family, personally, it is helplessness in the wake of the tragedy we experienced nearly ten months ago when a irate shooter killed three people, Dad included, in a town hall meeting in Ross, Pennsylvania.

As a result of a powerful firearm, we were rendered powerless and were torn asunder, not only from a great father, but a best friend to many.

Since that time, I have faced many firsts, and I have tried to follow the advice that I give parishioners who are in my situation.

We’ve started new traditions that honor my father, and we have grieved the loss of other traditions.

We acknowledge the loss, and we feel our way through our emotions as they come about.  (Daphne Reiley accurately describes grief as a series of waves and undercurrents that ebb and flow each day in A Tapestry of Love.)

We draw encouragement from the Bible.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is especially helpful: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…God will bring with him those who have died” (4:13, 14b).

I know we will be reunited in heaven, but the separation from our loved one feels like hell right now.

Prayer is also helpful, but sometimes falls short.  Silence in the presence of God is golden.

Poetry has been the most helpful avenue of healing for me.  I’ve picked up Book of Hours by poet, Kevin Young, a professor at Emory University here in Atlanta.

The book balances poetry about his own father’s death (in an accidental shooting while hunting) with the birth of Young’s first child.  His poetry is a bluesy, meandering stream of consciousness that expresses the on-again, off-again nature of loss:

“Strange how you keep on dying–not once then over and done with…each morning a sabbath of sundering, then hours still arrive I realize nothing can beg you back.”

It’s helplessness in those lines, but also hope.  “I do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul writes, its a timeless lesson echoing in my heart.

But uninformed I am.  As Father’s Day creeps up on us, we will stand in darkness yet again.  It feels like an old record skipping and repeating the same dirge over and over.

My only solace is that the day falls on a Sunday.  My church family will comfort me, as I’m sure church families everywhere will comfort all who those who miss fathers on that special day.

We will celebrate too, because there are plenty of fathers in our midst that make up the difference.

And then there is our Father in heaven.  Even when darkness falls, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1), because God is good (…all of the time; and all of the time…).

Mother’s day: a time of celebration and grief

I started perspiring as someone asked me the question a second time: “Why did you only have six caregivers?” Such was one of many questions asked of me when I had to defend my dissertation in front of my seminary’s Doctor of Ministry committee.

My dissertation had been on caregivers and spiritual formation; the committee wanted to know — and rightly so — why my focus group, consisting of caregivers, was so small for such an important project.

Usually, these groups require 10 or more people to provide substance for one’s doctoral dissertation. Six is a pretty dismal figure. The committee had every right to know why I did not get more participants. I was getting hot under the collar, literally.

I went on to explain to the committee that when I started working with caregivers at Trinity Baptist Church in 2006, we had nearly 14 people caring for a loved one, be it a spouse or aging parent. Many of the caregivers took care of their aging mothers in particular — 11 to be exact.

By the time I did my focus group for my dissertation project in 2009, we were down to 10 caregivers: Four mothers had already passed away (therefore, four fewer caregivers in our ministry); two more mothers passed away while I was meeting with the focus group over a span of a month.

And by the time I met with the committee a year later, three more mothers of caregivers passed away, one of whom was pretty important in the founding of Trinity Baptist Church, Judy Norman.

To say that Mother’s Day is a difficult holiday at Trinity Baptist Church is an understatement. Many of our parishioners will be spending this Sunday without their mothers for the very first time in their life.

As our society continues to age, I have a feeling that Trinity Baptist Church is not alone in its grief over mother loss. Baby boomers, who make up the majority of caregivers of aging parents, are seeing their loved ones dying all too soon.

In the independent-living, senior retirement home in Decatur in which I am a chaplain, we’ve lost more than 14 residents in the past eight months alone. Most of these residents were mothers.

Mother’s Day is a time for celebration, a time to honor mothers living and gone. But for some, Mother’s Day will be a day in which the only fitting prayer is Psalm 6:6-7: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eyes waste away because of my grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.”

At our church this Sunday, we will celebrate our mothers with lavish hugs and kisses. We will also set out a floral arrangement and candle on our communion altar in remembrance of the mothers whom we miss dearly.

Sons and daughters of loved ones lost will be invited to adorn the altar with relics or keepsakes once belonging to their mothers, allowing each cherished item to bear silent testimony to motherhood in our church’s past.

Well, suffice it to say, when I explained why my focus group was so small, my dissertation committee was very understanding. Nevertheless, the work of Trinity Baptist goes on. We still support our caregivers, still welcome new mothers into our fold, new babies into our nursery, and new insights of wisdom from our spiritual mothers.

Please know that our congregation wishes you a happy Mother’s Day; and for those of you who grieve and weep, you will be in our prayers. Our candle will burn brightly tomorrow for you.