Coming out of the holiday season is a time people often dread. It is time to head back to work, back to classrooms. For many it is a time of saying goodbye to loved ones who they don’t get to see often. But what makes this time tough for many is remembering the loved ones we can no longer say goodbye to. The inability to say goodbye to those who we have already been forced to say goodbye to.
When the calendar turned to November I began receiving messages of prayer and support from people stating how they knew this would be a tough time for my family. This would be the first Thanksgiving without my father. This would be the first Christmas without my father. This would be the first New Year without my father. His birthday was on Christmas eve as well, he would have been 63. I appreciated the messages and knew that this year would be different. I was ready for that. I was ready for my grief. What I wasn’t ready for was the grief of my two year old son, Micah.
For those who know Micah, know he is a wild, loud, energetic two year old boy. We spend most of our days chasing after him and trying to keep up with his creative imagination. While this side of him has been present these past few weeks another side of him emerged that his mother and I have never seen. On several occasions we have walked into his room and expected to see him being his usual energetic self and instead have found him sitting in the corner with his head hanging low. He responds to our questions of “what’s wrong” or “are you ok” with the saddest most pitiful shake of his head. He simply says ” I want papa”, the name he called my father. Those who know Micah know he has the biggest most beautiful brown eyes. It is in those eyes and through his behavior we have realized that what we are encountering is a toddler’s grief.
We have all seen small children be sad when they do not get their way but to see a toddler in true sadness, in true grief makes you question things about life and faith. Seeing my son already at a young age realize that the world is not the way it should be is defeating as a parent. But there is something within his handling of grief that is profound beyond his years. This occurred to me the other day after one of these moments.
Micah loves the drums. He was in the playroom banging away at his drums when my wife, her mother and I all joined in on the fun. I was on the microphone singing/yelling my heart out while my wife handled the maracas. Our group was complete with my mother in law clanging away on the triangle. It was a moment of deep and pure joy. A moment showered in our “music” but mostly with our laughter. I have only experienced this type of joy by seeing through the eyes of my son. But once the laughing died down my son made a sudden shift in demeanor. He dropped his head again and put on his pouting face. Head low, eyes studying the floor, lip pressed out. Unsure of what was happening we asked him,
He kept his head low and his voice as well,
“Papa is mad at me.”
“No he’s not, why do you say that?”
“Because he doesn’t want to see me. He’s not coming to see me.”
These words broke us and my heart sank the way it did when I first heard the news of my father’s unexpected death. We thought of words to assure him that this wasn’t the case. We spoke of Heaven and how Papa is resting in Heaven. We told him how much papa loved him and how he would do anything for him. We told him how papa would be here if he could. But we also told him papa would not be able to come and he would not see him for a very long time. We searched for the right combination of words, phrasing and theology to help him see the way we see. His response was only,
“No. I want Papa!”
My wife and I looked at one another, both teary eyed from the exchange and knew there was nothing left to be said and nothing that could be said. We could not make him see the way we saw. And this verse came to mind,
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.” Luke 18:16-17
I am a pastor and have been trained on how to counsel people in grief. I have sat with women who have lost their husbands to cancer. I have sat with a grieving mother after her son had been murdered. Counseled teens who are so overcome with grief that they think it would be best to end it all. I have been trained to handle grief. I was not trained to handle my own toddler’s. But I am learning something from these moments with my son. Maybe my job is not to convince him of anything. Maybe my job is not to make him see as I do. There is something beautiful and powerful in his understanding. He does not understand death, he does not accept it as a natural and okay thing. Death is wrong and has robbed us. He does not accept our throw away lines or our theology that we use to comfort ourselves. He only knows life. He only knows what is right and just. The very attributes of the kingdom of God.
His unwillingness to accept my father’s death as something to move on from has kept my father alive in our household. His unwillingness has kept the memories and stories flowing within our family. But it also has made me realize how shallow my faith is. I talk of God’s eternal life but do I believe it? Micah’s unwillingness has forced me to realize that my understanding is just as shallow as his. But where he has misunderstood the world and life on this side of eternity I have misunderstood the world and life of the Kingdom of God. My father is not something we need to run from. He is not something to be explained away. It is not something we need to get over. His death will and should always bring us pain. But we can still speak of him. We can still learn from him. He is still with us. And we are still here for one another. The most important thing in working with those who are struggling with grief is to simply be present. It isn’t in giving great answers, and it isn’t in helping them get over anything. I have found myself trying to distance myself from my father. Trying to forget, trying to not talk about him when I want to, trying to get over him. By doing this I am living as if death is the final answer, as if death is the final sting.
Micah has no interest in forgetting. He has no interest in handing over his memories and his life with his papa over to death’s agent of forgetfulness. Sure enough he will come to understand what death is but he has sharpened my faith at his young age. I know I will see my father again because we know death is not good and God is. I know my father lives because God is the God of the living not of the dead.
Help me see the world as you see it son.