In a few hours it will have been a year since my sister went to be with the Lord, and My Dad has asked to write a guest post about some of what he has learned this past year and his journey with grief. It is my prayer that this would provide insight to those who have not yet experienced loss and encouragement to those who already have.
Regret. This is one of the major struggles with which persons experiencing grief over the death of a loved one must deal. Because we are fallen people living in a fallen world, no relationship is perfect. We all have failures. We all have things we wish we had done differently, said differently, or could change in some way. Death crystallizes this emotion because it is now too late to repair any aspect of the relationship. The survivor experiences grief upon grief. There is the grief of the loss and the grief and guilt of the memory of personal failings.
Mercifully, for the most part, I was spared many of these feelings of regret in the case of my daughter Rachel. It’s not that I was a perfect father or that our relationship didn't include the normal tensions and failings that everyone experiences. It’s just that Rachel and I were close. We were always close. I was confident that she knew that I loved her and that when she died our relationship was not broken or damaged.
But there was one regret. And it was huge.
I did not help my daughter prepare to die.
The situation was made worse in my mind because, in addition to being Rachel’s father, I was her pastor for her entire life. Assisting people with end of life issues is a large part of the job description. I’m supposed to be there to help in those times. Rachel is not only my daughter but my sister in Christ. When the chips were down the most, I failed her.
I remember vividly when the issue began. It was May. Rachel had only been home from the hospital for about a month. I was assisting her to transfer from her wheelchair to her bed so that she could retire for the night.
“Daddy, am I going to die?” She asked quietly but urgently.
God was gracious in that moment to place words in my heart and mouth. I knelt by her bed close to her face. “I’m not going to lie to you honey. This is bad. I don’t know how this is going to come out. We are going to pray and we are going to seek every treatment possible but I can’t promise you how this will end. But I can promise you that you will never be alone. I will be with you every step of the way. Your mom will be with you every step of the way. And God will be with us all and will never leave us at any point.” Then we cried together. Doreen joined us and cried also and then she got into bed with Rachel and held her through the night and slept with her while I slept on the couch in the next room to be as close as possible.
Looking back on that moment I am amazed at how well it went. But something happened in me that night that wasn't good. I became terrified that I would have to answer more questions just like that. I didn't think I could bear it.
So from then on, every time that we got ready for bed, I immediately got out one of her books so that we could read. I read until she was exhausted and went to sleep. I tried to minimize any opportunity for her to bring up the subject again. I couldn't face it. The hurt was too great.
I think she sensed my struggle because she never asked me about it again. She reached out to some other ministers in her life. I will always be grateful for the ministry of Pastor Scott Sundin and Pastor Jim Scott as well as our chaplain and grief counselor at Crossroads hospice for helping my daughter in that time. I didn't resent in any way her looking to them for assistance. I was thankful she could turn to them.
But after she died, the feelings of guilt and regret weighed heavily upon my heart. I ministered to others but I could not minister to my own daughter.
How does a person deal with these emotions?
I received some unexpected help one day from a friend in my church. He too was going through a recent grief and had experienced a number of other deaths in his life. We were meeting for lunch and sharing. The environment felt safe so I shared this struggle that I had not voiced to any other living soul.
“Am I allowed to respond to that?” he asked after hearing me out.
“Yes, of course” I said and braced myself for the chastisement I knew I deserved.
“I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit. You stayed in the room. That took courage. If she had needed to talk to you she knew where to find you every night. If you had run off somewhere else, that would be different.”
Sometimes the answer can be as simple as seeing the situation in a different light. No, I didn't do everything that I wish I had done for Rachel. But I stayed in the room. In God’s grace, I was able to keep my promise. Doreen and I were with her every step of the way. The entire family was with her when she passed. We sang to her and prayed with her, held her hand and stroked her hair until she was gone.
But what about situations where the answer isn't so simple? Sometimes real hurt and wrong has been done. What then? Even in my circumstance, seeing the situation in a different light only provided a partial relief. Where is the answer?
The gospel offers good news for those struggling with regret. Christ Jesus bore the sin and failures that we committed. There is real forgiveness. No, the relationship can’t be fixed, the past can’t be undone and we may have to grieve that fact. But we do not have to live under the burden of the guilt. Our shortcomings do not have to define us. Jesus took that burden upon Himself on the cross. We minimize His sacrifice when we continue to hold on to our guilt and shame for broken relationships. We must embrace the truth of the gospel for that which cannot be fixed.
If the deceased loved one is a believer in Jesus then the gospel offers a double comfort. Not only am I forgiven for my failure and sin but my daughter is comforted in the presence of Jesus. Rachel is right now in the company of the God in whose presence is the fullness of joy. She is not wasting one milli-second thinking, “Boy, dad really dropped the ball the last 6 months of my life. What a disappointment.” No, she no longer has those kinds of memories and thoughts.
The gospel is the good news that the Perfect One, God the Son, paid for my sin. My sin, my guilt, my shame, and my regret do not define who I am.
God was faithful to provide for my daughter the counsel that I was unable to supply. And God continues to be faithful to provide to me the cleansing and healing that I need to walk on.
Life can be full of regrets. The death of a loved one can cause these regrets to overwhelm us. Against these regrets we hold up the cross. Instead of wallowing in regret let us receive the forgiveness of God Who, in Christ, can make all things new.