Recently I attended the memorial service for a friend. My husband and I had actually helped with the couple’s wedding some eight years ago and had wonderful memories of their special day. You could tell how much they loved each other, and how excited they were to begin their new life together. All of their pictures featured big smiles and joyous laughter in anticipation of their new beginning together.
And they were very happy. They had two beautiful children, a daughter and then a son. Dad would tell everyone how lucky he was and how long he’d waited for this family of his; how proud he was of his wife and kids. He’d talk about all the things he did with them; and all the things he was looking forward to doing with his children as they got older. Taking his son fishing for the first time, and taking his little girl to her first daddy-daughter dance.
Now that’s all changed. Future plans will never happen. Because Daddy unexpectedly passed away just a few weeks after his little girl started first grade.
We all felt so bad for his widow, who’d lost the love of her life. We felt even sadder for his children who’d never have the opportunity to really know what a loving father they’d been blessed with.
As I sat at this man’s memorial service I couldn’t take my eyes off his children, sitting in the front row between their mom and their aunt, wearing their best clothes and looking, shall I say, a bit lost. And I wondered what they were thinking. Particularly his daughter.
You see, I knew quite a bit about what she was feeling. Because almost sixty years ago I was that little girl. And I have to say, even after all those years, the memories came flooding back.
It’s just not something you forget. Even as a child, such memories don’t totally fade with time. Even when your child’s mind doesn’t totally process it at the time, those memories are always there.
Sadly, our friend’s three year old son will most likely only remember his daddy because of photos and stories told by his mom and other family members. He’s just too young to really remember.
But his six year old daughter will be a different story.
She’s old enough to know that her dad is gone; that he’s not coming back home anymore. She knows he’s in heaven with the Lord, because she’s been told that many times; and she’s been taught that in Sunday School.
But she doesn’t understand it. Not really. She has a lot of questions that she doesn’t even know how to ask.
Well-meaning people have probably told her that her daddy is with the angels. Some may even have told her that her daddy is an angel now; that God needed another one so he took her dad because he was so special. Sometimes she worries that God might need another angel and take her to heaven as well, and she doesn’t think she’s ready for that. They often tell her how Daddy is watching over her and her little brother from up in heaven, hoping to make her feel better.
And this little girl nods her head as if she understands. But she doesn’t; not really. Her child’s mind just can’t totally comprehend all of it.
Even those of us who are mature in our faith sometimes have trouble understanding when it’s our loved one who’s passed away.
But there are things his daughter will remember when she’s older. It’s amazing, really, the things that stay with you. Things that may seem insignificant at the time will forever linger in your memory, and come out at the most unexpected times.
She’ll remember a few scattered times of fun, just between the two of them. Walking in the woods and talking about nothing important, except to them. Helping him put up the Christmas tree while mommy made dinner. The times he’d tuck her into bed at night and tell her how much he loved her as he kissed good night.
She’ll remember the last time she saw her dad, lying in a hospital bed with machines attached to him; she’ll remember that it just didn’t seem like the man she knew as “daddy”, and eventually she’ll wonder if it was really him.
She’ll also remember the exact words her mother said to her when she told her that her beloved daddy was gone. In fact, that’s one sentence she’ll remember for the rest of her life, and she’ll hear it in her mind over and over, as clearly and distinctly as if it were being spoken all over again.
That’s one sentence a child can’t forget. I haven’t. Because whether that child totally understands or not, she knows in her heart that things have suddenly and irreversibly changed.
Sadly, like me, his daughter won’t have years and years of memories to make with her dad. Many of the few memories she had will fade, and try as she might, they’ll never come back the way she’d like them to.
But she’ll always remember that day on the front row in that church, and remember how people were talking about her daddy, and how her mother kept trying not to cry, and so did she, because she wanted to be brave like her mommy.
I sadly have no remembrances of my dad’s service, because when he died I was quite sick and unable to attend. And children didn’t always go to funerals back then, even for their parents. But I remember the days immediately following his death and all the people who came to the house, talking to my mom and me, telling us how sorry they were. I, too, tried not to cry and be strong for my mother.
Because I just didn’t understand at the time what it all meant, and how it would affect my life. But there were a lot of nights afterwards that I lay in bed, curled in my mother’s arms as we comforted each other, and cried. And his daughter will, too.
She’ll feel terribly sad at Father’s Day and look at all the cards she’ll never be able to give to him, because he’s gone. And she’ll wish the day would hurry and get here so it could go away.
There will most likely be times she’ll imagine that her daddy didn’t really die; that he got sick and people took him somewhere else to live because he wasn’t going to get better, and he didn’t want his family to see him so sick. She’ll probably daydream about finding him one day, and how happy they’ll both be to find each other again.
Yes, I did that, too. And I imagine many other children do as well.
There will be lots of times she’ll be envious of her friends who still have their fathers, who go places with them. She’ll feel uncomfortable when an uncle takes her to the daddy-daughter dance at school instead of her father; or she won’t go at all because she’ll be secretly jealous of the other girls whose fathers were there with them.
There will also be the day when she’s ready to walk down the aisle on her wedding day. She’ll be so excited, but she’ll still feel a sense of loss that can’t be described, except by other daughters who’ve been there as well. And she’ll shed an extra tear because her daddy can’t walk her down the aisle. Her brother will stand in for him, but it won’t be the same.
Yes, all of these thoughts went through my mind that day, and I so wanted to take that little girl in my arms and hug her, hold her, and tell her she’ll be all right. That even in the lonesome times, the sad times when memories rush at you so quickly you’re not prepared for the impact; the times you see someone who reminds you of him, or see another daughter with her father and you want to be her…just for a second or two; to tell her in those tough times you’ll be ok. It won’t be easy, but you’ll be ok.
The death of a parent or a spouse…or even worse, a child…is an unimaginable pain. But when you’re just a little child, and you lose a parent, it’s a grief like no other. And sometimes it takes years before you can fully and totally grieve for them. For me it took almost 50 years, when while cleaning out my mother’s house I found the sympathy cards and funeral book she’d kept from that time so long ago. I read each card, and surprisingly remembered who some of some of the senders were, and read the names of the attendees. And I cried.
And cried some more. And finally, I truly grieved for my daddy.
I pray this little girl will have a much easier time as she goes through the next weeks and months. My heart goes out to her and her little brother as well. Yes, and to their mom. But those children…and that little girl…
Because I know what’s ahead for her.