Surprised By Grief
(Warning and Disclaimer: This post contains details of violence and sexual abuse. My mother and my sister have both shared their stories publicly and have given me permission to share these details. Proceed with caution and grace.)
May 24th is my dad’s birthday. He passed in 2006. I posted a status update on Facebook about grief sneaking up on me again. I was encouraged by many friends commiserating with me. My friend, Al, posted, “A good dad is not to be forgotten.” Al is a good dad and is leaving a beautiful legacy for his children. But what about a bad dad? What about a “mixed-bag” dad?? What do we do with the memories that we wish we could forget?
My dad was abusive. I’m still going to therapy over it. I have very few memories of my early years before my parents divorced. During our first round of therapy, when my sister and I lived with our mom again during our 20’s, my mom revealed the extent of the violence done to her. I needed to know because I blamed my mom for the divorce. My sister told our mom about the sexual abuse she experienced. My mom had no idea. It was devastating. By that time, my dad was remarried and in the process of being reformed – at least that was our hope. My stepmom is a true saint and deserves many crowns in heaven.
I was born into the “Mad Men” culture – my dad had an apartment downtown with a buddy where he practiced his indiscretions. He was a young and upwardly-mobile IBMer. My parents married young because of my older sister, and their early married life was very stressful. These are not excuses for the black-eyes and bruises he inflicted on my mom. Being born into a home of violence and sexual abuse has significantly informed my thinking about sex.
It has also inspired me to help others who are victims of violence and sexual abuse. My sister and I have been on a long journey together healing from the sexual abuse she experienced. She went through the Wounded Heart curriculum and is still receiving consistent support in recovery groups. Before she went off to Bible College, we confronted our dad and brought the secrets out into the open. He partially confessed and asked for forgiveness. His memories of the transgressions were different than ours. Here’s one of my memories, my sister has many more:
“Daddy, don’t!” She whimpered in fear. He touched her in places that felt kind of queer. He hushed her, “Shhh, I love you, my dear.” He hoped she’d be quiet so I wouldn’t hear. I was frozen, playing possum, no way I could sleep. My sister was hurting, my heart started to weep. She let him touch her, but he had crossed the line. I lived in fear, would it be my turn next time?
My dad must have had to bury the horror of his bad behavior to be able to live with himself. He must have felt remorse and regret that was overwhelming at times causing him to “forget” even before he learned to forgive. I don’t know if he ever fully forgave himself or to what extent he experienced God’s grace. He got Alzheimer’s later in life, so whether he deserved it or not, his memories were erased.
My mom, my sister and I have been working through the process of forgiveness for many years. We couldn’t even begin to forgive without the grace of God. I shared some of this with the team I will be traveling to Thailand with next week. We will be working in Thailand to help stop sex trafficking. Trauma and abuse leave wounds that get activated in some of the most unexpected ways. I want to be prepared. I don’t want to be surprised by my reaction to the horrors of sex trafficking.
I was surprised by grief again this year. In many ways, my dad was a bad dad and some would say I should be glad he is gone. Honestly, there were days when I wished he had never been born. Those days remind me that the darkness runs deep in me as well. While my dad did some horrendous things, he also did some beautiful and amazing things. And I miss him.
He wasn’t a monster. He experienced abuse as a kid too. Most of the time he was a really great guy. He always provided for us and cared for us, even after the divorce. He was never a dead-beat dad. He loved us deeply and gave us tons of appropriate affection. Eventually, he went to counseling with my stepmom and got help for his abusive behavior.
He encountered the grace of God and chose to allow God to change him and help him become a better man. He loved my girls and would laugh and giggle with them whenever he visited. He helped to set up trust funds for their college education. He always believed in my sister and me and wanted the best for us. He always knew how to pick out the best dress for me when he took me shopping. And he bought all the girls the cutest Buckeye cheerleader outfits when they were little!
I think he would be proud of me today. The last time my dad visited me, before he got too sick to travel, he bought me a bouquet of flowers and told me, “You deserve to have flowers everyday.” I think I’ll buy some flowers today in honor of him.
One of the biggest questions I’ve wrestled with over the years is why God lets such bad things happen? Where was God in the midst of the trauma and abuse? After an inner-healing prayer session a few years ago, I wrote about my experience of God in the midst of healing from the abuse. I’m sharing it here in hopes that it might encourage others who have experienced their own version of trauma and abuse. No matter how good or bad our dads are – one thing I am confident in is the goodness of God. I hope this helps you find hope in God, our healer.
Frozen in time, she lay there asleep, though not really sleeping, her heart starts to weep. What is this feeling, what is this fear? Her daddy, so loving, so terrifying, so near. So far from the image of safe and secure, he reaches to touch her, intentions impure. Where’s her heavenly Father when daddy crosses the line, where is her Savior when she’s frozen in time, where’s mothering Spirit when she needs a pure touch, where is God when she needs God so much?
Frozen in time, she lay there awake, though not really present, she knew how to be fake. Spirit calls to her daddy, “don’t touch what is Mine! Keep your hands to yourself, you don’t need her this time.” But some daddy’s don’t listen, ears covered in shame, they stay stuck in the drama, spreading pain from their pain. Heavenly Father is waiting to help them to see, Savior is calling, come to me to be free, mothering Spirit is waiting to give life anew, to open hearts to the God who is true.
Father, come heal your child. Savior, come save the day, Spirit, come breath upon her – gently nudge her awake. Awake to your presence, let her know you are near, even there in the dark night, perfect love casts out fear.
Come like a lion, lead her on like a lamb, take her into your presence – the paradox where you stand. Your strength is enough to shatter her fear, you are gentle and kind, you are drawing her near. May she embrace your presence, both lion and lamb, the wonderful mystery, the great I AM.
Melting in his arms, God carries her close, slowing waking and warming to the One who loves her most. What is she hearing, what is this song? Her Heavenly Father, so loving, so gracious, so strong. So close to the image of safe and secure, He carries and holds her in arms of love so pure. Heavenly Father is there, when sin crosses the line, sweet Savior, brings healing to frozen insides, comforting Spirit brings strength through a simple touch, God is right there when she needs God so much.
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