My dad’s high school yearbook told the story of a popular teen with the world at his fingertips — track star, editor of the school paper, class council president. Countless black and white photos of the handsome young man surrounded by smiling peers in matching horn-rimmed glasses. An athlete and academic full of promise and potential.
But that’s not the story I knew. Nor the one reflected at his memorial the day we gathered to mourn my father.
Had someone asked my dad’s friends back then what Ralph’s funeral would someday be like, I’m sure they would have described an auditorium packed to the gills with old classmates and friends eager to pay their respects. Surely there would be stories of his impressive professional success and anecdotes from loved ones about the dynamic, devoted man he was. The line to greet the family would be long, but everyone would wait because that’s what you do to honor an extraordinary man.
But when we gathered on that somber morning five years ago to pay tribute to my father, I think I could count on one hand the people that were there just for him.
The successful high school senior’s life didn’t turn out the way everyone expected. Yes, he had worked his way into a high-paying management position. He got married and had three beautiful daughters. But the majority of his adulthood was marked by pain and broken dreams. Two divorces, depression, and addiction marred his body and soul. He cut himself off from everyone, save for my sisters and me, who worked hard to continue a relationship with him.
But the church sanctuary was not empty that cold February morning. Not by a long shot.
Rows and rows filled with friends and loved ones — of mine. Of my sisters. Friends who had walked and prayed with us over the previous years of trial with my dad.
My closest friends from college and former professional colleagues. My childhood BFF and her parents who were like a surrogate family. In-laws, Bible study sisters, and dear family friends.
Most had never met my father. But they came to give a gift — the gift of presence.
When I stood up behind the wooden podium next to the big floral wreath to share about my dad, I looked out and saw not only my husband and mother and sisters, I saw my community.
There was nothing left for them to say or do. Just be with.
And that is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone on the often-lonely journey of grief. We can give the gift of bearing witness to the pain. Not coming with neat answers wrapped in tidy Christian clichés. Just come. Show up so a friend is not alone in the question-asking, faith-wrestling, soul-wrecking agony of losing a loved one.
It will probably feel awkward. My friends who came in their black blazers and dark navy dresses didn’t know what to say. Frankly neither did I. But I was deeply thankful for them just being there.
Their presence alone spoke volumes. It told me my dad’s life mattered. My loss and grief mattered.
I felt lost, but I was seen.
Because of the sweet redemption of God’s unrelenting grace, my dad did not die apart from the Lord. His life was still very broken this side of heaven but his heart was being made new. From the pit of physical, financial, and emotional despair, my dad had grabbed the Lord’s ever-outstretched hand and accepted His gift of mercy and forgiveness.
And because people chose to take off work, get a babysitter, and drive in traffic, God was glorified by a host of witnesses.
A gift I will never forget.