Grief as Waiting: Musings on Remembering, Death, Time, & Advent

December 17, 2013

Ten years ago today was the day that my dad died.

I can never forget this day. It has changed nearly every aspect of my life during the past ten years – and I suspect it will continue to affect the rest of my life until I, too, follow my father’s footsteps and die.

In an odd way, though I cannot forget that day – I seem to remember it less and less each year. I find that as the years come and go I think of my father less and less, and yet I do not miss him any less. Sometimes I miss him more. At times I feel guilty for not thinking of him as much as I imagine I ought. Like I’m a poor son who’s forgotten his father. As if the only way to honor him is to continually retain and call up again the memories and moments that make up the image of my dad in my head.

So I’ve made it sort of a habit to attempt to remember him each year on this day. But remembering gets harder the older I get. It used to be that I was constantly flooded with memories shortly after his death – like I couldn’t get away from any place that was infused with his presence. Like he was hiding around every corner, behind every closed door. Once he would jump out during a movie scene, another time it would be at a school event, then in a book I was reading or song I was listening to in the car.

Remembering today means I have to go actively looking for him – hunting, if you will – or stalking. “Picture me with my ground teeth stalking [my dad]” as Flannery O’Connor would say of joy; “fully armed too, as it’s a highly dangerous quest.” Dangerous because sometimes I’m not sure I want to find him, to remember him fully. What if the man I remember is more a man of my own construction than who my dad really was?

Or is?

Must I only remember my dad as he “was” before he died ten years ago? Does time affect the dead as it does the living? How do I think of my dad in relation to time? Do I sequester him to the past alone in my memories? Do I simply imagine what he is thinking right now, presently – as if he is watching my life play out on a stage before his very eyes? Or do I look only to the future when we shall meet again when “everything sad [comes] untrue”?

The season of Advent has me thinking about time more than usual. We tend to bunch Advent in together with Christmas and make it primarily about the incarnation of Jesus in His birth in Bethlehem. This is surely part of Advent (a Latin word, meaning “coming”), but it is more about Christ’s second coming and anticipating His return. We certainly remember and rejoice in what God has done through Christ’s first advent, but we do this so that have hope to wait for His second advent – when He will make all things new.

But Christmas has almost swallowed up Advent whole, so that we only remember the incarnation as if with fuzzy nostalgia of better days gone by. If only we could go back in time to speak with Jesus – to spend time with Him. Then we could really be good Christians. So we sequester Jesus to 2,000 years ago. We forget that He did not only come 2,000 years ago, but that He has promised He will come again – and the two advents, the two comings are very different. They must be different. It would be no good to have Jesus come to die again. In Advent we remember Jesus’ first coming, which gives us hope now as we wait and anticipate when Jesus will come again soon. Past bolsters the present, and both together drive toward the promised future. Past, present, and future come crashing together in the person of Jesus.

I say this about Advent because it’s changed the way I think of time as a Christian. Sometimes I think my remembering of my dad has a way of diminishing who he was, and now is – perhaps who he will be one day. Often by remembering, my whole purpose is to give flesh to my desire to have my dad back – to bring back the better days of old when he was still here. But as I re-read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis again today, I was struck when he said “I never even raised the question whether such a return, if it were possible, would be good for [my dad]”(47).

Having my dad back would be good for me, but would it be good for him? As Lewis continues, “I want [him] back as an ingredient in the restoration of my past.” So maybe the fact that I think of him less is not as bad as I thought it was for me. Perhaps it is wrong to remember only who my dad “was.” God is “a God of the living,” not the dead (Luke 20:38). The living have a past, present, and future. The dead have only a past.

So then how do I remember and think of my dad as he is? Or even, as he one day will be? As he is conformed to the “image of Christ” (Romans 8:29), do past, present, and future come crashing together as with Jesus? Is he different from the father that I remember him to be? How could he not be changed? Who could see the risen Christ and not constantly be transformed?

Maybe my primary posture toward my father on this day is not only remembering who he was, but rather waiting for and anticipating who he will be when Christ comes at His second Advent. Perhaps it is fitting that he died not during Christmas season (as I used to think), but during Advent. During a time when the past memory of him cannot be left in the past, but because of the work of our living Savior Jesus, must come crashing forward into the present and on into the future which is “coming soon.”

So I remember, yes.

But more than that – I wait.

I anticipate.

I imagine who he will be – and in doing so I look to the only One who has seen the other side of death and come back to bring life. I look to the same Person I can only imagine he is looking to right now- at this very moment. Who he will remain looking to even when I join him there.

And it makes me long for Him –  for His second Advent.


“Grief feels… like suspense.
Or like waiting;
just hanging about waiting for something to happen.”

– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (38)

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