By Jeff Reber
A few days ago, a family that our family has grown close to over the last several years lost their father due to injuries resulting from a tragic motor accident. The family is as faithful and hopeful as any people I know and they have found comfort in the Lord and in each other. I have no doubt that the comfort will continue to come as they learn to live in a relationship of absence from their father.
It may seem curious to speak of a relationship of absence. How can there be a relationship when the person is not there? Absence should mean the absence of relationship, not a relationship of absence. Surely, this is what a number of men tell themselves as they make the decision not to be involved in their child’s life. They try to convince themselves that the child will be better off without them around. What they don’t realize or admit is that they are “around” for that child, even if they aren’t physically present. Whenever the child wonders why her dad chose to abandon her, he is in a relationship with that child. When the child questions what traits and characteristics she inherited from her dad whom she has never known, the child is relating to the dad in his absence. It’s not that his absence negates the relationship. It just changes its form and meaning. It is a relationship of absence rather than presence and it is just as real and just as important to that child he has left as it would be if he stayed. I have experienced how real and important it is in the many heartbroken clients I have worked with in therapy who can’t get over the relationship of absence they are in with the person who abandoned them.
Now, this wonderful family that is dear to me and my family has been thrust into a relationship in which their father cannot be physically present, and they will experience the unique challenges of relating to him in his absence. This will be particularly difficult because he was such a large presence in their lives and was so engaged in their activities. When they have a thought occur to them and they find themselves picking up the phone to share it with their dad, they will become painfully aware of his absence. When they get stuck trying to fix the refrigerator and think to call on their dad for help they will feel that yearning for him. When his beloved wife kneels to pray and waits to hear his voice offer up the prayer and remembers that he is not there, she will miss him dearly.
These feelings are at the heart of the grieving process–all those little moments when he would have been there, when he should be there, when you need him there. These are the moments that mark a relationships of absence, and they hurt. They feel wrong, off-kilter in some way. Like a phantom limb, something is missing that ought to there, that you can almost feel and rely on, but isn’t present. These feelings will occur and recur all of their lives as they relate to their dad in his absence in their everyday experiences that would have otherwise included him.
There is only one being who has ever lived who fully understands and has felt this relationship of absence, and because he has felt it and gone through it to every degree his empathy, his love, and his spirit can fill the void that is felt when we reach out to our loved ones who aren’t able to be there with us. So great is the love of our Heavenly Father for us that he did something that had to be very hard for him that caught even Christ off guard.
Just as Christ was at the height of his suffering. As he was still shaken from the atoning sacrifice in the Garden of Gethsemane, still stung by the betrayal by one of those closest to him, still hurt by the call of his own people for his crucifixion, and writhing in great physical pain from the suffering on the cross; in that moment of his greatest anguish his father removed himself from the presence of his son and allowed Christ to feel the full pain of a relationship of absence from his father. This absence was so unexpected and so painful that the Savior of the world cried out publicly, “My God. Why hast thou forsaken me?”
Christ came to know why his father did this, just as we do. The father allowed the son to condescend below all things so he could comprehend all things, so he could succor us in our relationships of absence with our loved ones. None of us is ever fully and completely abandoned as Christ was. His spirit surrounds us and is in all things and through all things, filling the voids in our lives. He alone experienced the absolute absence of God, which makes him uniquely qualified to comfort us in our relations of absence no matter how severe they may be.
What love and foresight our father In heaven has. He knew that the plan of salvation and the necessity of physical death it entails would cause us to suffer from the separation of loved ones. He could have let us suffer,but instead, in his mercy, he let the lamb that is without blemish suffer for all of our sakes. And now, when we feel the absence of our loved ones and begin to despair and feel so utterly abandoned, he alone, our personal Savior, can reach his loving arms around us and embrace us in his love, a love that knows exactly how we feel, and a love that knows exactly how to comfort us.
I pray that my dear friends can feel the loving embrace of the Savior as they experience the absence of their father, just as I pray that all of us who feel sometimes abandoned and alone can have that void filled with the peace that surpasses all understanding.