What I’ve Learned Since Losing My Dad – Sam Rapp

September in Marietta, Georgia, can either bring the heat of a thousand suns or a wonderfully crisp, fall day. That Friday, it was somewhere in the middle. Sunny and 75. I was supposed to be studying for my first Greek exam, but I found myself on hole seven of the Marietta Country Club with some elders from the church where I serve in student ministry. At this point—less than two months ago—life was going well for me.

Our student ministry was gaining momentum, I had just started taking classes at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, everyone in my family was succeeding.

I was walking off of a birdie on hole six and as I walked down the fairway on seven, I noticed a missed call from my mom and two texts: “I need you to come home.” And then: “It’s an emergency.”

Naturally, my stomach dropped. I immediately called her and was welcomed by an agonizing cry that will forever be blistered into my brain: “It’s dad . . . He’s gone.”

I learned later that “gone” felt easier to say than “dead.”

Sudden Shock

The phone call lasted less than 30 seconds but carried with it an incalculable shock and pain. It took the ground completely out from under me, leading to a free fall of grief and confusion.

My father passed away sometime early that morning, September 10. He was on a business trip in Denver and seemed to be an incredibly healthy man. As it turns out, he had a 95 percent blockage in his heart. A ticking time bomb, moments away from failing. No one knew this. He had no symptoms, no history of heart issues. He was a very active and healthy person.

He was 59. He wasn’t ready to go. He knew Jesus. He loved the Bible and was steeped in it. But he didn’t go to bed on September 9 thinking he would wake up face to face with life’s author.

Lessons from Losing Dad

Two months later, the shock of my father’s death has given way to reflection. Here are three things I’ve learned in this season of grief.

1. Fragility of Life

Growing up in church, I heard countless sermons about the fragility and ephemerality of our lives. But I had grown emotionally distant from this reality. The death of my father established in my soul the visceral truth: Life really can end in a moment, without warning signs. It took just 30 seconds on a golf course, on the phone with my mom, to learn this in the realest way possible.

2. Beauty of Relationships

During the weird season of COVID-19 lockdown, my dad and I found fun and joy by diving into the world of film. We worked our way through Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, I showed him one of the best movies ever produced, Parasite (2019), and we immersed ourselves in the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock. Every Monday was movie night for Sam and Curt. It was a sacred space.

These moments in my relationship with him led to relational depth that was missing before. I remember sitting over New York Strip steak and green beans after a viewing of Rear Window (1954), my personal favorite movie—and the last movie I ever watched with my dad. Our conversations about the film led to deep discussions of the problem of evil, the beauty of the Word of God, and debates about the gifts of the Spirit (my dad was a cessationist, and I’m thankful he can now see that he’s wrong, now that he’s in heaven).

I don’t remember every movie we watched, but I remember the beauty of spending time with him. It was a season of relational depth and sweetness that I will take with me in my other relationships—perhaps even when I become a dad myself. Don’t waste relationships. They are good gifts. Treasure them.

3. Source of True Life

Had my father not had a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, my soul would be in an anguish far deeper than it is now. Though the pain my family is experiencing daily is tremendous, the deep sting of death is gone (1 Cor. 15:55). I know my father is standing before the throne of God above singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty” as we speak (Rev. 4:8). I know he’s in the audience for a display far more glorious and awe-inspiring than any of the movies we watched together. I hope he high-fived my faith hero, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, too.

Who of your family members and close friends has no relationship with Jesus? Treasure your relationship with them, yes, but don’t delay in sharing with them the truth of the gospel. Be bold. Life is fragile and can vanish in a moment. Any one of us, on any given day, could receive text messages like I received on the golf course: “I need you to come home. It’s an emergency.”

Any one of us, on any given day, could receive text messages like I received on the golf course: ‘I need you to come home. It’s an emergency.’

The reality of life’s fragility shouldn’t lead us to paralysis, however—it should lead us to live on mission boldly, with no regrets. Don’t waste your short time on this earth. God has placed you in a family, workplace, and neighborhood with a providential calling. Seek gospel conversations.

When you get that shocking text or phone call like I did—and all of us will, one day—the grief will be real. I miss my dad and I will as long as I live. But grief mingles with joy when you know the person you’ve lost is in glory. Do what you can now, with those you love, to ensure that their eventual loss will be bittersweet rather than just bitter.

In retrospect, maybe my mom’s word choice was correct—to say my dad was “gone” rather than “dead.” Because he’s gone from this earth, but actually more alive than ever before.

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