Inside the fortress of my heart, there was a heavily bolted door labeled “father issues.” After my father died in 2021, I gathered the courage to unlock the door and walk into the cobwebbed and haunted room.
My father and I weren’t close. He and my mother divorced when I was 5. For 10 years afterward, I saw him sporadically. In the 20 years afterward, we spoke on the phone three times. I called him every time. He always ended the conversation sooner than I wanted.
As an only child, I always saw my “father issues” as one of a kind. But I’ve discovered my experience is unfortunately familiar for many. Three practices I’ve learned while wrestling with this grief have driven me to a stronger hope in Christ than I previously thought possible. If you share my experience, I’m confident they’ll help you too.
1. Mourn What Should’ve Been
On the one hand, I have nothing to mourn. I had no real relationship with my father. He was a man I simply didn’t know. It’d be easier to move on and pretend his death never happened. I’ve lived without a father for more than two decades. Why change that now?
Wrestling with this grief has driven me to a stronger hope in Christ than I previously thought possible.
On the other hand, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of remorse over the loving earthly father I’ll never have. I’d always held out hope that one day things would be different, that my father would eventually come around, build a relationship with me, and meet his grandchildren. His death forced me to face the reality of what our relationship wasn’t and never will be.
Mourning the death of my father is far more complicated than other sorts of grieving I’ve experienced. I don’t miss him, but I do feel a deep sense of loss.
2. Learn to Forgive
As Christians, we know forgiveness is a biblical command. Yet it’s difficult to avoid holding a grudge when we’ve been hurt. I’ve discovered that choosing to forgive my father rather than be bitter has been a necessary part of grieving his death. To neglect forgiveness and nurse a grudge would be to let the hurt he caused control my response.
Timothy Keller says that to extend forgiveness, one must identify with the wrongdoer. If I can remove my own hurt from the equation, it’s easy to have compassion for my father. He was a Marine Corp veteran of the Vietnam War. While at war, he saw friends murder one another playing “quick draw,” and he was sprayed with a chemical warfare agent that probably caused the health issues that killed him. He returned home to find most of his possessions had been sold because people assumed he wouldn’t make it back.
I think my father loved me in his inadequate way. But because of his brokenness, he lacked the confidence to pursue a relationship with me as an adult. I’m thankful my father issues are from neglect, not abuse. Just because I can identify with my father’s struggles, however, doesn’t let him off the hook.
To truly forgive, Keller says, we must be willing to “release the wrongdoer from liability by absorbing the debt ourselves rather than seeking revenge.” When my father died, I realized he’d never come seeking forgiveness. But to continue to hold a grudge is senseless. Instead, I must be willing to “absorb the debt.” Even though he’s dead, I can reckon with his failure and decline to hold it against him.
3. Receive God as Father
The biblical doctrine of God as Father is clear throughout the Bible. But for most of my life, I’ve found this doctrine difficult. Until I had children, fatherhood meant basically nothing to me, so it was difficult to truly appreciate what it means to have a God who’s also our Father.
There was no father at my graduations. No older man standing as a groomsman at our wedding. No congratulatory cigars at the births of our children. Not even a card. My father left no inheritance. All he owned at the time of his death was the coat on his back.
In recent years, my appreciation of God as Father has grown because of my own children. I’m so proud of them. I love them in my bones. I’ll never have an earthly father who loves me in the way I love them, yet through my relationship with my children, I’m learning not only what it means to be a loving dad but what it means to have a father in general.
To truly forgive, we must be willing to ‘release the wrongdoer from liability by absorbing the debt ourselves rather than seeking revenge.’
Through Christ, I know God is my Father. As John 1:12 states, “To all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Our Father is the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).
These are truths I’ve believed far longer than I’ve appreciated. But I’ve begun to love them more through extended reflection on the character of the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32).
When the younger son finally returned home, his father didn’t merely allow him back into the home—he “felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (v. 20). This is the image of a warm and affectionate father. Eager to forgive and bless. He’s not ashamed of his son. He’s not reserved in his emotion toward him. He’s surprisingly and overwhelmingly loving. As a child of God, my heavenly Father welcomes me with these open arms. He will say to me, “Son . . . all that is mine is yours” (v. 31).
Now, looking back at those special events—the graduations, the wedding, the births of my children—I see the proud Father in the crowd. He has always been with me. I’m a child of the King. And all he has is mine.
The Gospel Coalition