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The way is through

White dress on hangerby Amy White

I wore a white dress to my dad’s funeral. No one told me I might stand out, and I like to tell myself my fashion offense was excusable because I was young. It turns out there’s a lot you don’t know when you’re 13.

But while my friends were figuring out how to diagram sentences and navigate junior-high dances, I was learning that “hospice” meant my dad was going to die. For a long time the finality wouldn’t resonate, even as my mom moved furniture around the living room to make space for a hospital bed. I was more interested in my AOL account, hoping that the boy I had a crush on would sign in so I could sit and stare at his name in my chat list.

When the boy finally got online, I would wonder what he was doing or if he was talking to anyone besides me. I’d click my inbox again and again, twisting my hair between my left forefinger and my thumb, just like my dad did when he was concentrating. I would sit and watch the screen, thinking about anything other than the fact that the pile of medical supplies in the hallway now included a box of Depends.

Eventually my mom would get the furniture where she needed it and tell me to get off the computer. She wanted the phone line free in case the nurse called. It was the nurse who finally clued me in about the oxygen tank and the adult-sized diapers. I wasn’t supposed to hear the comment, but I did.

“If I had to guess I would say he has about twenty-four hours,” she said to my mom. “Maybe forty-eight.” I twisted my hair a little more and kept thinking. At some point I walked upstairs and sat on my bed, wondering if I should cry. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how—not about this, anyway. So I just prayed.

Making sense

Over and over again the same petition beat through my mind and pulsed through every inch of my body. Please, God. I’ll do anything. Anything. Just let me keep my dad. I didn’t sleep that night, and in the morning I was convinced God would come through. It was the only scenario that made sense. My dad was the strongest person I knew. The cancer had never won. How could it this time?

But the next day he was dead, and my doctor was calling in a prescription for anxiety medication. I still didn’t cry much. I just started vomiting. My world had been disrupted, and I had yet to realize that no amount of retching or heaving could dislodge the confusion now fixed in my gut.

At that point, I had no clue that raw and broken and painful could be okay. I didn’t realize that vulnerability held potential. I couldn’t see that trying to make sense of my dad’s death was pointless. I didn’t understand that instead I could let this change—any change—slowly push into my life to shape me and grow me, even as it tore me apart.

I just knew that the world used to make sense and now it didn’t. So I put on a white dress and stood in a sea of black. I hugged people who told me I was strong. I hugged people who said things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and, “You’re smart; I bet this means you will cure cancer some day.”

Which is a brutal thing to say to a kid when you think about it. Words like that are heavy; they sink in. And as they did, my need to quantify death became frantic. I had to figure out why my dad died. I was desperate for my world to make sense again.

The flawed theology of economics

And a few weeks later it finally did. My mom waited until I was in bed to leave the house, but I heard her. I was convinced she would never come home—that I would lose her, too. So I stood and watched out the second-story window of my parents’ bedroom as car after car drove past. It was when I saw the familiar curve of her headlights in the driveway that the weeks of mental gymnastics paid off. It’s going to be okay, I realized. There’s no way my mom could die, too. That would be too much. God wouldn’t let that happen. I’m safe for a while.

Just like that, a flawed theology of suffering rooted deeply in my mind. I began to believe that God’s economy was profoundly straightforward. My account had been heavily taxed. Now it was someone else’s turn. I could relax.

It was the intellectual concession I made to get through the coming weeks and months. It was the leap in logic I afforded myself to avoid facing thoughts and fears I didn’t want to acknowledge—thoughts that screamed in the middle of the night, suggesting the ache would never lessen, fears that said I could have been more or prayed harder or somehow kept this all from happening.

Staring down birthdays and graduations without a dad, I told myself that God just gave it to me early. My allotment of pain happened to come while I was young. Now it was behind me. It was still hard, but at least I had some comfort in knowing it wouldn’t get worse. Not for a while, anyway. Not until everyone else had some time to catch up.

This bargain-basement approach to justice and pain created a mental scale on which I would weigh everyone’s suffering against my own.

“Your grandma had a stroke? I’m so, so sorry,” I would say, while simultaneously thinking: But you still have a ways to go before we’re even. I would hear myself voice sentiments like, “That car accident must have been terrifying. I’m so glad no one was hurt,” as I thought: Trust me; I get it. I watched my dad die.

I reasoned my way through lots of situations, assessing the balance and trying to ignore the subsequent heartaches I’d encountered since losing my dad. I told myself those didn’t count. If they counted, the scale would tip. If they counted, it would mean I had been wrong and maybe God was just some cosmic bully who kept knocking me down for fun.

God can take our anger

But it never added up, of course. It couldn’t. My cousin died, and so did my friend. My mom got cancer. I got really sick. And plenty of people I loved suffered through things that were big and tragic and hard.

I was actually paying attention now. Not the self-absorbed noticing I had executed as a teenager. I was seeing poverty and hate and it made me weep. So I mourned. And then I did something about it. But some part of me was still clutching my scale as I went, and no matter what I did or how hard I fought, my childhood logic couldn’t withstand the reality of life.

I decided I didn’t need a bully-god, and I certainly didn’t want an inequitable one. So at some point I just walked away, shaking the dust from my feet as I did. It was easier to deny God than to admit I was wrong. It felt better that way, too.

Not that I was completely naive. I knew I could set down the scale at any time. On some level I knew I was choosing to believe a lie instead of uprooting it. But a bigger part of me was still just a 13-year-old kid who wanted her dad, and was angry she didn’t have him.

It took me a long time to realize that was okay. That I could grieve deeply the life I thought I would have. That God could take my anger and wasn’t holding a grudge because of my misjudgment. It took me a long time to realize, too, that part of grief is standing up, removing the sackcloth and wiping away the ashes. Because the God I really believe in is a God of resurrection. A God who is willing to go to the depths—to suffer the worst—but who refuses to stay there. Who rises. Who declares freedom and life and invites me to declare those things, too. I believe in a God who transforms death, without the need to try to explain it.

‘Through’ as the only way

I work in youth ministry now, which is scary. Because I still don’t know what I would say to my 13-year-old self. I don’t know how I would encourage her to stay open, to continue to trust that God’s economy is wider and deeper and more powerful than she could comprehend. I don’t know how I would try to convince her that when you steel yourself to mystery and heartache, joy gets left out in the cold, too. I have no clue how I would tell her to enter the pain and the process fully—because through it is the only way.

Maybe I would just give her a hug. Or maybe I would buy her some ice cream to help take the edge off the awkward silence that would undoubtedly settle as I searched for the right words—or any words, really. “You’re going to be okay,” I would maybe mumble. “And, uh, you’re not going to cure cancer.” I would definitely add, “So you should avoid that biology class your freshman year of college and save your GPA.”

If I thought she would hear me, I would tell her to stop trying to figure it all out. I would tell her to do whatever she had to do to show up and pay attention. Which is exactly what I tell myself now—and some days I actually listen.

When she’s not traveling or making food with friends, Amy White serves as the senior editor of GEMS Girls’ Clubs—a nondenominational ministry that equips women and girls to live radically faithful lives.

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