The Nephew {…thoughts on life, death, and God’s ironic sense of humor}

I used to think orphans were simply people without parents. Characters like Harry Potter and Oliver Twist came to mind. Little dancers from the musical Annie came to mind too. Didn’t they all have happy endings?

When I married an orphan, though, my understanding changed.

Life isn’t about a happy ending. Life is about the journey. And the journey without parents is hard. I never would have imagined how hard if I didn’t witness it for myself, every day and every year, at every celebration and every holiday.

Jeff and I had a traditional wedding ceremony, but we omitted the part where each mother lights a candle. It wasn’t possible.

As unbelievably special as that day was, there was still a taint of sadness to it. Jeff’s mom and dad were not there to celebrate with their firstborn son.

I remember our first Thanksgiving together. It was such a little thing. I had washed and peeled and boiled the potatoes. But when it was time to mash them, I couldn’t remember the correct proportions of milk and butter to add. So I called my mom.

From 400 miles away, my mom told me how much milk and butter to use. I hung up the phone and proceeded to pour the measured milk. Across the room, however, I caught a brief expression.

He didn’t see me. The room was filled with children scampering and aunts and uncles chattering, but I noticed, before it quickly masked over to the face everyone else recognizes. And I knew. Some people don’t have a mom they can call about mashed potatoes. Some people can’t call home.

Holidays and weddings and births—special occasions that other people celebrate blithely—require, for us, tender care.

By the time we had our first child, I had learned a few things. So I didn’t invite anyone to the hospital to see our new baby. I made excuses, like how tired we were or how we weren’t sure when we would be discharged from the hospital.

But really, I wanted to provide space and time, to allow for the grieving that inevitably follows the initial joy. The grieving that his parents will never be grandparents. They will never see our little girl. They will never see what a wonderful father their son became.

And you never know when this grief will strike. It might be moments after the birth. It might be days. It’s a grief he rarely speaks of—because there are no words. It’s a special kind of grief, and I have learned to respect it. And provide a space and time for it. It’s a private pain, and it’s hard to explain.

Of course, we celebrated our little girl’s birth, and we made phone calls to announce her arrival. But we waited until we were home, a few days later, before inviting guests for a visit. It was a beautifully tender time, and this time, we celebrated and grieved together.

More recently, our daughter Brynn was a flowergirl in a cousin’s wedding. It was a beautiful day, and Brynn relished her role, leaving petals on the aisle just so.

Then at the reception, the photographer gathered the family for various groupings. Jeff’s two uncles and one aunt stood together—three siblings arm in arm—and they smiled for the camera.

The now-familiar ache filled me. There should have been a fourth sibling in that photo. Jeff’s father.

Grief doesn’t always express itself in tears. Some of the deepest pain rarely does. Rather, it is a settled sadness, an abiding sense of loss, like a permanent emptiness in a photo where a loved one should have been.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:55,

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is real. This is why Christ came—to live a perfect life and die a criminal’s death. But the grave could not hold Him there.

For those who are in Christ, death is not an ending but a passageway. In the meantime, though, we are living here and now. And there are orphans and widows among us. And God gets it. He really gets it. This is why He commands in Scripture, over and over again, to care for orphans and widows (See Ex. 22:22, Deut. 24:17-21, 27:19).

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows …” (NIV, James 1:27).

If people gather in His name, yet fail to care for the orphans and widows in their midst, then their religion—despite their other “good works”—is not acceptable in His sight.

God sees when no one else does. God knows.

My faith in God’s goodness is renewed by the compassion He shows and the compassion He commands because, nowadays, I get it too.

And while it is easy to count the losses, it is important to remember the gifts.

Within his extended family, Jeff is the nephew. And once he married me (Denise), we became “De-niece and De-nephew.” (I’m a firm believer in God’s sense of humor.)

God gave us to each other, to celebrate together, to grieve together, to raise a family together, and hopefully, someday, to grow old together, and become grandparents together—the kind of grandparents our kids never had.

Today, I am thankful for . . .

98. the God who conquered death
99. the God of compassion who sees and knows
100. the God who provides a companion to see and know too

I am thankful for . . .

101. the family He gave us
102. the bond we share
103. the future we hold
104. the hope we have

And I am beyond thankful that we can . . .

105. journey this life together

What are you thankful for?

While reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp, I started keeping a list of the things I am thankful for.

37 thoughts on “The Nephew {…thoughts on life, death, and God’s ironic sense of humor}

  1. i get a little of what you are talking about denise. my husband lost his dad when he was in jr. high. his mom lived to be 94 but she passed away quite awhile ago now. when my dad died suddenly when 2 of my daughters were very young, it was like an earthquake for me.

    there was a sadness when my 3rd daughter was born that he would never meet her…and when they were teens, that they would never know his fun side…it was so bittersweet for me. i know it had been that way for my husband too…just in different ways.

    touching post! thanks. martha

  2. This was so beautiful. And sad. I still have both my parents and cannot imagine the pain of having neither. He married a good woman to be as sensitive and observant as you. I’m enjoying your wisdom as you sit at my table at bible study.

  3. This is so beautiful, Denise, how you have protected and respected your husband’s grief and at the same time, you have counted your blessings. The grief of not having a parent to call (whether because of death or some other reason) is a grief that is a “settled sadness, abiding sense of loss” as you so aptly put it. Also love how God has a sense of humor 🙂 May God continue to uphold you and your dear family…is it okay if I send you a hug?

  4. What a striking couple you are. Such a lovely picture. And these tender words make such an impression. Love–beautiful as it is–gives us this privilege of hurting for one another and this very quality helps healing along. what a beautiful love you express here. What a beautiful heart you have.

  5. Really love this truth, Denise: “And while it is easy to count the losses, it is important to remember the gifts.” Thank you for sharing this story.

  6. Grief in the midst of celebration is never an easy thing. Thank you for sharing, honestly and authentically, in this!

    • Joy and sorrow are always so closely tied. Strange, but true. Grief in the midst of celebration is, as you say, never an easy thing. Yet, our Father in heaven sustains all grief and gives cause for all joy. What an amazing God we serve!

  7. Wow. Just wow. First, thanks for stopping over at my place and leaving a note so I could follow you over here. I’m mulling some similar thoughts about my children, both of whom are adopted. Our extended family includes a number of other adopted children, so I really thought my kids would experience complete love, healing, and wholeness. It has taken me until the last few years to get a glimpse that there are broken places and loss in their lives which won’t heal completely this side of heaven. I couldn’t see it for the longest time, but I know God does. Your post conveys these thoughts much better than I’ve been able to.

    • Wow. Thank you for sharing part of your story here. I have always believed that adoption shares the love of Christ in a far deeper, far truer way than we can even imagine. For we are all “adopted” in His Kingdom.

  8. “While it is easy to count the losses, it is important to remember the gifts.” What beautiful words, as always. I never leave your blog without a gift, a fullness, knowing His heart more, and a motivation to share His love. Thank you for your transparency and for using your story to illuminate His.


  9. Like Pamela and Redemption who resonated with a particular phrase or idea in your post, I reflected most on this one: “Some people can’t call home.”

    There may be a variety of reasons for that, as Redemption mentioned.

    Think about it; that makes a pretty good book title. “Some People Can’t Call Home.”

  10. I stopped reading at “Death is not an ending but a passageway” and just pondered that statement. I love that thought. I did read the rest and “listened.” God had a lot to teach me through your post today.


  11. Denise, I wrote about grief over the weekend after we lost our family dog and used that verse on my Sunday post, so your words go deep. But also, I haven’t seen or talked to my mother in fifteen years. She is a bi-polar alchoholic and when we had kids we had to create some boundaries from her destructive behaviour. I know that pain of wanting to have a mother to turn to. Thankfully God has provided a wonderful mother-in-law and aunt to fill that void, but the sadness still lingers of course.

  12. I love how you truly see your husband and all his colors. What a beautiful thing.
    Wonderful post — Love De-Niece and De-Nephew! 🙂 Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor…. 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

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