Relationships are often damaged by pain but incredibly, pain can also help build relationships. A generation ago, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves taught us in the movie Speed that traveling in a bus together going 50 miles per hour in Los Angeles traffic through impossible odds can cause a new relationship to blossom. Pain can actually bring people together.
Another surprise development for some fathers is the realization that parenting isn’t over after 18 years. Or 25. Or even 35 years. The cute little toddler who asked you why the sky is blue can come back for decades asking even harder questions. “Daddy, how do you know if you’re in love?” or “How do I get over losing this baby?” are just a couple of examples of how being a dad is truly a lifetime assignment.
Being a father involves helping someone you love learn to process the pain that enters her life unexpectedly. We all carry the expectation that life will be good to us and that everyone can live “happily ever after.” This rarely occurs without interruption and dads are often called upon to explain why.
Whether it is fair or not to ask a man who is still learning about the curve balls that life can throw us is beside the point. Ready or not, life will happen. Ready or not questions will come.
I’ve never found that my children—at any age—were impressed with my know-it-all answers. While they never enjoyed hearing my doubts or finding out that I was still processing some pain myself, they still came to me for answers. I have learned to accept the challenge. I am willing to offer the wisdom that a couple of extra decades of experience has taught me. As long as I realized and communicated that I am still very much ‘in process’ she didn’t seem to mind.
Processing the pain sometimes involves more than giving answers. Our doctor earns the right to tell us bad news because he or she has been caring for our health long enough to gain our trust and confidence. Being a dad is no different. As our children learn that kissing it doesn’t always make it better, they also learn that just being in the presence of a trusted confidant brings comfort to incredible pain of various kinds. One of the tasks of processing pain is learning how deep it hurts and how much it means to have someone at your side who cares while you think it through.
When the first bully took a swipe at her confidence, I learned quickly that offering to go and beat up some kid on the playground wasn’t any comfort. Like showing the proverbial shotgun in the closet to the first boy who wanted to take her on a date, not all of my first reactions were helpful. Usually, they made better jokes while saying “I’ll go anywhere and fight anyone for you,” usually brought a smile. But she didn’t want me to threaten her school yard friend or her first romantic interest. She just wanted me to care.
As the depth of the pain that life can bring goes amazingly deeper and deeper through the years, I’ve learned that the fundamental need of my little girl is knowing that her daddy loves her, is ready to listen and occasionally says something worthwhile.
I now know that the hug was worth more than the words.