Navigating the Emptiness of Parental Abandonment
I remember his laundry being gone; his toothbrush missing by his sink; his car not parked in the driveway; his blue leather chair next to the window in the living room, gone. His leather bedroom slippers were no longer at the foot of his side of the bed. I remember the varied minutiae with utmost clarity. I can see them. I can smell them. His blue and white bathrobe. His Chicago Bulls tee shirt. His beer can in a koozie on the side table. A plethora of things belonging to my dad were physical reminders he was no longer present in our home.
Until recent years, these smallest of details laid dormant like dusty, untouched scrapbooks filled with scenes and treasures of life gone by. This odd collection of memories and family relics serve as our own fossil record. I’ll never toss these precious intricacies out with the Friday trash. I never want to rid myself of them. Why would I? I hold onto the little things because these delicate memories are all I have. These buried fragments covered in dust and dirt for 24 years remind me of the fact that before the unwanted dissolution, we were a real, unbroken, flesh-and-blood family.
It seems strange though. My most vivid recollections of my dad disappeared the same moment he did. His clothes. His Coors Light. His car. His cologne. My dad. Gone.
When he left, nothing made sense. How could it? It was a dark, unentertaining, disappearing act at a magic show ending with him not reappearing. I didn’t want tickets to this.
For any child, when a parental void makes its presence felt, the emptiness brings questions, anger, frustration, bitterness, and a potent sadness. Weakness sets in, staining everything. Your parent who helped raise and bring you up in the world is not around anymore to help you navigate and process a new normal. Parental absence births an affliction difficult to reckon with, and at times, unable to be tamed.
Family – the one thing that should stay standing when everything else falls – had failed. My family was broken. Isn’t a family supposed to be a place of security, a refuge?
Although my dad left when I was eight, the divorce papers were not finalized until I was 11. While wrestling with my new reality, the experience of parental abandonment was intensely life altering. Everything secure was now insecure. I felt a weight, many times too heavy to carry. The air seemed too thick to inhale, and the mud of life, too dense to wade through. But, what changed the course of my life more than the absence of my dad was the substance with which my mom filled the emptiness.
An abandoned spouse turned single parent to three children, my mom understood our pain. She hurt with us. She cried with us and wrestled with us to make sense of it all. But, what she didn’t do was let us believe hope was too fluid to grasp, or comfort too distant to feel. My mom made it her mission to fill the empty space in her life and her children’s with palpable belief our God was the Great Comforter, the Gentle Healer, the Closest Friend, and the Best Father. My mom did not fill her emptiness, or ours, with bitterness and discouragement, but with confidence and loving security in Jesus. Through her minute by minute, unwavering faith, my mom showed us how our Heavenly Father does great and miraculous works when His children are deep in affliction and despair.
Now in my thirties, I’ve discovered the most rewarding work to be a part of is walking alongside others fighting to keep their heads above the water line of parental neglect and abandonment.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
– 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV
This was the Apostle Paul’s great encouragement to the Corinthians. Scripture speaks beautifully and powerfully about how our afflictions and our pain are not just about us. The front doors to our pain and suffering must never be closed. God intends for us to use the comfort He has generously given in our time of trials for the good of others as they find themselves crawling through similar pain and navigating the same winding roads. This gives us reason to count it all joy when we encounter trials and hardships as the scripture tells us in James 1:2. As a child of God, a son of the King, I know He’s not done with me. I know He wants to use my journey of abandonment to bring glory and honor to Him by bringing comfort and hope to others.
Friend, believe this – no matter who leaves us, our God will never abandon or let go of His children. He promises to walk with us through every uncertain step and to be our safe place forever.
Jonathan C. Edwards (MDiv, ThM) Director of Curriculum for Docent Research Group. He and his wife, Katherine, live in Durham, NC where he is pursuing his DMin at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
His writing has been featured at The Gospel Coalition, Relevant, Desiring God, and the ERLC. He is the author of “Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves,” [Rainer Publishing, 2016] available now.