The girl who is gone

I don’t know the first thing about how to be a father to a fifteen year-old girl. Today is her birthday and if she had lived I would be puzzling this out, what I think about clothes and boys and music and especially boys, because all my babies are beautiful and perhaps Caroline most of all.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe we would not have gotten along. Maybe we would have been so alike that we ended up at odds. Mostly I imagine I would have been wrapped around her finger, at the mercy of her chocolate eyes and her curly brown hair and her tenderhearted ways. Maybe that would have made me a poor father. Maybe it would have made me better.

I suppose we all of us have shadowed places in our lives, places where reside only the ill-formed shapes of what might have been, never clear and untouchable and framed only by their absence of light. But we have what has yielded those shadows as well, or at least the memories of them. I can’t know how her voice would sound today, but I can recall her singing ABCs; I can’t know what it’s like for her head to reach my shoulder, but I can remember carrying her on my shoulders.

In every life there are the things we have and the shadows that haunt us, and which we call could have been. Maybe part of enduring is looking where the light is, rather than where it is not. Caroline is the daughter who was and the daughter who is gone and simply the daughter who is. I don’t know if she is fifteen, or three like the night she died, or some other age altogether. Perhaps she is beyond age, amongst the ages of ages, dwelling where there is no absence of light.

But she is, and she was my daughter, and this is the true thing I celebrate and grieve this day and every day, as well as give thanks for her and for her brothers, without whom I would be lost.


  1. Lore

    You say this so well, the wake left from a person in our family who is gone seemingly too soon. These are questions I ask (How old is he? Does he grow as the rest of us go? Is he forever aged 15?), all of what you call the “could have been.” Thank you for writing this. Andrew would have turned 25 a week ago. A man. A full grown man. The man we were only beginning to see a glimpse of that morning he got into a car and never came home. I’m grateful for the glimpse.


  2. sjd

    Every time you write about Caroline I cry, but especially on her birthday each year. God be with you and your dear wife and Caroline and your sons.

  3. MIchael

    “What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.” (T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton.)

    I cannot conceive the reality that you now experience. I was a student at that tournament at FEE where you so recently gave a lecture. I think of people like yourself . . . people who are Christians, grown older than I am. And how you have walked with our God longer than I have . . . and . . . how your life is deeper than mine is, or can be now. I cannot hope to sympathize (not empathize!) with you, but I try all the same. Thank you for offering yourself to be seen.

  4. --

    We who grieve the children we can never have stand with you in grieving the life that was, that is no more here, but will be in the everlasting.

  5. Howard

    We just want to make sense of it all, but there is no sense in it. However, there is faith, hope and love, and that’s enough.

    God bless you Tony.

  6. james

    You have moved me this morning, thank you. (Found your post via Andrew Sullivan.) You have found a beautiful way to write about the thing none of us know how to write about. I, my wife and our two surviving kids lost first child Spencer in 2007 at age 18. People wonder how we can survive. I wonder how people who lose two children can survive. I tell them they would survive, too, and for several simple reasons: to support your spouse, to support your children, and to honor all that is best in the child you lost. I am not a person of faith in the traditional sense, Tony, but when Spencer died he took us by the hand and showed us the light you talk about. It was pure Grace. Grace that is the opposite of judgment. It’s up to us to honor that every day.

  7. Bob Marsuoka

    I’m the father of two girls, 10 and 6. Read this and found your posts on the time when it happened, and sat and sobbed for a bit. Can’t understand your pain and loss, but thank you for sharing and giving comfort in your dignity and strength.

  8. Charles

    I recall simple song lyrics written by John Denver. Your essay demonstrates the truth of Mr. Denver’s lyrics.

    Ashes to ashes, dust into dust
    Kingdoms wil crumble, bridges will rust
    Mountains will disappear, rivers will dry up
    And so it goes with everything
    But Love

  9. Betsy

    ” Maybe part of enduring is looking where the light is, rather than where it is not. ”

    Thank you.

    My Nathaniel has been dead almost 23 years now and yet just this morning, out of the blue, looking for something in a cupboard, I was struck with the loss of him all over again. Now, following the link here from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I marvel at the serendipidity of finding this comfort today. Thank you.

  10. Liz

    I found your post/website through The Atlantic’s “The Daily Dish”. Thank you for sharing these most personal thoughts… Ironically, the post before your referenced post on the Dish was “A Poem for Sunday”, which perhaps is a worthwhile read for us all:

    “Sonnet” by Robert Nathan

    I am no stranger in the house of pain;
    I am familiar with its every part,
    From the low stile, then up the crooked lane
    To the dark doorway, intimate to my heart.
    Here did I sit with grief and eat his bread,
    Here was I welcomed as misfortune’s guest,
    And there’s no room but where I’ve laid my head
    On misery’s accommodating breast.
    So, sorrow, does my knocking rouse you up?
    Open the door, old mother; it is I.
    Bring grief’s good goblet out, the sad, sweet cup;
    Fill it with wine of silence, strong and dry.
    For I’ve a story to amuse your ears,
    Of youth and hope, of middle age and tears.

  11. Wanda

    My sister lost her 24-year-old son to an IED in Afghanistan. She says people don’t want to look into the dark, silent corner where, amid the ordinary business of life continues, she carries the brightness of his memory and the darkness of her grief. Thank you. I am sending this to her, because you can speak to her in a way that I, having so far been able to keep the gnawing of fear just beyond the edge of my consciousness, been unable and unworthy to do.

    All best, and you would have been a wonderful father to her, because you still remember and love her.

  12. Sean Barton

    From one father of a young daughter to another: My heart aches for your precious loss. Thank you for sharing such touching words, and for what’s it’s worth I’ll throw a bit of rememberance Caroline’s way.

  13. Nina Lentini

    My parents lost two daughters, one at 18 months and another at 12 years. As the eldest, I experienced them both. I wonder, had they access to today’s technology, what they might have shared throughout the years. Instead, I have one letter, sharing the news of the last when I was far away — and years and years of terse comments foretelling agonized emotions.

    Thank you for having the strength to share yours here.

  14. james akers

    @Nina: Hi, “James” from above in comments section. Your story is powerful. I can’t imagine what it was like to give–or receive– that news from a distance?! You might experience a bit of a miracle if you added the letter you mention to a free WordPress site or FB page for the sisters you lost? Maybe others who have memories from your sisters’ lives could add them? My thoughts are with you and your sisters today:)

  15. Christine

    Thank you, from one who is reading your book with grattude; one who leads a GriefShare group where losses run so deep; and one who while my daughter still lives (and I am grateful!) I too weep and wonder and look for light in what will never be for her…as she struggles with mental illness…and we face many struggles along with her. You remind me today, in the midst of bvery difficult news with her, that I must look for the light, trust God’s grace, and know we are not alone.
    Thank you, Tony.

  16. Sharon O

    wow. powerful words. thank you for allowing us all to remember every day is a gift to behold and unwrap~ hug those we love and give thanks that we can still see them.

  17. Beth Werner Lee

    Yesterday was my best friend’s birthday, Carolyn who died of cancer at 15 after two years of it. I am now 45 so it’s been 30 years and maybe that’s part of why I woke too early, struggling to find the joy, the love of God. Thank you for your crystal words. Grief remembered can do this for me, it can keep my heart soft, keep me running to the Comforter. God be with you.

  18. Joy

    Well said, from one bereaved parent to another. Our daughter would be 11 and a pre-teen and I wonder what it would be like to be the mom of an 11-year-old. Her place in our family is always there, empty. But we are thankful for the life she had with us and we keep going.

  19. tammy nischan


    Thank you. I needed those words tonight as I grieve the loss of my precious Nick who died of cancer two years ago at the age of 13 and the loss of my daughter who died 19 years ago at only 6 weeks of age. Grief is relentless, but I love your words about looking “where the light is.”

    That is exactly what keeps me pressing on.

    Much love from a kindred spirit,

    God bless you.

  20. laura

    My mother-heart cries with you as you grieve another year past…as you wonder with a heart of love. May God bless you during this time. And always.

  21. Katy McKenna

    I, too, cry at each mention of Caroline, and especially on each March 7. I lost my 4-year-old brother when I was only two, a grief that has shaped my life. This March 7, my mother died. Now she, too, is either aged, or aging, or ageless…

    Thank you for remembering your daughter here again today.

  22. Jeff

    There is a little boy of my boy that is the light of my life in a way that I never would have thought possible. He makes me tremble that God will want him back much too soon as He wanted Caroline, and I honestly don’t know if I could bear that kind of pain.

    God bless you and your family, and I wish you peace as Caroline walks beside you each day.

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