Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Who doesn’t like a happy ending?

Many headline interviews and stories about personal challenges wind up with a happy ending, even if, along the way, they include suspenseful and sad developments.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, does it? We tend to forget that God never promises us happy endings until we get to Heaven, which is really more of a glorious beginning.

Until Heaven, meanwhile, what happens when we don’t get a happy ending to a story in our lives?

Back in August of 2010, here on crosswalk.com, we met patricia, a divorced, childless believer who decided to temporarily “adopt” her niece, Natalie. It appeared to be the start of a gutsy yet God-inspired journey that, despite some grim baggage coming along for the ride, was bursting with opportunity for both of them.

Almost three years later, the two should be preparing for Natalie’s graduation from high school.

But are they?

When she was quite young, Natalie witnessed the unexpected death of her mother, and both she and her widowed father struggled for years with unresolved grief from that trauma. Things weren’t getting any better as Natalie entered adolescence, and her father faced a losing battle with alcoholism. With a comfortable home and lifestyle of her own, Patricia felt the Lord leading her to try and provide some of the maternal support her niece was missing at this critical stage of her development.

Natalie’s father agreed to let his sister keep his daughter with her on school days, while Natalie stayed with him over weekends and holidays. Patricia hoped to introduce Natalie to her church, engage in some no-holes-barred girl talk, and help provide some female discipline as Natalie blossomed into womanhood. It all seemed proactive and beneficial, and God brought together a lot of details to make it happen.

That’s where we left the pair back in 2010, while things were still going well.  

“Sometimes we had great fun,” Patricia reminisced. “I was able to give her a little more in the way of ‘measured spoiling.’ I mean, I certainly didn’t want to ‘spoil her rotten,’ but I knew that her dad hadn’t been able to provide much in the way of girly stuff.”

Natalie saw it as a “big vacation” from her melancholy father and his arbitrary rules, and enjoyed experimenting with makeup and hairstyles with her enthusiastic aunt. Soon, however, she came to bristle against the expectations her aunt held of her.

“As we became more familiar with each other, I think it just became like any normal parent/teen relationship,” explained Patricia. “There’s going to be tension due to expectations on both sides that aren’t getting met. Me, expecting her to do her part as a student; her expecting to get her way most of the time!”

It also became apparent that sending Patricia back to the dysfunctional environment at her father’s home on weekends was counter-productive.

“We had very few weekends together, which I felt was probably part of our problem,” Patricia regrets. “I might make the proverbial three steps forward during the week, but then given the opportunity to go back to the unhealthy environment with her dad and unsavory friends, she tended to retreat at least two steps. Sometimes, four or five! Many Sundays, my stomach would be in knots. I would be waiting for her to return and I would just cry, or have a near panic attack, anticipating ‘who’ was I getting back that evening.”

Patricia’s singleness also posed more of a dilemma than she thought it would.