Blessed are those who carry / for they shall be raised. – Anna Kamienska

Several years ago, during Christmas vacation, my dad and I were discussing funerals. This is not as weird as it sounds. We were two pastors talking our trade. The conversation turned to my own grandfather’s service, which had taken place twenty-five years ago when I was twelve. My Dad had officiated and he recalled how I wept at the graveside. Granddad and I were very close, but I didn’t remember crying.

Dad said that my younger brother was steely-eyed with a look of fixed concentration upon the coffin. Dad said it was only after the service that he discovered his ten-year-old son had somehow understood that it was his responsibility to lower the coffin into the grave. During the funeral, my brother had been trying to figure out how he would manage such a burden.

I have held onto that story because it highlights the fierce loyalty of my brother. As a pastor, it also reminds me not to presume what’s going on inside a child’s mind before an open grave. I want to speak honestly and truthfully about the reality of death.

If I know in advance of the funeral that a child will be among the close relatives, I’ll ask permission from the family to address that young person during the ceremony. In front of all who have gathered, I’ll tell the child that death is loss. You will not see your loved one again. You might feel sad about this. Maybe you are angry. It’s okay to have those feelings. It’s also okay that your feelings will change. You might remember stories about this person who had died. Some of those stories might be sad or even funny! It’s good to share whatever story is on your mind with your loved ones. It’s good to listen to their stories, too. And wherever you go, you can carry your memories with you. That’s something that you can do.

My first call to ministry was to a church that maintained a cemetery–technically, a “graveyard” because it was located on the church’s property. My family lived in a manse, which is a house owned by the church, and the backyard was the graveyard. I spent many mornings walking the gently sloped path between the graves, first leading my dog, then following my young sons.

My older son would watch a funeral from our kitchen window. He could see me standing in my black robe with a small group of people seated under a temporary tent. After everyone had left, he could watch the backhoe cover the grave. He was curious about all these details. I wanted to tell him the truth. My wife taught me to answer only the question he asked, not what I assumed was on his mind. For now, what he needed to know is that we were there for him.

“God” is a big idea for anyone. I think we can glimpse meaning through our human relationships. As we help to carry each other’s burdens, we may realize that we too are being carried.

Granddad died on my father’s birthday. I was in the sixth grade. A “tween” in today’s vernacular, somewhere in between a child and a teenager. The phone rang late at night and I immediately knew what had happened. And I was furious. I ran outside with a basketball and slammed it against our driveway over and over again, yelling, “Damn it!” Granddad did not tolerate cursing. Finally, my Dad came outside and called my name. I knew he would hug me and I could cry. I looked right at him standing in the light of the carport. And turned away.

My parents knew that anger is a stage of grief. Anger is also a surface emotion. Deep down, I felt abandoned. I felt fragile. But that awareness was scary as hell, too scary to admit. On the cusp of adolescence, having just started a new school with new students, new expectations, new pressures, I bottled that pain and shoved it inside. I tried not to cry at the graveside. I must have convinced myself that I hadn’t. When my parents asked how I was doing, I put on a happy face and said, “Fine.”

As an adult, I was brought back to that time in my life by watching a TED talk by psychologist Susan David. She noted how many people come to her for advice, hoping she can make their negative feelings go away. Such people don’t want to have these emotions around grief.

“I understand,” I say to them. “But you have dead people’s goals.” Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts…

Looking back, I realize that my younger brother had it right at the funeral. He understood that he was going to have to carry a grave burden.

As a pastor, I want to speak honestly and truthfully about the reality of death. This is important for people of ages. I also want to speak the promises of our faith—God carries us. God carries us through the valleys of the shadow of death and from death into life eternal.

There was a tragic death of a young father in the congregation. I’d officiated plenty of funerals over the years, but nothing like this one. The deceased was well-known and much loved in the larger community. We had the local community college set-up a PA system in our graveyard. Stepping to the lectern in my black robe, I felt very small in the sea of people. When I directed my remarks to his two young sons, the other faces faded away. You can come back and visit this grave with your family. And wherever you go, you can carry your memories of your dad with you. That’s something that you can do.

A little more than a year after that funeral, I took a new call to serve as pastor of another church. I haven’t been back to that grave. But my mind has often returned to those children. I pray for them. I pray for adults in their lives to be strong enough to hang in there, gently yet firmly, when those boys try to push them away. Adults who are wise enough to know that real words matter and not to answer their questions with meaningless clichés. Adults who are wise enough to know the moments when silent presence is the best and only support. As long as they live, those sons will carry this burden. But they don’t have to carry it alone, I pray.

God carries us through the valleys of the shadow of death and from death into life eternal.

For their father’s funeral, I had left my family vacation at the beach. I drove halfway to my hometown, then Dad had driven me the rest of the way to the church. He stayed for the graveside funeral. My Dad stood in the back of the large crowd underneath a massive oak tree. He said he prayed for me. I kept it together throughout the ceremony and the reception afterwards. Finally, when everyone had gone home, I collapsed into heaving cries that shook my whole body. And Dad was there to hold me.

As Dad drove me back to the beach to rejoin my wife and kids, my younger brother called from his apartment in New York City. I didn’t have much to say about the funeral. We ended up talking about baseball. But before I had changed the subject, my younger brother held the silence. He helped carry my burden as our father drove down the interstate. And I believe that we are being carried even now.