03863_000_016You seldom expect a friend to die, but you can be comforted when it happens.
Recently I spoke at the funeral of a twelve-year-old boy. Andrew had recently been ordained a deacon. He was a fine boy, and his friends came from everywhere to attend the funeral. More than half of them were nonmembers who went to school with him, played soccer with him, or worked in community projects with him. Andrew also had an older brother and a younger brother.
When death comes to a young teenager, it is usually unexpected. We may not be even remotely warned of it. Andrew was playing in a cave dug into the side of a sand dune at the beach. The sand walls collapsed and suffocated him. His cousins and other friends had frantically tried to dig him out. It was a horribly tragic experience for all of them, including his older brother, who had also been partially buried under the fallen sand. You can imagine the shock it was for their parents.
As Andrew’s family and close friends gathered beside the casket at the funeral, one particular young friend, Ryan, was having an extremely difficult time saying good-bye to Andrew. I discovered that Ryan and Andrew had been soccer friends for about three years. Ryan was not a member of the Church, but he was from a fine Christian home. At thirteen years of age, he had never before had to face the reality of death that comes when you lose a close friend or loved one.
Ryan cried audibly. He had lost a very close friend. He was comforted by his father, who held him close. Andrew’s father also offered some comfort to Ryan, but he could not be comforted. The loss of a friend was simply more than he could bear.
This incident reminded me of a similar experience in my own life. Nearly thirty years ago, Peter had been my closest friend. We had shared almost everything together, including toys, pet animals, and food.
He and I were quite different in many ways. He was blond and short, like his father. I was taller, skinny and dark haired, like my dad. He liked vanilla-flavored ice cream; I liked chocolate.
Peter and I built a great “hut” down in the rocks and sand of a nearby creek. It was the perfect place for catching little blue-bellied racing lizards. Peter and I were the best catchers in the neighborhood. We could do better than even my two older brothers.
I did not know until we were about ten years old that Peter had been born with a heart defect. He had asthma and often coughed and wheezed from that, but it did not interfere with our play. One reason I did not know that his health problems were serious was that he never once complained.
All along, his parents had been waiting for him to reach an age when he was strong enough to survive heart surgery. Finally, the doctors felt that they could wait no longer, so his parents arranged for him to go to a big city hospital.
He wrote to me saying that he had taken an advance tour of the hospital to see everything, including the operating and recovery rooms. The doctors wanted him to see them in detail, so that when he awoke from surgery, he would not be frightened.
Several days later Peter underwent eight or ten hours of major surgery. Unbelievably to me, he died on the operating table.
I was deeply hurt by the news of his death. I had prayed faithfully and fervently that his heart would be healed. I thought my prayers had gone unanswered. Brokenhearted, I went back to our river hut one last time after the funeral. I stayed only long enough to push some of the rocks aside and destroy the little building. I suppose I thought if I could destroy that which represented Peter to me, I could destroy the horrible feelings of grief that I was experiencing.
Later I would learn that those feelings were normal. I loved Peter. I would miss him. That is a natural instinct, and there is nothing wrong with it.
We will miss Andrew too. That is simply part of life. God would never want us to forget someone who has touched our lives for good. The scriptures tell us, “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (D&C 42:45).
I thought about Peter every day for about a month. Then I began to get busy with other friends, and soon I was just thinking about him occasionally. After about ten years, I found that I would go months at a time and never think of the closeness that we had shared. I noticed, however, that when I started thinking about him, all of the good feelings that I had felt with him so many times would come rushing back into my mind and heart.
Then a year or two ago, almost thirty years after Peter’s death, I dreamed that I was on a business trip, driving my car on a highway that ran alongside the ocean. I think I was supposed to be in northern California.
In my dream I was admiring the beautiful coastal scenery and listening to the car radio.
Suddenly, in my dream, coming toward me on the other side of the road was Peter. He was a full-grown adult, but I recognized him immediately.
Quickly I stopped the car, got out, and ran to him. We hugged and danced like two happy little boys. Then we stood arm-in-arm, face-to-face, with the mighty ocean as a backdrop and talked eagerly for about fifteen minutes.
Never mentioning death, or saying “it’s good to see you after all of these years,” or anything like that, Peter finally said to me, “Well, I’ve got to be going.”
Knowing and feeling that to be true, I said to him, “Where are you going?”
“To take care of some business,” he said simply. I knew better than to ask any more. He was about his Father’s business. My heart told me so. I know that to be true of Andrew also.
I still remember how wonderful it felt in that dream to see Peter again, to hug him and talk with him after all those years since he died. The Spirit bore witness to me that Peter and I will meet again someday and that meeting will be as sweet and natural as it was in that wonderful dream.
As I stood at the pulpit at Andrew’s funeral, the Spirit prompted me to tell Ryan that death is not the end of our associations and that our feelings of love and friendship will endure beyond the grave.
I thought Ryan sat up a little straighter on the bench. His eyes became a little drier, and I even thought I saw him nod his head, as if to agree. I thought my spiritual eyes saw Ryan touched by the Spirit.
It is never easy to lose a friend to death. But the understanding which the gospel provides can be a great comfort to us. We know that life continues beyond the grave and that there is important work to be done by those who have gone on. And time will soften the pain of those who are left behind.
Remain faithful, young people. Do what is right and be prayerful. You will see your friend again. It will be sooner than you think. Your loss will not be easy, but God will comfort you and the hurt will eventually go away. One day soon, the memories will be happy and joyful as you think about the good times spent together sharing your lives. That is the promise of the plan of salvation.