“When a Friend Dies,” New Era, Apr. 1987, 16
The other day I spoke at the funeral of a 12-year-old boy. Jared 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 civic projects with him. Jared also had an older brother and a younger brother.
When death comes to an adolescent, it is usually unexpected. We may not be even remotely warned of it. Jared was suffocated in a freak sand cave-in at the oceanside in Coos Bay, Oregon. His cousins and other peers 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. You can imagine the shock and trauma their parents experienced.
As Jared’s family and close friends gathered beside the casket at the viewing, one particular young friend was having an extremely difficult time saying good-bye to his buddy. I discovered that Ryan and Jared 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 13, 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 own father, who held him close and rubbed his shoulders. Jared’s father also offered some comfort to Ryan, all to no avail. The loss was simply more than he could bear.
This incident made my mind race back nearly 30 years to a similar experience in my own life. Evan had been my closest friend. We had shared almost everything together, including pollywogs, toads, lizards, stick horses, dogs, and food.
He and I were quite different in many ways. He was blond and short, like his father. I was lankier and skinny and dark, like my dad. He liked vanilla, I liked chocolate. He had the most beautiful palomino stinkwood stick horse I had ever seen. Dried and stiff, it was the envy of every kid in town.
Evan’s grandmother was my first-grade teacher, back in the days when the first, second, and third grades were all in one room. She was strict and demanding, but she loved us and helped us do the very best we could.
Once when another boy fell asleep in class, Evan and I tried to get her to let us awaken him by pouring water on his head.
“Oh, we couldn’t do that!” she said. “You wouldn’t want him to do that to you, would you?”
I did not know that she was teaching me the Golden Rule. But Evan did. “She was right, you know,” he said to me that afternoon as we walked home from school. Maybe his clearer understanding of truth was one of many reasons the Lord needed him so early.
Evan and I created a great “hut” down in the rocks and sand of Ash Creek. That was a small tributary to the Virgin River in southern Utah. It was the perfect place for catching little blue-bellied racing lizards. When it came to catching those, Evan and I had no peers. That was one thing we could do better than even my two older brothers.
I did not know until we were about ten years old that Evan 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 surgery. Finally, the doctors felt that they could wait no longer, so off to Salt Lake went Evan and his parents.
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, he would not be frightened. To me, it seemed that he took that all in stride.
Several days later Evan underwent eight or ten hours of major surgery. Unbelievably to me, he died on the operating table.
I was crushed. I had prayed faithfully and fervently that he would survive. 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 fort that we had built. I guess I thought if I could destroy what represented Evan, I could destroy the horrible feelings of grief that I was experiencing.
Later I would learn that those feelings were normal. I loved Evan. I would miss him. That is a natural instinct, and there is nothing wrong with it.
We will miss Jared too. That is simply part of life. God would never want us to forget someone who has touched us 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 Evan every day for a month or so. Then I began to get busy with other friends, and soon I was just thinking about him every now and then. 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 30 years after Evan’s death, I dreamed that I was driving my car on a business trip up old Highway 101 in northern California, near the Oregon border.
I was traveling along admiring the beautiful coastal view. I had the radio on, and I was just driving along in the dream.
Suddenly, I took my car into a rather sharp bend. As I did so, coming toward me on the ocean’s side of the road, on a packed ten-speed bicycle, was Evan. He was a full-grown adult, but I recognized him immediately.
Quickly I found a wide spot in the road where I could turn around, and I went back. He had seen me too and had stopped, hoping that I would turn around.
I jumped out of the car and raced to him, and we hugged and danced like two little boys who had just captured their first pollywogs. Then we stood arm-in-arm, face-to-face, with the mighty Pacific Ocean as a backdrop and visited eagerly for about 15 minutes.
Never mentioning death, or “it’s good to see you after all of these years,” or anything like that, he 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 headed?”
“To take care of some business,” he stated 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 Jared also.
I still remember how wonderful it felt in that dream to see Evan again, to hug him and talk with him after all those years since he died. The Spirit bore witness to me that Evan 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 in the stake center, 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.
About 80 years before the birth of Christ, the Book of Mormon prophet Ammon taught, “Now when our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back, behold, the Lord comforted us, and said: Go amongst thy brethren … and bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success” (Alma 26:27).
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 reflect on the good times spent together sharing your lives. That is the promise of the plan of salvation.