By Michael Yakawich

As we journey through life, our paths are crossed, created, and joined with that of others—people who raise us, inspire us, and help us discover who we are along the way. It is also natural that we experience the loss of these treasured people in our lives. In these often difficult situations, it is important to learn how to process our own grief, support those who are experiencing loss, and understand how to participate in tough conversations surrounding the death of a loved one.

Michael Yakawich is a pastor in Montana who has conducted over 100 funerals. He shares here his many insights on questions like, “How do I come to terms with my own mortality?” “How do you talk to children about death and grief?” and “How can we process our own grief in a healthy way?”

A celebration of life

I have been a part of funerals for people of all ages. I have conducted funerals in highschool gyms where the deceased were 19 and 20 years old. One had a heart attack and the other was in a motorcycle accident. They were so young and that made it more challenging to process.

Nevertheless, my goal has always been to make the ceremonies uplifting; to literally make it a celebration of that life. My goal is to make people laugh and smile at some point in the program. You can do this with some work getting to know both the family and the person.

Say little, listen a lot

When you visit the loved one’s family, it is important you say little and listen a lot. I ask if I can pray and the answer has always been yes….and then I pray for the family and the loved one who passed.

Next, I ask a lot of questions. Why? Because the family who has lost someone wants to be asked questions. Of course, I start with some introductions of everyone there. How are they related? Then I ask if someone could tell me a little about the person: When and where were they born, married, work…sometimes they have an obituary so I can read it. Sometimes they do not.

Oftentimes, I will ask them for a funny story of the person who passed or for a personal story of their relationship with the person. Surprisingly, often their hearts open up, they laugh a little about the stories. As a pastor, I capture all of this down on paper in order to prepare my own eulogy for the funeral. Even if you do not do a eulogy, people want to share about the person to someone.

The story of four sisters

One of my oddest experiences was when I sat down with four sisters. They really did not like their father who had just passed. He was an old farmer who had them work hard on the farm. One example of his work ethic was that the father would have them pound old nails straight…

After they told many stories of their dad, they started to laugh as they realized that although almost 20 years separated the two older sisters and the two younger sisters, they had similar experiences. For them, it was heartwarming and even led to them feeling more loving towards their deceased father.

How do you talk to children about death and grief?

I tell the kids this story…

An old man told me once, “When you find a coin on the ground, that is your grandpa, telling you he is thinking of you. So, when you find such a coin, smile, for he is with you”.

When children are involved in the grieving process, I ask that we get helium balloons. Then we have them write their names on it. During the gravesite burial, we release them as a prayer. The only thing you need to make sure is stay away from the trees. It is very awkward to explain to the kids your prayer got stuck in the tree…

I also talk directly to the kids. I will find a story that they shared with grandpa, mom, dad, whomever passed and express how much he or she loved them. Through this, they feel included in the grieving process.

Many kids can relate to angels as well. I can refer to the angels as they are with them and they are with their grandpa who passed. Angels are comforting.

If I know the kids have a special bond with grandpa, for example, let’s say with frogs, I sometimes will go to the store and get some frog stickers (something not expensive but significant) and give it to the kids later saying, “I think grandpa wanted me to give this to you.”

How can we process our own grief in a healthy way?

It is easier to explore life and death when you have a life of faith. Without faith, the grief is often deeper and it is much harder to go through the experience of the death of a loved one.

Often, when someone is younger or dies unexpectedly, it is harder and there is more grief. It is always good to have family around. In smaller communities, beyond church, people flock around the family to help them through the grief. Often, food is brought to the family so they do not have to cook.

Regret is a big topic. I make an effort in my conversation with the family to encourage them to leave regret behind. Things like: what I could have done, should have done, would have done before the person passed. This thinking does not help. Toss it out the door. Likewise, I share that the person who passed does not want the family to feel regret.

Another is helping each other. Some families, when they lose someone who was seen as a key person in the family, they start falling apart, away from each other. I encourage them months after the funeral, to keep in touch, write, or call each other. People will travel miles away and attend the funeral, but will not follow up with contacting the family weeks and months later.

People approach death differently.

Not to take drugs or alcohol is important. Some just do not listen. I had a young kid after the funeral stop at every bar on his way to the burial site for a drink at the local bar. He carried his father’s ashes with him. By the time he arrived at the burial, he was not feeling anything. I had to work with him as his grandmother helped me to help him properly bury the ashes.

One son called me to do a funeral for his father. He asked, “Can you do a 5-minute funeral?” I said, well why not. He said his dad was very upset when his wife died and the preacher spoke way too long. His father wanted a 5-minute service at the gravesite. Well, I did it and the son was happy.

I have buried twenty people at a time for people who have passed and had no one to claim them.

Once I did a funeral, and I was so nervous, all through the funeral I said the person’s name wrong. I was so embarrassed. The family said it was the best funeral they went to; it was so funny. Thank God!

I was honored to conduct the funeral for both of my own parents.

I have done funerals for around five local bar owners. They had no faith background but still requested that I do their funeral. This, too, was an honor. Some of the other bar owners sat in the back and I had them smiling and laughing. So, when the funeral was over, they would come up to me and say, “Hey, when I pass will you do my funeral?” Of course, I said yes.

In the end, listening is the key; Taking and making time to be present, to listen.

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