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Recently while digging through boxes, I found a decorative cross that belonged to my grandmother. I’m not sure if she made it herself or if someone gave it to her. It’s cut from flimsy wood and covered with mint-green cloth. Fake pearls line the edges of the cross, and the rest of the cross is covered with an assortment of fake jewels. In a couple places there are clumps of dry glue where jewels had once been but are now lost. A plastic rosary also hangs on it, which is bit puzzling to me because my grandmother was a Methodist.

When I look at this cross now, I see how gaudy and kitsch it is. But it didn’t look that way to me as a child. It hung on the wall in my grandmother’s guest bedroom, the room where I usually slept when I stayed with my grandparents. As a kid, I was mesmerized by that cross. I would lay in bed and just stare at it, drawn to its beauty.

Somehow it ended up in my hands. When and how eludes me. Maybe it was when she had to downsize after my grandfather’s death and moved into a smaller home. Or maybe it was after she died, and we grandkids were sorting through her things. Somehow it came with me, and I’ve kept it all these years.

I’ve kept it obviously not for its aesthetic value but because it reminds me of her. And it reminds me of my childhood and all the time spent at my grandparents’ home. Grandma’s house was a place where I felt loved and seen. I felt this way with my own parents too, but there was something special about being with Grandma. Maybe that’s what this gaudy old cross symbolizes to me (and why I still hold on to it): the unconditional love and embrace of my grandmother, who was one of the people in my life that pointed me to Christ’s love and paved the way for my own conversion when I was fifteen years old.

What I didn’t know as a child, all those years spent at Grandma’s house, was that my grandmother had another cross. A hidden cross. A cross that more accurately reflected the pain and agony and loneliness of Christ’s crucifixion. A son who died when he was nine years old. Jackie was his name. One day Jackie was burning trash on the farm with his younger brother (my Uncle Tom), and Jackie was pouring gasoline on the fire. Jackie tragically caught on fire and ended up dying from third degree burns. My grandmother was inside the house with a younger daughter (my Aunt Mary). My grandfather was outside and supposed to be monitoring the boys.

No one ever spoke about this hidden cross. No one talked about Jackie. One time, when I was in middle school, I saw a picture frame on the wall with names stitched as an acrostic—all the names of the members of the family. I saw the name Jackie. “Who’s Jackie?” I asked my parents. “He was your dad’s older brother who died in a fire,” my mother said. “But don’t ever mention him to Grandma or Grandpa.” So I didn’t.

Over the years, especially after becoming a pastor and walking with so many people through tragedy and grief, I’ve wondered about this cross my grandmother carried, the horrible pain of losing a son. I’ve wondered about how it was not just her cross, but a cross for the whole family. A cross intensified in its loneliness because the grief could not be spoken of, shared together, but only endured silently and separately. I wonder how this cross impacted my grandparents’ marriage and contributed to the emotional distance between them. Or my uncle, who witnessed firsthand Jackie’s death and carried that with him all his life. Did that have anything to do with his alcoholism (which he overcame eventually)? Or my aunt, who would marry and never have children of her own. Or my dad, who was born after Jackie, but lived with the unspoken burden of replacing a child lost.

I loved them all—my grandma and grandpa, my uncle and aunt, my father. The only one who is still living is my aunt (and her husband). In recent years, my Aunt Mary has talked more openly with me about Jackie and his death. I’m grateful to get to hear this part of my family’s story, as painful as it is. I hope it’s also been good for my aunt, all these years later, to finally get to talk about it.

So I suppose that’s another reason I hold on to this decorative cross—maybe even the deepest reason. Because it reminds me of another cross, a greater sorrow, that my grandmother and her family carried. And of a Savior who knows such agony, such terrible heartache, and who meets us in those tender places of pain and emptiness. A love and a sorrow that flow mingled down, as the old hymn says it. And a Lenten hope that whispers a promise: One day, by his wounds, we shall all be healed.

A close-up of the copy of Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà, usually kept at the Vatican Museums. | Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • CPF says:

    Thank you for sharing your family’s story. These are the hardest of stories to tell, but they need to be shared. Our family’s “cross” was a trifold picture frame that sat on the mantle with photos of the toddler daughter and school-aged brothers who had died in two incidents a dozen years apart.
    Occasionally, a few memories might be shared by my parents, but not much. Their grief was too strong to say much. “Trust in the Lord” was the steady reminder. True, honest, but maybe not so helpful in retrospect. Counseling of any sort was virtually non-existent.
    Each of the incidents strained relationships, and a few friends were lost because of it. Others were strengthened, but mostly in the sense that they knew and understood, not that we remembered together.
    If you don’t remember together, you live in grief and your family collectively forgets. So tell those stories so they don’t get lost to history.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you, Brian, for sharing this beautiful reflection. My Grandmother was very significant for me as well in my life and faith journey. She too had a hidden cross that shaped many lives in its path. Her husband, my Grandfather whom I never met, died by suicide on New Year’s Day, 1957. In the ’50s, the church was neither helpful nor comforting as suicide was viewed as sin. Although she never darkened the door of a church again except for a few family weddings, my Gram was one of the most faithful women I knew and deeply connected to Jesus. As you treasure your Grandmother’s cross, I treasure my Grandmother’s journals where she kept copious notes on sermons she listened to on the radio. These unspoken, unhealed traumas run deep and have long lasting, often unintended, effects rippling out generationally. I’m grateful Jackie’s story is being uncovered and brought to light. Again, thank you for sharing and reminding us of the healing power of the cross.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    That was so tender and comforting in the best way. Thank you!

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Thank you Brian for your tender story of your grandmas life and her tragic losses.
    I was drawn to look up a Frederick Buechner quote from his “Whistling in the Dark”:
    “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.
    For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost.”
    A reminder we NEED to say their name whether living or dead so who they are or were don’t disappear completely.

  • Mary Nichols says:

    Thank you for sharing! I never knew my aunts uncles and grandparents because my parents emigrated from the Netherlands when I was 9 months old. Many years later when I was in my 50s my mother shared sad stories about her siblings. A brother who died of tuberculosis, a sister who took her own life. And of course the sad stories of WW2. How I longed to have known them and now understand the pain my mother endured in her early years.

  • Keith De Witt says:

    Thank you for the great read.

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