I lost a loved one in the extended family this week. Not young compared to teens and twentysomethings, but younger than when most relatively healthy older folks finally run out of steam and succumb to this or that age-related condition. So it’s time for some melancholy reflection on the Big D. I am going to pull quotes and thoughts from a variety of sources, then let readers chime in with their own additions.
Rocky Balboa. From Creed. “Time takes everybody out. Time’s undefeated.” More wisdom from Rocky: “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.”
Church, and Grieving. About twenty years ago, the standard term “The Plan of Salvation” morphed into “The Plan of Happiness” or even “the Great Plan of Happiness.” That contributes to the folk doctrine (encouraged at every turn by LDS leaders) that to be a good Mormon is to be a happy Mormon, and that to be *unhappy* is to somehow be unrighteous or unfaithful or have a weak testimony. That mindset clashes with the normal human response of grieving when losing a loved one. Mormons seem to struggle against grief, as if there is something wrong with grieving. Some go so far as to gently chide a grieving person. The Church needs to legitimize Mormon grief.
Don’t Confuse the Good Life with the Happy Life. I picked up a book off the local library shelf: Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (Penguin Random House, 2022) by Kieran Setiya, a philosopher at MIT. In the first chapter he emphasizes the distinction between a good life or a fulfilling life, on the one hand, and a happy life. Eudaimonia, Aristotle’s term for the good or best way to live, was often translated as “happiness” but more often now is translated as “human flourishing.” Happiness, particularly in modern times, is such a shallow term. Setiya makes the point that difficult conditions such as chronic pain or physical disability do not preclude enjoyment or a fulfilling life despite the obvious hardships involved. As recounted in the book, he has his own struggle with chronic pain, so he speaks from personal experience. This might be a book you need to find and read.
Living Well and Dying Well. Speaking of books, here’s another one: The Book of Dead Philosophers (Penguin Random House, 2009) by Simon Critchley, another Brit. He recounts the deaths, noble or otherwise, of a couple of hundred philosophers. Maybe it’s a lighthearted look at a serious subject, but that is often how we choose to talk about death, isn’t it? Your oncologist has to give it to you straight, but for the rest of us a little humor helps ease the pain of a difficult topic. Socrates was a martyr for philosophy. He died well. David Hume died a noble if painful death, disappointing many contemporaries who hoped he would recant his atheistic views when facing death. Hume, the greatest English language philosopher, was regularly blocked from obtaining an academic chair in philosophy by jealous, zealous clerics — all of them forgotten and irrelevant. Hume died well.
Robert Frost. Poetry is not my thing, so someone else will have to chime in with a better line or two, perhaps. Philosopher Setiya quotes Robert Frost: “When it comes to human suffering, there’s ‘no way out but through.‘” Just persevere. Frost also has a nice poem about apple picking and when you’ve had enough of it. Then there are those woods, lovely, dark, and deep, that beckon at some point. If humor is one way we deal with death, poetry is another.
Dylan Thomas. He of rage, rage against the dying of the light. Which is one way to go about the business of dying. If there is hope for recovery if a few more days can be eked out, or if there is a particularly significant date looming (say Christmas), or if it’s a couple of days until a family member can arrive for a last visit — those are contexts where fighting against the looming inevitable makes sense. But raging against that last hour and that last breath is hardly how most of us want to play the endgame ourselves or how we want a loved one to go. Most of us think there is a point where you should stop fighting and just let nature take its course. Modern pain meds temper much of the suffering that once accompanied the last days or weeks of an ailing patient. Morphine is named for Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams. We should, from time to time in our prayers, thank God for morphine.
Objective versus Subjective. Objectively, we all know that everyone dies, sooner or later. There’s nothing complicated or puzzling, and there is no point in getting upset about it. But subjectively, it’s a different matter. You would not dream of tapping a grieving friend on the shoulder and saying, “Oh well. Everybody dies.” Losing grandparents and parents is sad but expected. Losing one’s own life at some point is regrettable but unavoidable. But the thought that my kids, each of them, will one day draw their last breath is simply tragic. The Universe offers me no greater tragedy. Perhaps this objective versus subjective view of death and our experience of it helps explain the disconnect between the upbeat, perky gospel view of death encountered in LDS talks and discussions and the deeply personal grieving most people, LDS included, go through when a close loved one passes.
O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? Let’s throw in a scripture. Obviously, the Christian view of death is viewed through the lens of resurrection. If death is only temporary, perhaps the blink of an eye, that’s a much different matter than death as a permanent thing, a forever thing. Here is Paul’s reassuring view:
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Cor. 15:44-45)
Here is the same passage from the Wayment translation: “When this perishable body puts on an imperishable one, and the mortal body puts on an immortal one, then what is written will come to pass: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. Where is your victory, death? Where is your sting, death?‘” In the italicized phrases, Paul is quoting Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14.
It is true that the Christian view of death and resurrection offers hope to those who grieve. This is particularly true for the Mormon view of resurrection and the hereafter, with temple sealings promising continued familial relations in the hereafter. These doctrines and sincerely held beliefs really do provide solace and hope to those who have lost a loved one.
And who can argue with that? Well, maybe I could. But not today.
Score one for headline writers. I think the title says it all.
Sincerely, thank you.
I issue my strongest possible condemnation to the pernicious disease that ended the life of David’s relative much too soon. Our prayers are with you and your family, David.
At times like this, it is wise for all of us to remember that famous phrase: “ Memento mori” (Latin: “Remember that you have to die.”). Especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.
And that is the question: What should we spend the limited time we have on earth doing? Should we waste it at honky tonks, Dairy Queen’s, and 7-Elevens? I doubt very much that David’s relative did.
We should spend our lives by working hard and learning everything we can to better ourselves. If we reach the end and we have not done so, we have truly wasted our mortal existence. This is the Way. It always has been.
My condolences, Dave. But thank you for taking the time and effort to blog productively about this unavoidable topic. And thank you for including Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, two poets who said it best. As it happens, I am going through a Tim Minchin phase, British-Australian singer/composer/actor/comedian extraordinaire. I was literally just listening to his song Night Will Come when the notice for your blogpost came up. The song comes from Groundhog Day the Musical. Never seen it, but you can’t miss the song if you go exploring Minchin on YouTube. Here are some choice lyrics from the poignant showtune:
“All the love, and all the gold
All you’ve built and all you’ve sold
All the power you may hold
You won’t evade her
All the steel, all the bricks
All the math and magic tricks
All the carrots, all the sticks
Will not dissuade her
On and on and on, you stumble on
Towards the fading sun
Turn a blind eye, fight or run
Rest assured, the night will come”
Toxic positivity. It’s a real thing in LDS culture.
Somebody’s a Depeche Mode fan. . .
Church, and Grieving:
I was definitely chided or rebuked by a visiting Q70 to our testimony meeting after I discussed grief and sorrow shortly after the passing of my mother in 2016.
Not only is toxic positivity a real thing in LDS culture, it practically assures that affluent Latter-day Saints, particularly those with status inside the Church, struggle to recognize the great everyday heroes who fight against insurmountable odds, to mourn with those who mourn, and to feel, well, human. Toxic positivity destroys our humanity and our Christianity. It strips us of our ability to relate to those who suffer horrible things and ultimately decimates our appreciation of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Jesus is no longer a Savior, because one is not needed; He is simply an “older brother” who magically takes care of our skinned knees and bruised elbows. We could dangerously lulled into viewing the Easter season as quick sacrament meetings and family parties with little contemplation of the excruciating pain and despair in Gethsemane, the nails piercing, the pounding punishment of the Cross. Life is brutal. We should be reminded of that every time we eat His flesh or drink His blood.
Grief will manifest itself sooner or later, regardless of our efforts to tamp it down because we “have faith”. Grief has much to teach us and can refine us but cannot do so when we are in denial. Was not Christ a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief? We can have faith AND grieve at the same time.
Re: Church and Grieving– This is why I no longer want an LDS funeral, a.k.a. missionary opportunity.
JCS: It is not an either/or choice working hard/learning OR hanging around aimlessly at convenience stores in comfortable footwear. I wish I had understood earlier that life is to be relished and enjoyed NOW, not just endured while I work hard and learn.
Chet: I’m appalled that you were treated that way by a visiting “authority”. So sorry for that experience.
Old Man: “Toxic positivity destroys our humanity and our Christianity.” Amen.
Dave B: may those around you sit with you in your grief.
Thank you for the timely and important message Dave. I am very sorry for your and your family’s loss at this time. May you be blessed with the comfort that you need.
On the other side of this discussion regarding the Mormon tendency to try to jolly up grieving people and to pretend that everything is hunky dory after the death of a loved one we also need to discuss what happens when someone refuses or is incapable to move beyond the grief stage.
My mother died on February 1 of this year after being widowed for 12 years. She got married at age 19 at a time when both society and the church urged women to marry young, have a lot of children and devote one’s entire life to her husband and children. (Unfortunately, the church still preaches this outdated and damaging idea which does our young women a world of harm in too many ways to enumerate here.) What women who were raised this way were definitely NOT taught was how to find meaning in life when the kids are grown up and leave home and when their spouse dies before them.
My mother had no idea how to move on with her life after my dad died. She refused to go to grief counseling and to participate with a marvelous group of widows and divorced women in her ward and neighborhood who went to concerts, out to eat, to plays and art galleries and went on fun vacations together. These dear ladies knew my sibs and me very well and would ask us why our mom refused to socialize with them. After all, she been close to these women until my dad’s death. Now she was basically a hermit except where her grandchildren were concerned, but even then she wasn’t nearly as involved as she’d been before.
I wish that I could say that my mom’s situation was an anomaly, but according to a friend who’s a family therapist and also to the resident psychologist at my mom’s senior living facility this type of reaction (which my sibs and I refer to as “Queen Victoria Grief Syndrome”) is very common among older (and sometimes younger) Mormon and Evangelical women whose entire lives are/were completely wrapped up in their husbands and children. Their entire sense of self is based on things outside of themselves, things that often turn out to be outside of their own control in the long term. You can’t control death. According to these two individuals this problem with the inability to move on from grieving the loss of a spouse is a big problem for older women and younger TBM Mormon women who have no sense of self apart from family and home. Surely this must greatly sadden our Heavenly Parents and Jesus! The current way that the church is teaching young women to focus everything on marriage and family to the detriment of much needed self knowledge, a good education and the developing of one’s abilities and talents is leaving women unable to cope with the inevitable losses they will face in life. They deserve so much better.
Thanks for the comments and well wishes, everyone.
JCS, when I hear “this is the Way” I think of Daoism as well as the Mandalorian.
Jake C, thanks. Everyone could use a little more poetry.
Chet, I just wonder how leaders like that have never read and understood “mourn with those who mourn.” There is nothing complicated or confusing about that injunction.
Old Man, in Christology there is Jesus crucified and Jesus resurrected, the Christ of suffering and the Christ of glory. A proper appreciation of both Easter and Christianity in general requires both, in balance. For Mormons, it’s all about glory. We seem uncomfortable with crucifixion and suffering, which is almost the same as being uncomfortable with the Atonement.
LHCA, great quote, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. I’m gonna use that sometime.
Poor Wayfaring Stranger, a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.
I’m convinced that the best “good life” comes if we assume this life is all we get. No decisions based on a theoretical after-life. I wish I would have realized this much earlier in life.
I’m very sorry for your loss Dave B. It especially stings when it feels like their life story shouldn’t be finished so soon.
For poetry, I love Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gardener” which is especially appropriate during the Easter season.
Not only is this idea that members of the Church shouldn’t grieve at the death of a loved one very heartless, it is also unscriptural.
“Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection.”
Dave B., thank you for thoughts on death within the Mormon context.
About a decade ago, a close friend of mine who lives outside the Mormon belt lost a child who was in her mid-twenties. His daughter’s death (I’ll call his daughter Jane) shocked him and his family, and all of us who knew Jane–she had been taken in a violent accident. Hundreds attended her LDS funeral. Among those who mourned that day was one of her high school teachers, not LDS, whom I also knew. After the funeral, I bumped into Jane’s HS teacher. Her teacher sobbed and sobbed as she recounted to me the wit and life of Jane and the happy moments they shared together as teacher and student. Jane’s teacher knew how to mourn. What I experienced with Jane’s teacher was healthy and it helped me. The teacher’s response was different compared the other LDS friends who were in attendance. They were sad too, of course, but their expressions were focused more on “The mission in heaven to which Jane was called home to serve must be very important,” sentiment I had heard all my life as a Mormon when someone died before old age. And sentiment that has always made me uncomfortable.
I think my non-LDS friend, Jane’s former HS teacher, had a much healthier response: She addressed the magnitude of the loss, the loss of everything Jane would experience in life, do and become. In doing so, I felt like she honored and dignified the tragedy of Jane’s passing and displayed greater empathy toward Jane’s family than the LDS members there I talked to. Jane’s teacher said to me that Jane was taken from us, and what could be more awful than that (which I think was her response to the bishop’s final thoughts in the service, which focused more on life after death than the tragedy of her loss). To me, that felt more true than others who were honoring Jane in the more common Mormon way of saying how needed Jane must have been to be called home. I get these expressions from the Mormon point of view, but it has always felt to me like it lacks empathy for the parents, and it just feels wrong-minded, unhealthy and misguided. For God, whether he lives outside of time, or lives forever in time, there is no immediacy. I know this is complicated theology, but I guess my point is that the idea of being called home early for some kind of needed mission might be theologically dubious, despite being a well-meaning. Even Jane’s dad, my friend, said to me a week later that there is no place Jane should be than here on earth. Heaven, in all of its splendor, cannot offer the mortal experience. I thought that was true, and a poignant observation.
This blog post, the comments, and reflecting back on my friend losing his daughter brought literary critic, Harold Bloom, to mind. He made many observations about Mormonism, but this one has stuck with me since the time I read it.
Speaking specifically of the head-on approach in which Mormons deal with death, Bloom wrote this: “What is the essence of religion? Religion rises inevitably from our apprehension of our own death. To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of all religion. … Of all religions that I know, the one that most vehemently and persuasively defies and denies the reality of death is the original Mormonism of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Joseph Smith.”
Bloom wasn’t paying Mormonism a compliment when he wrote this. While he thought Smith was perhaps the most inventive religious leader in American history, and Young perhaps one of America’s greatest religious leaders, while Bloom found Smith’s theology to be highly creative, he also criticized it for being scattered, contradictory and lacking coherence.
Our complete denial of death, as Bloom described it, seems to me like it also cheapens how we view the gift of life on earth, the sanctity of mortality despite its trials and hardships, and I think this shows up in our inability to mourn in healthy ways that are true to what we are really experiencing when we lose a loved one.
Appreciate your story and the Bloom quote.
I am so very sorry to hear about David’s family member.
I also have had a huge problem with the light and often trivial way the LDS church deals with death when it comes to the feelings of the family members after a loved one has passed away.
The talking points like “She was called home to do something important” and “We can look forward to the day we will all be together’ does nothing for the grief of the families who are suffering.
No matter what is said and no matter how much our leaders try to press us to move on the grief of the loss of a loved one is massive and not only mental but physical in the suffering.
It is that way for a reason and the attempt to trivialize it is not good.
Heavenly Father made a beautiful earth or us here, a lot of LDS focus so much on the after life they miss the good of mortality.
The enjoyment of Living with a capital L.
The joy of being mortal and experience all the good of living the beauty of being so.
I too am sorry that your family has had this loss.
Back in my TBM days, my mother died after a long, and for her, gruesome ordeal with Parkinson’s. The responses from my ward members versus strangers and non-member extended family members was stark and noticeable. I particularly remember a church friend who said “I’m sorry to hear about your mom” (an appropriate response) but said it with the same emotion as she might say “Your shirt is blue.” I must add, she was one of only a couple who even acknowledged my loss. A complete stranger brought tears to my eyes with a heartfelt expression of sympathy. It’s been 27 years but I haven’t forgotten the absence of compassion from those that call themselves Saints. It’s an area that the church, as a whole, completely misses the mark and it is such a disservice to the members.
We are even worse when the mode of death is suicide. Better than in previous generations, still sadly lacking.
That said, I am deeply grateful for the ward members and old friends who reached out, who came to my family’s services. It means so much.
Upon reading your comment I viscerally felt the pain that you felt when you were chided. That kind of degrading approach to being human has got to stop. In a past iteration of myself I would have then felt bad or guilty for grieving too much. That kind of experience basically sums up the reasons why I don’t go to church any more, for mental health reasons.
Anyway, wanted to let you know you’re not alone and the way that Q70 responded to your testimony was deeply inappropriate.
Jessica et al – thank you for the kindness – like so many others, W&T is my tribe !!
This happened before my shelf completely broke but what I see now is a pattern of fear-based remarks from our leaders – a few years ago we had a great Jesus-focused stake conference and the area authority gets up to close the meeting and destroys the good vibe by passive-aggressively denouncing all doubters of Joseph Smith etc. One can see the same pattern with Holland-Matt Easton and the verbal beatdown we got six months ago from Kevin “W is for Warm Fuzzies” Pearson. It’s so easy to see it now….back on topic it’s similar to the hijacking of funerals to make them a missionary opportunity.
Obviously my gospel paradigm has shifted and I continue to deal with my other parent (dad) who is quite aged now but still quite emotionally immature and gets worse as he gets older, now age 86, which triggers how sh!+ty he treated us as kids. When his time comes to pass “into the blue beyond” I have no idea how I am going to process it.
Just finished watching the funeral of a first cousin, and need to vent a bit. I am left feeling pretty angry at the church for not adequately investing in, and continuing to make available, the technology to do virtual broadcasts. They have the means to do so, and the past few years were the perfect motive. Instead…
The forty or so people attending virtually missed the first few minutes because a few people couldn’t figure out how to mute themselves. The person running the host account muted everyone, including themself, and took a bit to fix it. Even with everyone else muted, the picture and sound cut in and out. Also, apparently zoom’s algorithms mute music, so we couldn’t hear the hymns or musical number.
I was able to watch my father give a talk in his ward on the other side of the country a few weeks ago. Their ward still has a broadcast and anyone can watch without having to get the Bishop’s permission first. The even have a camera set up so that they can show the folks milling about in the chapel, which was great for a funeral a year or so ago that I couldn’t attend in person. Why can’t every chapel have that??