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.