Mormons and Death Guest Post: The Loss is Real, Even for Mormons

by Bethany

(Bethany and her husband live in Arizona. They have 4 children, 3 on Earth and 1 in heaven.”)

One of the most comforting ideas in the Mormon church is the one of life after death and eternal families. Not even death can break our familial bonds, we will be together forever. But sometimes it seems like because we believe in these things, it gives us a free pass to not grieve when our loved ones die, or worse, to expect others not to grieve.

Mormons pride themselves on having “happy” funerals. The reason being, we “know” we will see them again someday, so why mourn? We should celebrate their joyous reunion with their loved ones who have gone on before, and look forward to our own reunions with anticipation. Yes, we will miss them, but having our gospel knowledge is comfort enough.

So at a Mormon funeral you’ll notice it is not customary for everyone to wear black, instead it’s a colorful affair. You’ll notice more “happy” tears than sad ones. It’s not uncommon for funerals to feel more like family reunions, and you’re more likely to hear laughing and reminiscing about the past than silence in respect for the dead.

When I was younger, I remember feeling a sort of pride that we could treat funerals this way. It was almost like we were more enlightened, we didn’t need to debase ourselves with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. We didn’t need to drape ourselves in black and keep our heads lowered. We knew the truth!

I think most people would want their loved ones to celebrate their life, instead of to mourn their loss, especially when one dies of old age at the end of a long, fulfilling life. True, it does make attending funerals much more pleasant. No need to burden oneself with the uncomfortable expressions of grief. But sometimes I think we take it too far. I think the desire to comfort has led some people to forget that they are there to mourn with those who mourn, not to make them smile and forget.

Funerals have long been necessary parts of the grieving process. It is a time to accept the reality of the death. And yet, it seems like more often than not, Mormon funerals focus on all the reasons why we shouldn’t have to grieve. We throw out pat statements of “At least we have the gospel” and “They’re in a better place” and “You’ll see them again someday”. We focus on the future, that “hope smiling brightly before us”, and hope that somehow it will cancel out the need for suffering here and now.

At my father’s funeral when I was 18, I remember acting strong and brave. I greeted people, I shed “happy tears”, I reminisced. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. But the moment that meant the most to me was when a long time friend walked straight up to me and wrapped me in her arms and cried. Finally all the pent up emotion was released. I wept. I felt more comfort in that moment than in a million brave smiles and happy stories. I didn’t need to hear reasons why I shouldn’t be sad, or why someday it will all be okay…I needed someone to allow me to grieve, and to bear that grief with me.

And then seven years later, I was standing in front of my little boy’s casket before they closed the lid. I wanted to throw myself over his body and hold him and weep. But I kept thinking, “We don’t do those kind of things at funerals. It’s not proper.” My hands trembled as they lowered and locked the lid forever, but I remained still and silent. I acted strong and brave and played my part well.

The morning after his funeral, I woke up with a knot in my stomach. As the day went on, I grew increasingly upset. I later realized it was because I felt like I was supposed to be “okay” now that the funeral was over. That my next part to play should be to get up at Fast & Testimony meeting on Sunday and testify that I was just fine because I “knew” the truth. But the truth was…the truth didn’t matter. It didn’t make me feel any better at all!

 
My child was dead, and nothing was going to change that. Nothing was going to bring him back to the here and now. And nothing was going to stop the pain that came with that. I wanted to weep and wail and gnash my teeth. I wanted to drape myself in the blackness that I felt all around me. I was feeling the loss, and nothing was going to make that “okay”.

I realize now that those feelings are not just okay, they are necessary, and even more, they are sacred. And the expression of those feelings, of that incredible loss, is pure and real. Those who shut themselves off from those feelings, from expressing them, and also from helping others to bear them, are missing a fundamental part of humanity. Throughout my grieving process, I have always felt that these feelings were important, I just never really understood why. I was wrong to act strong and brave. I should have cried. I should have held my baby one last time. I should have allowed myself to express my true feelings.

Feeling the Loss by Melissa Y. at Segullah, explains it so well: 

“Even though Jesus knew that Lazarus would rise, He did not arrive at the tomb with smiles and assurances that all would be well. The loss was real. It is because He wept at the grave of His friend that I feel I can reach to Him with my own losses.”

Jesus could have simply strolled in and rose Lazarus from the dead immediately. But He didn’t. He wept with them. He bore their grief, and grieved himself. He felt the loss.

Jesus wept.

I believe He did it to show us that grief is a sacred and necessary part of life and death. We shouldn’t try to ignore those feelings. And we should encourage and support those who need to express them. The gospel can give us hope for the future, but it does not take away the pain of the reality here and now.

It’s okay to feel sad. Its okay to cry. Its okay to mourn and grieve. The loss is real. Even for Mormons.

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27 Responses

  1. Ecclesiastes 3:4 – A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

    We certainly can’t forget the times we need to weep and mourn. My older brother died when I was a teenager. I decded to not go to the funeral, because I had already mourned for him (it was a long 4 years of cancer), and I did not want to be part of any celebration that he was gone. Part of me still wonders if I missed out on something important, but I also know that I couldn’t have handled going to the funeral well. Part of growing, I guess.

    I do, very much, look forward to when we can be reunited with our families who have gone before us, but that doesn’t mean I can’t miss them in the mean time.

  2. Diane says:

    Thank you for writing such a personal essay and I’m sorry for the loss of your little boy.

    I think you are right when you say it’s important to grieve after a loss, its’ also important to realize that you will still grieve when certain anniversaries come because they are a reminder of things that could have been but will never be.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that you don’t grieve all at once, that it is a process and can take years to achieve(i’m not sure that’s the right word I’m looking for either.)

    • Bethany says:

      Definitely a life long process. I remember telling my Bishop that the gospel was like a lighthouse a million miles away, I knew it was there, and it was something to move towards, but I couldnt understand why it wasnt healing me NOW. I just thought I was doing something wrong if I was still feeling pain instead of peace. I put myself through so much unnecessary anguish over it, when in reality I was doing everything just fine. I wish I had realized that then.

  3. spunky says:

    This is so beautiful, Bethany. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing the truth of the necessity and sacred nature of mourning.

    I can relate a little to the loss of your father. As I sat at in the reception line (what is that called?) at my father’s funeral… I just was happy to catch up with people, doing just… whatever. Then a Catholic friend came over, already weeping, and said, “I am so sorry, I am so very, very sorry…” As she embraced me, the reality of the situation hit. Typically, in my experience, Mormons are condescending to those in other faiths, i.e. ‘those of other faiths don’t understand that this is happy because we have an eternal family…’ But I could not own that condescension because she told a truth– that death is hard, and lonely, and we sorrow. I am eternally grateful for her hug, for her tears and her honesty, because her example helped me to properly mourn. God bless the people who cry with us, and who help us to mourn. Thank you.

  4. Deborah says:

    Oh, this made me cry. I am so sorry for your losses. Something that surprised me upon losing a parent: doctrine — my strong faith in an afterlife — did not *pre-empt* grief. And part of me thought it would. It helps me find peace and perspective over the *long-term,* but the anguish of grief was proportional the the measure of love. My grief, I believe, honored the bonds we shared. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    • Bethany says:

      Yes! It was a huge shock that the gospel did not immediately take away all the pain and suffering. You grow up going to these funerals and seeing those before you acting seemingly fine. And hearing the testimonies in church of how its all okay. And whenever there is a tragedy on the news, and its an LDS family, they always say how the gospel is such a comfort, etc. You just expect that it will change the reality of the loss and make it seem okay to you. But it really, really doesnt. The pain is still there, and its crippling. At first we blamed ourselves, that we must not be doing enough to deserve that comfort, but eventually Ive realized there is no way around grief. Only through.

  5. April says:

    Bethany, this is so beautiful. Thank you for your courage. I can imagine that it would be hard to write about something so sad as the death of a child and I appreciate your willingness to share with us. I think many people will be helped by your words.

  6. amelia says:

    Thanks for saying this so beautifully, Bethany. I believe very strongly in the need to mourn our losses, rather than exclusively looking at the positives of our theology. There’s certainly a place for those positives in the grieving process, but they’re not the entirety of that process. There’s just as much need and place for sorrow and tears and loneliness.

    I think that part of the problem is that we’re not all that great at accepting the complexities of a duality like simultaneously believing that in the long run things will be good because of gospel doctrines and the sorrow of losing someone. The contemporary church does a good job of reducing the nuances and complexity of Christ’s gospel to blacks and whites that make it hard to deal with such dual experiences. Often the model it provides is one of choosing one option as right over the other wrong option. It’s usually a terrible model.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and making it so clear how important it is that we allow ourselves and others to grieve and that doing so doesn’t mean we somehow don’t have faith in the gospel.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Bethany, this is lovely and eloquently put…thank you for sharing your experience with such hard losses so close together.

    I’ve been interested in watching how different people grieve–with humor or sorrow, with anger or avoidance. I wanted to believe that there was a “right way,” but now, I think we all just try to do our best and who can judge what that looks like?

  8. kmillecam says:

    Bethany, this is such a beautiful and moving post. I firmly believe that people grieve in many different ways and that they are all “right”. Who am I to say that they are doing it wrong, or that they need to stop because it’s making me uncomfortable? Live and let live can go a long way when times get rough. I am so happy that you were able to grieve eventually in the way that you needed, and you didn’t deny that to yourself or your sweet little man. You are inspiring to me as you live your life honestly and openly 🙂

  9. Jessawhy says:

    Bethany,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry that you didn’t get to hold your baby one more time before they closed the casket. That is terrible.

    I really liked the comment about the depth of our grief being equal to the depth of our love for the person who died. That resonates with me.

    Also, I loved when you said that grieving is a fundamental part of humanity. It seems to take the blame off God’s shoulders. I would like to think that there’s a spiritual component to it as well. I know that the birth of my three children has been a very spiritual experience and Emily has told me that she’s felt that way as people have died. I wonder if that is true for others and if it helps people deal in a small way with their grief.

    • Bethany says:

      Grieving has definitely been a spiritual experience for me. I love the quote mentioned above, that the expression of the loss is comparable to how much we much we loved. In a way, expressing my grief is expressing my love for him. It hasnt felt negative to me, even though it has been the hardest thing I have ever experienced in my life. Some parts are scary and overwhelming, but underneath it all is love. The hardest part is not being able to express it genuinely, mainly because there arent many people who feel comfortable with it, and/or negatively judge.

      Thankfully, our families are extremely supportive of us, and we have some very dear friends who have stayed with us through it all. We have had a few negative reactions from some, but compared to my other friends who have also lost a child, we have a lot of love and support on our side.

      I dont want it to come across as if this is only an issue within the LDS church either. Modern society is also not well equipped to deal with grief. We just tend to use our religious beliefs to justify it.

  10. Rachel says:

    Thank you for writing this. It’s so…I don’t know the word…pure, clear, honest.

  11. Corktree says:

    Thank you for such a clear and simple look at the need for letting our grief show and not trying to hide it. At my great-grandmother’s funeral a few years ago, there was a moment when my mother, grandmother and I were all standing by the casket crying. It was a strange feeling, as she was old and it was her time to let go of suffering, but there was a sadness that still needed to be expressed for some reason, and it felt good to let it out when in the company of the other women of my matriarchal line that extended from her. I’m grateful that we didn’t feel prohibited at the time from expressing that grief, though it wasn’t a super typical Mormon funeral, so maybe that’s why.

  12. Glen Fullmer says:

    Bethany, although I agree with almost everything you say in your post, however, let me also present another point. Grieving is part of a healing process and in some cases it can be deep and severe. We have all gone through it at some level unless we haven’t had someone close to us die or suffered some other great loss, however, sometimes people grieve way too much. Would it be appropriate after Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave that those close to him continue to weep? Sometimes I have seen people grieve 5-30 years after having a love one pass.

    Case in point: my father died about 30 years ago, and about 10 years after that I was visiting my mom and noticed that in her closet there were a bunch of dad’s clothes. I thought that a bit strange and asked her why. She said she like the way they smelled. They were a reminder of dad. She finally got rid of them, but it took a long time. She never remarried, and I think my dad would have liked to see her remarried, and least not to hold on to his clothes for 15 years. You don’t have to believe in the afterlife or the resurrection to know that there is some type of grieving that can be detrimental to the survivor’s life. Worse than grieving and knowing that you are grieving inappropriately, is, and I think you identified it, not identifying one’s feelings of grief. Another case: I had, and the operative word is “had”, a friend that I liked and respected. She lost her husband more than 5 years ago. When his birthday came around she posted something that had a lot of feelings that I identified as grief. I mentioned that to her, and probably indicated, I realize inappropriately now, that there are scientific indications that personalities exist beyond the grave. Her husband died only a couple of months after finishing their “dream home” and I pointed out to her that she had kept her previous house for the last 5 years without selling it or renting it because of the memories that they shared there, and yet she denied that none of it had to to with grief, but as I told her, maybe my mom keeping my dad’s clothes wasn’t grieving and maybe her keeping their old home wasn’t a form of grief, but I had my doubts in both cases. At least my mom admitted that she kept my dad’s clothes because of her feelings of lost. I mentioned things things both to my mom and my former friend because if I were in their position, I would like someone to tell me to get over with it and get on with my life as I am sure my dad and my friend’s husband would have liked to expressed to them. Eventually to grieve without healing does the griever more harm than good. Sometimes I wonder if people are more comfortable with their pain than being healed.

    Anyway, my two cents, for what it is worth,
    Glen

    • Bethany says:

      It is a good point, that there are different levels of grief, and sometimes it can turn into “complicated grief” or “prolonged grief” as its more commonly referred to now. Those are both the psychiatric terms for grief that seems to get worse over time instead of gradually getting better. And by “over time” I mean YEARS.

      However, both examples you described would be considered normal grief in my opinion, and from the books I have read on the subject (which are many, but I’m not claiming to be an expert either). Hanging onto clothing is actually extremely common, and it usually does take years to get rid of them, if at all. And keeping things that still smell like the person- also very common. Just because one has a day to remember and feel that loss again, even years later, it does not mean that they are “lingering” in grief in unhealthy ways. Sometimes you just need to feel the loss, just for a day, to remember they lived and you loved them, and now they are gone and you miss them terribly. Those days will be fewer and farther between as the years go by, but they never stop altogether. (because you never stop loving them and missing them)

      I’m glad you posted this though, because it really underlines the main point of my post. Most times, grief becomes “complicated/prolonged” BECAUSE they person mourning has not been allowed to grieve authentically in the earlier stages. So instead of healing in a natural way, they repress their feelings and get stuck in certain stages instead of being able to move on. Ie, being angry or bitter (again, all NORMAL feelings and stages for certain amounts of time). But if those feelings are not allowed to be expressed, they fester.

      A trusted friend made a negative comment about my grief process and it set me back months in my healing. When others are critical of your expression of grief, it literally destroys you. It is very damaging to those who are already in such a fragile state of mind. This is why it is SO very important that we allow ourselves, and our loved ones, to grieve the way they need to and to not be critical of it. Especially since most people really don’t have any idea what a normal grieving process can look like, or how long it can take, anyway.

      We also need to remember that the factors surrounding the death can affect the length of time needed to grieve. Traumatic circumstances such as homicide or accidents, sudden and unexpected death, multiple losses, death at a young age, etc, all these things compound the grieving process.

      • Glen Fullmer says:

        I empathize with your loss and can’t imagine losing a child, and don’t know you well enough nor would it be appropriate to say anything about your grieving process.

        What you say about Mormon funerals is appreciated. Sometimes religion, belief and expectations get mixed up in the grieving process. However, there is something to be said about a celebration of a loved one’s life at a funeral. Mormons do it, but the Irish do it a wee bit better. Perhaps because sometimes there is alcohol involved! 😉 Some wakes are a party for the passed person and can last days. The body is displayed in the home, sometimes on the kitchen table and last respects are paid, but let’s say it usually is less than reverent in most cases! Some re-tell jokes the deceased would tell and then turn them around. This seemingly disrespect might be a statement about spiritual belief, but I have found it as an emotional release of people when they realize their mortality and temporary nature of ones own life. Funerals are more for the survivors and less about the deceased.

        My two examples might be labeled as “normal” grief, that is, common, but still unhealthy. In the case of my Mom, her excessive grieving was a detrimental to her life at some level. My Dad would have had a problem with its length. You and others are probably saying, “who are you to determine what is healthy and unhealthy when it comes to grief”? And that is a great question. My approach in my examples was less than helpful. In both cases, however, I didn’t know what to do differently. If I didn’t care, I would have said nothing. Like Dr. Phil asks, “how’s that working for you”? Perhaps next time, being more empathic, listening and trying to bring out the underlying grief would have worked. Without recognition of those feelings, there is no healing. Maybe it is the engineer within me, but I like to fix what’s broke.

        Jesus said, “Blessed are they that morn, for they shall be comforted”. Unless one allows one to feel grief then it will be hidden and probably come out later in some undesirable way.

        Eckhart Tolle, in the “Power of Now” talks about the same thing this way:

        “The first thing to remember is this: As long as you make an identity for yourself out of the pain, you cannot become free of it. As long as part of your sense of self is invested in your emotional pain, you will unconsciously resist or sabotage every attempt that you make to heal that pain. Why? Quite simply because you want to keep yourself intact, and the pain has become an essential part of you. This is an unconscious process, and the only way to overcome it is to make it conscious.”

        Grieving without healing is like a car without a motor – it gets stuck where it is and doesn’t go anywhere.

        Glen

    • Rachel says:

      “Getting over it” and terms like moving on are very difficult to hear. It’s like saying to the griever, “This person never existed”.
      The fear the griever has is that they will forget, and that is very scary.

      Yes, there is complicated grief. But there are also no cut and dried phases. Kubler-Ross’s stages, as written, were for the one who was doing the dying. And now, her stages are applied to everything, but the research doesn’t bear it out that is how it actually works for most folks.
      For some people 6 months is all they need; for others, they’re just getting started at the first year anniversary.

    • Kmillecam says:

      I have been dealing with a lot of people telling me to “get over” that fact that I have been abused. But I think that generally simply illustrates that that those people don’t really see what I really need. Not being allowed to grieve properly until a few years ago has been a huge force in my life. It’s not the same as mourning death, especially the death of a child, but it’s a similar process to mourn for abuse robbing you of a happy childhood.

      Sorry for the tangent, I’m just struck by how much I needed to hear Bethany’s words right now, that this is all normal and okay, and that a friend’s well-meaning but ultimately callous comment to “move on” or “get over it” really can set you back in a major way. I have experienced that. And it DOES feel like “this person never existed” except for me it’s like they are saying “the abuse never happened”. That simply doesn’t help.

      But back to grief regarding death: I think that we all fear death at some point in life. I believe that it is that fear that fuels our need to deal with death in an indirect way. It seems as though simply accepting death and feeling like you are free to deal with directly, such as grieving the way you need to without fear of how it will look to others, allows you to avoid some extra pain on top of everything else. The more that I see friends and family go through grief, the more I listen to Bethany and really see her experience as authentic, the more I learn to keep my own mouth shut and LISTEN, the more I hope to see that I don’t have this all figured out myself.

      When I look at WHY I would want to tell someone to “get over” something, if I am really honest with myself I can admit that that is about my own discomfort. It’s not about helping the person grieving to move on, not really. It’s really about my choice to put MY timetable onto their experience, which effectively says “you are not valid, but I am”. I’m not interested in doing that to people anymore, because I know that I don’t like being on the receiving end of that. It feels terrible.

      • Diane says:

        K

        It’s really not at all a tangent, I feel the same way, you do, precisely for the same reasons. People don’t understand the kind of grief you and I feel, the understand grief as it relates to the actual loss of a person, But, you and I have suffered a loss just as great as a physical one. One does not negate the other.

        My sister-in law told me to get over the fact of being in foster care. She has no concept how this has shaped me and how I view things, or my relationship with my siblings(such as it is) this is a person who has always known where her siblings have been, etc, it’s really quite rude when people say this.
        l

      • Bethany says:

        K, it does apply to ALL grief…not just from a physical loss/death, but all losses. And you are very right. We like to think our encouragement to move on is coming from a helpful place, but when we really examine the underlying reasons, its because we want them to be happy, so we dont have to feel bad for them anymore. Either because its too scary to face the fact that bad things happen to good people for no good reason at all, or we are tired of having to mourn with those who mourn and want our lives to go back to normal, etc. Both are understandable, but it doesnt change that its a selfish desire, and one that hurts the person who is already in so much pain. So if we really want to help our loved ones get through their grief process, we need to be loving and supportive, not judge, and not put a time line on it. Like you said, its different for everyone…some people dont keep clothing, some do. Some people need a ritual on their birthday and/or death day, and some dont. There is no right or wrong when it comes to grief.

  13. Janell says:

    I think this is such an important perspective to share. There really is something about grieving and allowing ourselves to feel those feelings … that makes us human. My heart aches and tears start flowing when I think of his funeral and those last moments you describe. I admire you so much for sharing your story. Beautifully written too as always.

  14. Beverly Wheeler says:

    I’ve been to a lot of LDS funerals through the years and although some have been more reserved and like you all have described here…most of them were like others in other faiths…with crying and sadness and a sense of loss…albeit for only a time…I have never lost a child and pray I never do but I absolutely KNOW that my grief would be real and probably uncontrolled for a time…and only AFTER that process could I find peace and solace in the knowledge of the hereafter…I believe it is a natural thing to mourn others….has there ever been a parent who has put their child on a plane for a mission who has not shed tears…although they KNEW they were doing a good thing and would be back in 2 years and that they’d even have some contact with them during that time…still…its sad when we are separated from someone we love…even for a while…thank you Bethany for this beautiful sharing and for the comments from all the rest…we are human…we suffer…we cry…we mourn…even though we have faith in the hereafter and reuniting with our loved ones….and yes…Christ was the example of that for us as well….

  15. Kimi says:

    I just want to say that I love you and I really appreciate all that you have taught me through this. You have been so open and honest about all that you are going through and have taught me how to truly mourn with those that mourn. This was beautifully written and I know that those who have not experienced loss as close and deep as you have appreciate an inside look to help us better understand. We have not forgotten your sweet little man and have grown to love him more from going through this with you.

  16. Tiffany W. says:

    I actually hate LDS funerals for the very reasons you described–that and the fact that so often the service tends to be a sermon about Jesus Christ instead of talking about and remembering the person who has died. And the message always seems to be “don’t be sad. You’ll see them again” almost chastising you for feeling grief at death and separation. I’ve been to other funerals held by other faiths and felt far more comforted and being given permission to grieve properly.

  17. Kayla says:

    This made me cry all over again. I felt sick for you for months (still do sometimes), even though I “know you will see him again.” The gospel does bring peace but yeah. Sometimes you just have to grieve and be angry and upset and that’s ok.

  18. Ana says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I think we cry at Mormon funerals not because we don’t have hope that we will see them again but because we will miss them until we do. I cry when my children or husband leave for a week of summer camp. I can’t imagine drawing that out, not knowing when the reunion will be, the emptiness and loneliness in the ensuing space. In my selfishness I sincerely hope never to go through that kind of loss but if I do I will remember what you said about the grieving feelings as being pure and sacred. Thank you.

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