Mormons & Death: The After-Life (In This Life)

Posted by on July 13, 2011 in death, Family, fatherhood, grief, hope, suffering | 28 comments

I started writing my grandfather letters the year after he died.  I was nine.  Soon these yearly letters, composed in our expansive garden that he had so lovingly and obsessively cultivated, migrated from paper to prayer.  I was, and remain, achingly convinced that he could hear me.  No sudden rainbows, as appeared at the end of Tim Russert’s funeral, no parting of the veil (whatever substance that veil may be).  But I felt a closeness, like the tether between soul and substance was not entirely broken.

The night they disconnected my father from life support, I finally fell into a fitful sleep 2000 miles from his hospital room. The strength of my sobs that evening surprised the sliver of reason that remained objective, observing in awe as primal grief overcame body and soul.  Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, understood: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her [family] refused to be comforted . . . because they were not.”

In those few hours of slumber, I had a dream. I went to the hospital to see my dad; he was awake and his entire face lit up when he saw me — a look of absolute delight and love.  He couldn’t talk but he smiled as I talked to him. I had brought him ice cream.  For my dad, sweets were a language of love.

The next morning, as I awaited word of his final passage, I went to the mailbox and found an unexpected package – a Mary pendant, taken from a painting my father loved. Something I had ordered on a whim from Etsy weeks and weeks before, just as my interest in Mary was kindling.

That was three summers ago.  I still talk to my dad a lot, particularly in these weeks as I celebrate my birthday, father’s day, and his birthday — and prepare for the arrival of his grandchild. I talk to my soon-to-be-born daughter, as well, and the connection feels similar – as if there is a spirit, an energy, that hovers between planes, tied to me by a mystery I can’t fully understand.

Occasionally I ask my dad to help me with small things, things he’s good at.  Like getting the wireless signal to interact with the TV after hours of frustration.  Like helping me find a safe and friendly place to get a gallon of gas for my dead car. I have felt him in moments of practical need. Nothing the world would record as miracles, but I feel an energy that is distinctly “dad,” and I can recall with a little more clarity his voice saying, “I love you, kiddo.”  And I often start to cry, as I am as I type this, because the very cells of my body remember him and miss him.

I believe in the life-after because our souls are too impossibly beautiful to simply disappear.  Despite the authoritative way we sometimes speak in church, we know very little about the shape and substance of the next life (sadly, folk doctrine can take on a disturbing life of its own.) But most of our basic doctrine on the subject is remarkably egalitarian and universalist – eternal progression, second chances, sociality of spirits, no real hell, multiple planes of happiness, unbreakable attachment to those we love best. Eternal growth; what more could I want for a father with an insatiable thirst for knowing?

I find myself a bit bewildered when people talk in worried tones about “making it” to the Celestial Kingdom or “losing” loved ones. It just doesn’t compute with this expansive vision — nor with a Savior who says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions . . . none of them which the father hath given me shall be lost.” Life, death, grief, reunion are themes we see throughout Jesus’ ministry. If any power can bind us through the valley of the shadow of death, it is the power of love.  He claimed to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven and then proceeded to reach out to those on the margin, to view others radically differently than society judged (as my favorite nuns call it, “radical love”), to provide chances for healing, growth, and renewal at every turn. I like that lived vision of heaven.  A place to grow, to rest, to feel love, to share love, to heal, to be healed. Home. It shapes my view of the after-life, where fathers, Father, mothers, Mother await.  And it comforts me. (But I still miss my dad.)

What is your vision of the after-life? How has this vision evolved? How has your perspective (or the perspective of others) given you comfort – or not – in times of trial?

 

 

 

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28 Comments

  1. Wow. This is very close to what I find myself believing. When people speak as if the covenants themselves will keep us together, I doubt that’s the case. Not to downplay their importance, but I see them as symbols of our devotion, not really having any effect in and of themselves. I often feel like I’m a minority here. I believe that loved-ones can be kept together after death. Not just MormonsSealedInTheTemple, but all good people who have loved. And maybe all people must actually do a sealing covenant, but maybe not. Any other way would be too cruel.

    • I often think that the reason we are exhorted to focus on our *own* family/geneology for temple work is because there is power in connected, in remembering, in sending out a cosmic message to g-g-g-grandparents that they are not forgotten . . . We are naming our baby after her paternal great-grandmothers on either side for a similar reason.

    • Heavens I hope so. I love far too many people who aren’t LDS or who are and aren’t sealed in the temple (and I haven’t made the decision to go to the temple myself). Perhaps I’m selfish and just want everything, but it’s my deepest hope.

  2. I know this sounds really weird, but there is a certain smell that I can’t describe that tells me my mother is near. And only I can smell this ordor, my sibling can’t. She passed away several years ago of cancer and a few days after her passing I could “smell” her, and knew that she was close by. Two weeks before she died I asked her if she were able to, could she somehow tell me that one, there is life after death and two, that she’s happy and doing well. A month after she died, I was standing in my kitchen, by myself, and I could “smell” my mother again, and this rush of air hit me in the face, then a minute later another rush of air, so much so that I had to back away the force of air was so strong. All windows and doors were closed, and I knew it had to be her – giving me my answers. Back in March when I was making flight bookings for me and my 90 year old father, I could “smell” her again, and I became very agitated and tearful as the time for our trips came closer and even the day of the flight I was extremely upset and wondering what was going to happen. My worst fear the my father was going to die on me while on these trips -these 2 trips lasting a total of 2 months. But once into the journey I started to relax as I got this overwhelming sense of “all will be well”, and the journeys were a success. My father was in the temple one day about a month after my mom died, and as he sat, the only one in the Celestial Room praying that mother is alright and that she was happy, all of a sudden his sash fluttered as if in a breeze, indicating to him that all was well. I truly believe that our loved ones from time to time watch over us, and that gives me a great deal of comfort. From time to time I talk with her – very comforting indeed.

    • Not weird — beautiful. Thank you. I love that your connection is so sensory. There’s so much we don’t understand about how this all works, but I do believe interaction continues in this sphere, at least occasionally, somehow.

  3. Wow. I don’t really have anything great to add to this, except to say thank you.

    I believe in this too. Several months ago I lost a close life-long friend. I was recently travelling for business, alone and missing my husband and son, especially since my son with special needs always seems to get sick when I’m on a business trip and I’m least available to help him. At night I was awake thinking about my son, when I felt my good friend’s presence there, sheltering me, giving me a warm, loving arm on my shoulder, telling me that it was going to be all right. It was a really important experience for me.

    • Thank you, Alisa. By blood or bond, sisters are sisters.

  4. I don’t know how all this works either, but I was about 13 or 14 when my grandmother died. As for most teenagers, it was a difficult time of life for me, and I often felt that my grandmother was watching out for and comforting me. A bit like my own guardian angel. It has been many, many years since then, and I don’t feel her much anymore, but it is still comforting for me to think of those times and to look forward to seeing her again.
    I do believe in the sealing ordinances of the temple, but I believe that since we will all have a chance to either do them for ourselves or have someone do them for us, we will all have the chance to be sealed to family members. And I don’t know how that works with friends either, but I certainly believe that a loving Heavenly Father will allow us to be with our treasured friends as well. I know my Father in Heaven as a loving father and do have faith that He is all-knowing and will help me to be happy as I do my best to hear what he would have me do with my life.

    • I like to think departed loved ones can serve as guardian angels. I have never sensed my maternal grandmother, but my sister has, many times. Conversely, I have felt a life-long pull toward a paternal great-grandmother who died in 1919, whose picture I stumbled across as a nine-year-old. I keep her picture in my house — we have the same eyes.

  5. This was so incredibly beautiful. I’m doubtful of an afterlife right now, but this post makes me want to say, “help thou my unbelief.”

  6. I agree, Stella. Beautiful post, Deborah!

  7. Your post and all of these comments have been so moving to me today. Thank you, as always, Deborah, for making beauty out of ashes.

    The concept of life-after-death has been a bewildering, life-long question for me. When I was about six years old, I had my first (and one of my most profound) spiritual experiences when I was filled head-to-toe with an overwhelming sense that I was very, very old–that I had always been around in some way. That experience makes it hard for me to discount the idea of life-after-death.

    Still, I have no conception of what the life after this may really be like. I have promised myself, and those closest to me, that if our consciousness is still organized enough to find each other, I will find them. We will be together. I believe in the power of those bonds as much as I believe in anything. And I believe this as much about the people I have been temple sealed to as those other dear friends and family to whom I am not sealed. The stories of how those who have left this world continue to bless and participate in your lives gives me hope that such love is indeed binding us all together on either side of the veil already.

    Thank you all again for sharing such tender moments here. I feel blessed and enriched because of it.

    • You are an old soul, Aimee. I love you for that :)

  8. I really don’t know what to think about this topic. Do, I believe in this doctrine, I’m not sure. I know that given what has happened to me on earth with my family I really don’t want to be tied to them in heaven. I don’t really think things there will be any different

    • I’m so sorry your family has been hurtful (have you seen today’s post by Reese at FMH?). I can’t imagine that anyone will be forced to remain tethered to those who cause them pain . . . Jesus primary role was that of a healer, physically and spiritually.

  9. This was so beautiful to read Deborah. And very close to how I feel. I don’t think the afterlife is at all what we imagine it to be in LDS folklore, and I even question some of the perpetuated ideas that are closer to doctrine, but I DO believe that I will continue on and that I will be with those who want to be with me as much as I want to be with them, regardless of the conditions we seem to want to attach to such a natural extension of existence. Eternal progression has always seemed like such a beautiful concept, but my interpretation is much broader than others I’ve talked to about it.

    And I’ve had otherworldly experiences, but none with specific family members other than, oddly, just feeling a connection to one of my great grandmothers when I wear a certain necklace (which, coincidentally, I just found in a box after not being able to find it for a while and am currently wearing :) )

    Thank you for such a lovely post. Sharing inclusive belief always gives me hope that we can accept others more broadly and progress to higher realms together in this life as well as the next.

  10. Gorgeous. My grandfather passed away four days ago. I needed to read your hopeful message. Thank you.

    • I’m sorry for your loss, Liz.

  11. Thank you so much, Deborah. What a gorgeous post.

  12. Deborah, thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about your dad. My dad recently passed away – this past July 3 – and I know I’m going to be talking to him and visualizing him as I going about my life. It’s amazing how connected I feel to him as situations arise. I know those feelings will continue to grow. It’s amazing how key people in our lives help us go deep and help us stay connected to them after their gone and also connect to new people in our lives.

    Thank you and best wishes with your baby girl.
    Gayle

  13. I’m so sorry to hear about your dad, Gayle. Our mutual friend Julie gave me Joan Didion’s book (“Year of Magical Thinking”) when my dad died, and in it Didion quotes a priest as saying this about the loss of a parent, “Despite our preparation, indeed despite our age, [it] dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and may cut free memories and feelings that we thought had gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth changes, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.”

    • Love this quote and love this book! Thanks for sharing. I remember reading this book and finding it to be so powerful and then I had the chance to see the play. I plan to re-read. Thanks again!

  14. Your words just melt off the page — such wisdom and beauty. I don’t know much, but I do know that my connection with my father is a deeply spiritual one for me, too. I feel so fortunate that my Dad is still living and that I can still ring him up and tap into that “unending” source of guidance, inspiration, compassion, and gentleness — but I also marvel at the connection we have that often transcends words and conversations. Just sitting here now and writing to you, I feel a connection to him. At some moment this morning as I read your piece for the umpteenth time, I was reminded of one of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, and his short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Your tone reminds me so much of Baldwin’s — magnificently provocative and comforting and contemplative. So I went back and read some of the passages that take place toward the end of that story where the teacher-narrator finally experiences a spiritual connection with his brother — discovering, understanding and finally acknowledging him as a person for the first time. And it is in this moment within these observations that the pronoun, “I” subtly changes to “we.” It is one thing to realize that a person can find pride and joy in another — but it is an altogether different kind of connection when we can join together in our words, thoughts and love. I experience this on a daily basis with my Dad and am comforted that when he is no longer of this earth that he and I will still be connected. If this is the afterlife, I am all for it! But as I look to the second half of my life as a husband and a father, I am thrilled and exhilarated by the prospect of building a special place with my wife and daughter to be — what you so eloquently describe as, “a place to grow, to rest, to feel love, to share love, to heal, to be healed. Home.” So as I read and continue to reflect on your words above, I feel deeply connected and indebted to you and profoundly glad that we are on this journey together.

  15. This is incredible! Thank you for your sweet words and beautiful descriptions, Deborah. Simply perfect.

  16. Deborah, I was startled when I saw the picture of your dad because I recognized him! He taught me genetics when I was in college, and I remember him being a very nice man. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I found out last night that my grandmother is stopping cancer treatment and will probably die within the month. I am not sealed to her or, in fact, any of my grandparents. But I believe I will associate her in the next life.

    In my son’s primary lesson last week they put jelly beans in a ziplock bag and said when the bag is “sealed” the jelly beans stay together but when it’s unsealed they fall out. On the way home he asked if our family will ever fall apart and it made me sad. The object lesson was cute, but something about it really bothered me, I think because we know so little about what the next life is really like, and I believe it will be much more inclusive than is sometimes assumed.

  17. Ah, Emily–the gaps in the usefulness of visual aids! Shades of the old squeezing the banana then passing it around in MIA, or the warning about the impossibility of removing the nailholes from a board, even when the nails are removed. Sealed jelly-beans. Sigh.

    We simply lack the language to THINK about what may happen to the soul beyond death, let alone any language to express the possibilities. Every single explanation ever attempted is still about as metaphoric (and simplistic) as the jelly-beans-in-a-bag visualization. And yet. . . our spirits experience marvelous hints. My father, a lifelong skeptic, cynic, and agnostic, asked me a few days after Mother died what Mormons believe happens after death–right after death. I said that some Mormons had experienced the presence of the departed in inexplicable ways and believed the person’s spirit stayed around for a while. He shook his head in bewilderment. “Believe, H—! I KNOW your mother hung around here for three days!” He couldn’t understand it, and finally he couldn’t deny it.

    A dear friend, Jewish, atheist, skeptic, with “more [university] degrees than a thermometer” as she herself always said, asked me the same question some time after her mother had died. I offered the same response, about the departed lingering for a while. She gave a self-mocking smile, shook her head, and said, “Well, my mother was here for most of a week. I have a feeling she was as surprised as I was.”

    Lovely post, Deborah. And like Emily, I recognized your father. I knew your mother better, but admired them both very much. Champion teachers.

  18. Deborah, I stumbled across this while lost in memories of people, you among them, and your words above are just as poignant now as the simple ones that I received long ago. Simple belief of anything is a struggle for me, as the experiences of life, especially as of late, have only worked to strengthen disbelief. Yet, I will hold on to a belief of something beyond, where others are watching the rest of us ‘down here’ and waiting for what may come because it helps to keep their memories alive for me. My mind often wanders back to a quote I was once given: Death? Why this fuss about death. Use your imagination, try to visualize a world without death! … Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil. – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your words.

  19. Thanks, Emily, Belle, and Kari for taking the time to respond — it was healing to write this piece and I’m glad it resonated.

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