Relief Society Lesson 14: Words of Hope and Consolation at the Time of Death


Death of the Virgin
by Fra Angelico, 1433-34

This lesson kind of bugs me. Ok, it bugs the crap out of me; there’s not a lot of practical advice on how to be helpful or speak to someone who is grieving. Are we really going to spout Joseph Smith’s advice to not mourn when our friend looses a baby, a spouse, a parent?

Still, I think this is a great opportunity to talk about some subjects we Westerners are often uncomfortable with: death and mourning.

First, the lesson manual goes into detail about all the death that Joseph had to face in his life. He’s had a lot of experience in this area. I would present his experiences as a launching pad for the following questions.

Is it necessary to have experience with death to know what to say to someone?
How do you react to someone who has had a loved one die?
Is it difficult to know what to say?

Teachings of Joseph Smith
When beloved family members or friends die, we have great comfort in knowing we will meet them again in the world to come.

“I am authorized to say, by the authority of the Holy Ghost, that you have no occasion to fear; for he is gone to the home of the just. Don’t mourn, don’t weep. I know it by the testimony of the Holy Ghost that is within me; and you may wait for your friends to come forth to meet you in the morn of the celestial world. …

How is this quote helpful for LDS (and non-LDS, perhaps)?
I worked as a hospital chaplain for several years, and I have found the idea of being with family members in the afterlife can be quite comforting. As hospital chaplains, we are not supposed to proselytize, but during the quiet long nights when I would sit with a family member as we did a “death watch,” sometimes, I found it helpful to talk about the Church’s doctrine surrounding what happens to us after we die.

“More painful to me are the thoughts of annihilation than death. If I have no expectation of seeing my father, mother, brothers, sisters and friends again, my heart would burst in a moment, and I should go down to my grave. The expectation of seeing my friends in the morning of the resurrection cheers my soul and makes me bear up against the evils of life. It is like their taking a long journey, and on their return we meet them with increased joy. …

With that in mind, though, how could these statements/teachings be unhelpful?

I think this is a big reason why I believe in God and eternal progression. The idea that we cease to exist when we die is horrific for me. The idea that we sit around on white fluffy clouds for eternity is also an idea I’m not crazy about.

Are thoughts about the afterlife helpful for those who mourn? Why or why not?

Parents who lose children in death will receive them in the resurrection just as they laid them down.

This is a section that I would find hard to teach. Go ahead and list the comfort the prophet(s) offer, but I would be mindful of those who have lost children (at any age). Such comfort can feel trite.

While we mourn when loved ones die, we can trust that “the God of all the earth will do right.”

So, I might ask again…Are such teachings helpful? Why or why not?
What would you find helpful if you were going through this situation?

If we don’t trust, are we bad?
How can we trust?

I would keep the above part of the lesson pretty short, and then, use the rest of the time as an open discussion about how1) we as mourners and the grieving deal with death and find ways to move on and 2) we as friends (visiting teachers, neighbors, etc) help those who are grieving.

Invite the class to share their experiences of what people have done that is helpful and what people have done that isn’t helpful. People usually jump at this chance to share stories.

And, FWIW, here are some things I try to remember when working with patients and their families:
1) Grief is similar to depression. The fatigue, the dark feelings, the inability to function and think clearly are shared by those who grieve.
2) Grief knows no time. Of course, everyone grieves differently for different lengths of time, but also as a function of the feelings of depression/grief, the griever is often slower—slower to respond to my inquiries, slower to knowing their emotions or being able to read mine. When I see someone grieving (or depressed), I have to take a deep breath and try to slow myself down.
3) The ministry of presence is a powerful tool; we can help people by simply being willing to be with them.
a. Being with them can mean remembering to check in on them with a phone call, email, visit throughout the day/month/year.
b. Or, being with them can happen during those visits. Being truly present and focused on the person and their suffering. So often, I want to fill the quiet space with empty chatter. A grieving person often is content to sit in silence (remember, time often doesn’t mean as much to them). Having a companion in their grief can be comforting; having someone feel those emotions, cry with them can make their journey feel less lonely.
4) Talk about the person who has died. Encourage the grieving to talk about him/her, too. It’ll be clear very quickly if talking about the deceased is too difficult. I respect that and move onto a “safer” topic.

Here are some books I love on this subject:
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (of course)
The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Aries—this book chronicles the changes in how we, as a Western society, have changed our mourning practices. Fascinating!
Help Me Say Goodbye by Janis Silverman—practical activities for the grieving child to do
Talking to God by Naomi Levy—while this book is not explicitly about death, it’s full of stories, prayers, poetry compiled by one of the first female Conservative Jewish rabbis in the US. One of my favorites.

What are your experiences with death and mourning?  What resources have you found helpful?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. FoxyJ says:

    I definitely like the fact that the lesson puts things into historical context–life 200 years ago was very precarious, especially for the young. Death was a much more everyday occurance. But, I also don’t like the idea in the lesson, and sometimes in church culture, that we shouldn’t mourn. Even if we’re going to see someone in eternity, it’s a long way away. During the last six years I have had two uncles, an aunt, my grandmother, two friends, and a brother-in-law pass away. Some of those deaths were after long illnesses and long lives, others were sudden and unexpected. About six years ago my brother-in-law died in an accident. My husband and I got to my sister-in-law’s house right about the time the highway patrol did. It was awful (they were married for 4 years and had a 1 year old)–she actually threw up and became physically ill from shock. It would have been highly inappropriate to tell her at that time that she shouldn’t mourn. Some people tried to tell her stuff like that and she was insulted. Knowing that you’ll be together eternally isn’t a big comfort when you’re only 30. Anyways, I think a lot of the advice given here is good. At the time of death, it’s often better to just listen and be there. As time goes by, don’t forget the person who died; remember them and their loved ones. Grieving is something very personal and it takes a long time. It’s also something we don’t have a lot of answers for, especially with the death of children or miscarriages. That’s why I would be extra careful with that section of the lesson, because I think answers to some of the bigger questions about death and the afterlife are only found through personal prayer and revelation.

  2. ZD Eve says:

    Emily, thanks for your practical suggestions about allowing people to grieve. I agree that we sometimes don’t do very well with mourning.

    Personally, I find the idea of death terrifying. Not so much my own (well, OK, easy to say–if I knew I were facing my own death soon, that would be the test, wouldn’t it? 🙂 ) but enduring the deaths of those I love. The pain of intimate loss really scares me. The story FoxyJ tells of her brother-in-law’s sudden death and her sister-in-law’s grief makes a lot of sense to me. I think if my husband suddenly died I’d be very likely to react like that.

    For all my doubts and rebellions, I’m a strong believer in the reality of the resurrection and the afterlife and the immortality of the soul, and I find those doctrines immensely comforting. But at the same time, I’ve often seen them used in church not to comfort those who are mourning, but to prevent them from mourning. Cheer up! Smile! You’ll see her in the resurrection! That really chills me.

    I wonder how we can use those doctrines to comfort one another’s grief rather than silencing one another so that we don’t have to hear one another’s pain.

    (Maybe that’s what I’ll raise my hand and ask in my ward on Sunday.)

  3. Jan Chilson says:

    Good points. I am teaching this lesson and I was concerned about “how”. I have different feelings about mourning than the average LDS person. Several years ago, in a 2 month period, I lost first my Mom, then two uncles, then my Dad and then a beloved great aunt, and then one year later, my father-in-law. I had previously lost my younger brother. All that were left in my immediate family were my sister and two aunts – and 9 cousins. My best friend determined to tell me that “grieving was selfish and only for my own comfort”. Her mother died and she didn’t even cry because she was happy she would see her again in the future. Well, we no longer talked about death or anything that went with it!! My husband was pretty much the same. About 6 months after my parent’s death, something hit me and I was crying and his comment was “aren’t you over that yet”? Very insensitive and it closed up any opportunity we could have had to add another deminsion of love and support to our relationship.

    Anyway, some good ideas to get me started on the lesson. It will be difficult, but the sisters in our little ward are so willing to discuss the lessons, I am looking forward to it.

    Thanks for this site. It is very helpful in preparing for teaching.

  4. gladtobeamom says:

    After watching my friend after the loss of her daughter. None of these kind of things helped her. It is easy to think that you know how to feel until it actually happens to you.

    What helped her is people not telling her how to feel and just being their for her. Everyone allowed her to mourn in her own way. There were tears some days and smiles some days.

    It didn’t help her because to not have her daughter now to hold etc was extremely painful. She did like the thought she would have her some day but that doesnt take away the pain we experience now. She has learned alot through all of this.

    It is a mistake to think we cant mourn or that we wont. It is part of the human experience. If I had to teach this lesson I would focus on the right things to say etc. At the same time helping others to understand that you don’t understand unless you have been there and should just love and support and let the person mourn in there own way.

  5. Andi says:

    I’m teaching this lesson on Sunday as well, and I’ve been worried about how to approach it. You bring up some very valid points about our tendency to sweep pain and sorrow under the rug when others are mourning. I found an entry about death in True to the Faith that I just loved:

    “You have probably experienced the pain that comes at the death of a family member or friend. It is natural to feel sorrow at such times. In fact, mourning is one of the deepest expressions of love. The Lord said, “Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (D&C 42:45). The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life.”

  6. Jim Donaldson says:

    I think it is good that we mourn and grieve. In some ways, it is not that we have that much of a choice–it is for some almost involuntary. For some, it is involuntary. Cry, you can’t help it.

    In fact, if you believe the scriptures, we are blessed for it.

    Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
    Matthew 5:4

    And those of us still around are to do the same.

    Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
    Romans 12:15

    I think Joseph Smith’s point is that grief and mourning are one thing, but don’t let it become despair. There is no need to despair. With mourning there is hope. There is always hope. Our grief, however long it must be, will end, because in the end, however hard it is, we know that it will all turn out just fine and we can see those whom we love again.

    I’d emphasize that in the lesson.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    FoxyJ, really good point about the children and miscarriage part. While people would probably know about lost children, who knows who’s dealing with a miscarriage.

    Eve, I think your question at the end is SO important to discuss. I catch myself getting ready to do it quite often. I want to cut myself off from someone’s pain, so I’ll say something to assuage my sad feelings–doesn’t do a thing, IMHO, for their’s.

    Jan, whoa!, I’d like to think no one would have to deal with that much death in 2 months! It sounds like you’ll be an excellent resource for your class.

    gladtobeamom, thanks for sharing your friend’s experience. I think a discussion on the “right” things to say is smart way to go (of course, prefacing that what’s right for some, may not work for all)–still, what a good idea to give people ideas of what to say when they don’t have much experience with death.

    Andi, perfect quote! I realized after I posted this I had zero lds.org references 🙂

    Jim, well said about Joseph. That’s an important distinction I hadn’t thought about. Thank you also for the scripture references–very handy!

  8. BobbyB says:

    I sincerely hope that during the lesson on Sunday in the church that no one uses the words “crap”, “spout Joseph Smith’s advice”, “trite” or “unhelpful” in reference to the Prophet’s teachings. Our goal is not to teach the best lesson we can on death and mourning, but to prayerfully present the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I often have to remind myself to re-read the Introduction of the manual, page viii, which says: “Your assignment is to help others understand the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings and the scriptures. Do not set this book aside or prepare lessons from other materials.” The lesson suggestioned here has good ideas that could be used as an Enrichment lesson for sisters interested in counselling or consoling those who are in mourning.

    Most people somewhat understand the steps in grieving include denial, anger, depression, withdrawal and time. When Joseph Smith said “Don’t mourn. Don’t weep.” it was in reference to people anguishing (despairing) over their own loss without understanding the true condition of the deceased love one. By reading more of the story from History of the Church or other sources listed in the Notes, you can find story details to add interesting bits of background to the quotes in every lesson.

    Besides the questions in the manual which directs the comments back to the teachings, try asking if anyone knows a convert who first became interested in the church after attending a LDS funeral where the plan of salvation was taught. I know one personally, my sister-in-law, after my 28 year-old brother died also leaving a 15 month-old son.

    Jan’s experience sounded strangely similar to mine. Within an 18 month period, I lost a son-in-law, mother, aunt, father, then father-in-law after losing two younger brothers years previously. A couple years passed, I was still waiting for the next blow to hit, when my husband asked when I was going to quit being angry at God. After a gut reaction, I realized he was right, that I had harboured resentment since the night I had watched from an airplane in the sky as a thunderstorm over the airport prevented my landing to be with my mother in her last hours. Act of God? Test of faith? Nine years later, I can talk about it.

    About six or seven weeks ago, a couple sisters asked me if I knew where to find the statement made by Joseph Smith concerning the resurrection of children. The index led me to this lesson. I will approach this section by asking someone to read a portion then ask for comments; I am sure it will take care of itself. After the raw pain of loss starts to subsides, we can take comfort in knowing these truths taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
    I really appreciate the insights brought out in this forum.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    BobbiB, the beginning of this post wasn’t part of the lesson (I agree with you, I wouldn’t blast my opinions of the lesson–as the teacher, that’s not my job). However, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to let the class discuss how these teachings could be used in less-than-helpful ways.

    You wrote, “Our goal is not to teach the best lesson we can on death and mourning, but to prayerfully present the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” I believe our responsibility is to do both of those things.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with death; I find your story of the airplane particularly poignant. I’m glad you chimed in with your perspective (even if we don’t agree on some points of how to present the lesson 🙂 ).

    And, as a side note, I’ve continued to think about this lesson since posting. I realize now that the parts of the lesson I found trite and unhelpful was due to the fact that I was coming from the friend’s perspective. If I come at it from the griever’s perspective, I can see how such teachings would be deeply comforting as I do my own personal study (I just don’t know that I’d want to hear them from my friend who doesn’t have a clue and says them to make herself feel more comfortable).

  10. Ana says:

    Any plans on posting lesson 15?

  11. Ana says:

    Just kidding–found it!

  12. Lisa Spice says:

    Even Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and He knew he would resurrect him in minutes. So, we should mourn with those who mourn.

  13. motherof3 says:

    My mother-in-law just passed away from brain cancer. One of the things we had to think about is what to say to her as she was dying. The hospice nurse told us that the fact that a loved one is dying often becomes like a big elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Consequently, the person suffering or dying often deals with his/her pain and emotional anguish as it relates to dying alone. She advised us to talk with her about dying and how we felt about him/her dying. It’s o.k. to let the person know that you are sad he/she is dying but that you will be o.k. too. Those who die worry about the ones who will be left behind and how they will cope.

    One thing that may not be appropriate: when my mother-in-law was dying, several people who had had loved ones pass away came to her with letters they wanted her to read so that when she went to the other side and saw the person in their family who had died she could share what was written in the letter to them. This was a bit awkward for my mother-in-law and seemed inappropriate to me. Any thoughts on that one?
    Of course, anyone who loses a loved one would want to say one last thing to them if they could! A reminder to us all to live this life to its fullest and as if it were the last!

    I had a really hard time with my mother-in-law passing away b/c I knew it would be hard not to have her around and to converse with. She was a dear friend to me and I loved her very much. What helped me to cope was the joy that I felt knowing that she was being reunited with her son who had passed away several years prior to her own death as well as with her own mother. I was so excited for this reuinion and have often reflected on what it must have been like! This thought brings a smile to my face. I now try to focus on what a blessing and priviledge it was to know this amazing woman. Since she influenced my life in so many ways, I also strive to honor her by living my life in such a way she would be proud.

    Another thought: My husband told me that when his brother died his whole family needed some time just to themselves as a family to grieve. He advises that unless it is a family member or someone equally as close, think twice before visiting them prior to the funeral. Cards are probably the best way to let them know you are thinking of them. Contact the R.S. president or compassionate service leader to know when you can take a meal in if they are accepting meals but realize that they may not be ready to talk with you about the death of their loved one. Prayers for them at this time are so important!

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