Helping My Sister Find Faith

My younger sister, Pelly, has terminal cancer. She lost her faith in Mormonism following a mission where she heard several contacts relate their search for God. These good people had investigated many churches, prayed, and were miraculously guided to the right church. The problem for Pelly was—the church to which these sincere people were led and which gave them peace wasn’t the one she represented. A bad marriage finished her faith in our family religion.

Now that she is facing death, Pelly seeks belief in some kind of afterlife. She has sought solace with Catholic nuns, from Tibetan chants, and through Zen meditation. Pelly calls to discuss religious philosophy. She trusts me not to try to talk her into our childhood faith. I have no answers, but I’m open to any theory that provides comfort.

Because she’s interested in the possibility of reincarnation, I sent Pelly a copy of a book I’d just started reading, The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. She called a few days after receiving her book. She’d read the entire 400 pages. I agreed with my sister that reincarnation sounds more fair than Mormonism— having multiple lifetimes in which to work out our salvation rather than one strike, you’re out for the rest of eternity.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t have kept reading the book if my sister hadn’t wanted to discuss it with me. Yogananda strikes me as a bit self-absorbed—a characteristic I find in the writings of most charismatic religious leaders, including Joseph Smith. Since I’m turned off by Fast & Testimony meeting accounts of miraculous finding of car keys following prayer, I was not enthralled with Yogananda’s accounts of Hindu gurus who materialize and disappear at will—or predict future events with 100% accuracy.

As I read, I found several Hindu beliefs similar to the teachings of Joseph Smith: the Divine Mother, an ancient pure language, and avatars who transcend death and remain on earth to bring about eternal purposes. The subordination of wives to husbands is an off-putting similarity.

I’m sure the meditation and slow breathing techniques taught in this book will help Pelly feet better, but they will likely not cure her disease—just as Mormon priesthood blessings do not always cure disease and save lives. I don’t know how far Pelly will go into Hinduism, but the idea of being reborn after this life gives her peace. Since she can’t believe in a heaven where she will keep her own identity, the idea of at least keeping karma, the effects of the good she has accomplished in this life, helps her accept its near end.

Course Correction

Course Correction is a retired English teacher who reads, writes, and helps immigrant women learn English. Her favorite lost cause is fighting for clean air along the Wasatch Front in Utah. She blogs at

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15 Responses

  1. I’m sorry about your younger sister.

    I was surprised that both of you consider Mormonism’s views as one-strike-you’re-out-ish. That part of Mormonism I have no problem with–and that is that we do our best and then Christ takes over the rest with His mercy. We’re not just trying really hard to fit perfection into one lifetime, because that’s never really going to happen anyway. Plus, with the way I view life lately, multiple lives sounds like a never-ending hell. Hallelujah for us.

    Anyway, I hope your sister can find some kind of peace for herself.

    • Michelle,
      I agree that multiple lives could be a never-ending hell. I think the hope is that if you live right, your good karma eventually puts you in favorable circumstances–with the skills to deal with problems.

  2. Megan says:

    My grandmother was born a Mormon but was a practicing Quaker when she was diagnosed with cancer (a fact my mother often chooses to happily ignore, choosing instead to focus on the family heritage as though that were all that mattered). She was open to help and input from any number of sects, including keeping on her desk a small laminated icon sent her by the local Catholic nuns who were trying to get their beloved sister accepted as a saint by carefully collecting documented miracles (the nuns were very sweet and sent a charming letter of condolence and love and asking for their little icon back so they could try again with someone else). She meditated and she sought blessings from the priesthood and she thoroughly investigated her own mortality and what on earth that meant.

    Her journal and the few tapes I have of her scolding her cancer and telling it just where the hell it can go (my grandmother wasn’t a shy, retiring woman; she was fantastic) are wonderful to me and are a record of our great gift and great burden as humans: we know we will die.

    She did come to a place of peace. For her that peace eventually had to include that, however inspiring she found various theories of the afterlife or the lack thereof, no one actually knows what happens. She enjoyed choosing what version of eternity seemed the most enticing, but she was always aware that it was a choice and that, ultimately, the right choice is the one that gives us the greatest ease.

    I’m an atheist and a few months ago I shocked my poor mum by having to confirm that yes, indeed, I don’t think there IS an afterlife. The thought of an end is, to her, horrific. To me it is beautiful.

    And I think that’s really the point. There isn’t ONE proper answer. We all face our own individual mortality and we all have to find the meaning in it and the story that makes it make sense to us.

    I am so glad that you are exploring that story with your sister. I’m terribly sorry that it is necessary at this young age. I hope that together you find a common place where you find both meaning and peace.

  3. Diane says:

    I’m saddened for your future loss of sister. However, I am glad that you are able to support her despite the fact that she has chosen a different path.

    I’m not sure if I’m agnostic, or atheist.. I’m don’t believe in God in the traditional sense.(at least not the one that has all these seemingly preset rules that we are suppose to live by) but, I also believe that their is an afterlife, with room for all of us which is not separated into various levels.

    All the best to you, and your Sister, I hope with all sincerity that the two of you find peace and happiness with one another.

    • Diane says:

      There’s one more thing, I wanted to add that might be helpful for you and your sister. You might want to consider contacting a Hospice center. They might be able to help guide you with these issues they come in and recommend some helpful material to read and consider.

    • Diane,
      What a lovely hpe you’ve expressed–that we find peace and happiness with one another. Thank you.

  4. Mhana says:

    I am sorry. One thing that struck me was that you said she is alone, without husbands parents or children. But she isn’t alone — she has you. One of the things I love about the Gospel, or at least how I interpret and believe it, is that eternal families doesn’t mean your nuclear family unit is together forever. It means those ties you form that are as close and as meaningful as family, even if they aren’t family legally, are equally eternal. While it makes me sad and upset to lose people, a selfish small part of me is grateful I am not the first I know to go — I can feel confident there will be a welcoming committee to explain what actually is going down. One of my biggest concerns about dying is not knowing what I’m supposed to do (that must say a lot about my social anxiety in this life). I don’t know that any of this would be helpful to tell your sister, except that in many ways death is a family reunion, not a parting.

    I’m glad you’ve been able to find some common comfort and meaning through these other books.

    • Mhana,
      Eternal families that include ties to good friends–What a great idea. Many of us have friends we like better than some of our relatives.
      Thank you!

    • Ziff says:

      One of my biggest concerns about dying is not knowing what I’m supposed to do (that must say a lot about my social anxiety in this life).

      Mhana, I can totally relate to this. I would be worried about barging into a place I wasn’t supposed to go, probably without having the proper forms or something. 🙂

  5. EmilyCC says:

    I’m so sorry about your sister, CC. I love the spiritual journey you are helping her make.

    When I was a chaplain, I found the Mormon doctrine of eternal families was comforting for some people at the end of life. And, it was sharing that which taught me what a gift discussions about the afterlife are to people who are dying. Our culture is so used to NOT discussing death and the afterlife.

    Blessings for you both, my friend.

  6. Federico says:

    sorry to hear about your sisters plight.
    We are all tested/challenged in different ways.
    She was very fortunate you gave her that
    wonderful book “Autobiography of a Yogi”
    It has brought inspiration and salvation to
    millions of sincere persons seeking answers
    and the way to a better future.
    What you saw as “self-absorbtion” is the
    effect of going within to know the real essence of
    ones being. That is where great things happen.
    Joseph Smith was definitely no self-absorbed in
    the same way as Paramahansa Yogananda was.
    [if I understand your meaning]
    Actually is would be difficult to compare the two on any level.
    Yogananda was a living Christ and true saint
    who lived to serve others with every breath.
    Smith was only interested in power over others
    and was still caught up in many apostate beliefs.
    As was Brigham Young.
    Your blog is very interesting…………………………..

  7. Federico says:

    PS; One more thing if I may- you said:
    “ The subordination of wives to husbands is an off-putting similarity.”

    If this was in the book,it was a description of Yogananda’s family cultural
    tradition. Yogananda himself and that book to not teach any gender
    subordination. And that is why Self-Realization Fellowship was the first
    major world wide faith tradition to elect a woman for its president and
    spiritual leader. Daya Mata [an EXMO by the way] served in that position for nearly 60 years until 2010.
    Followed by the present president also a woman of great spiritual
    stature Mrinalini Mata.
    It would actually take a few readings of that book to get
    the whole picture clear. Everything in that book has a very
    unique purpose for those seeking solutions to life’s challenges.

    • Anthony Lavelle says:

      Autobiography of a Yogi is a landmark book, and a hidden treasure though thousands have read the book and for many their lives have been changed. It is a book on spiritual yoga. It can be read purely for the proposition that God is present in all religions.

  8. Anitha Varma says:

    Your sister is blessed that she was able to learn about Paramahansa Yogananda in this lifetime. Guruji bless her, and you.
    Regards, Anitha.

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