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?