On Death and Dying
April 1989

“On Death and Dying,” Ensign, Apr. 1989, 31

On Death and Dying

In the last few months I have realized that there is much we can do to make life easier for those who are dying.

Nearly a decade ago, as a bishop, I interviewed a young man about going on a mission. When he said he wanted to go, I was grateful, for I felt that he’d be an outstanding missionary. He was a student-body leader, a ward youth leader, tall, athletic, and so handsome that girls everywhere were attracted to him. I’ve never known a finer, more wholesome young man. A week later, he and a friend from another area were killed when a drunken driver crossed the center line and rammed their car.

The youth of my ward and stake were stunned—they couldn’t understand how such a thing could happen. They wept, their faith wavered. For days, groups of young people came to my home to cry and talk and pray about the tragedy of this young man’s death.

His funeral drew so many people that the chapel, cultural hall, and foyers were filled. As I rose to close the funeral, I was prompted to ask the congregation to form a giant chain—all of us holding hands. Then our ward Young Women president led us in closing prayer. It was a memorable spiritual experience. The youth wept openly, vented sorrow, confronted tragedy and loss, and had their faith restored or strengthened. For years, they told me that meeting had changed their lives forever—some went on missions who hadn’t planned to go, others set goals of temple marriage, others changed their life-styles to be in more complete harmony with gospel principles.

The “human chain” idea at the young man’s funeral came to me through inspiration while I was standing at the pulpit. Only now do I realize how right that was.

Over the fifty-two years of my life, I’ve been in three bishoprics and served as a bishop, high councilor, quorum leader, and missionary. But only in the last few months have I realized how awkwardly, and sometimes wrongly, many of us handle the death and dying of others. At this moment, my experiences with the end of mortal life are firsthand, because I am dying of cancer and kidney failure. I know now that even though we mean well, we often blunder, offend, and ignore. Let me illustrate.

How come bad things happen to good people? Many books have addressed this subject, but they tend to have a shortsighted view of God and life. For Latter-day Saints, far better answers are in Tragedy or Destiny? by President Spencer W. Kimball. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977.) Even President Kimball admits some deaths just don’t make sense but that sometime we’ll understand fully. Personally, I don’t want to philosophize about my impending death. Neither do my wife and children.

What did you do to deserve this? Some ward members have openly asked me, my wife, and some of my children what we have done wrong that the Lord is punishing us by taking me away. I reject that idea. Cancer—not sin—is killing me. It has hurt my wife and children that some even think this way.

God needs him more. Many friends have openly expressed the opinion that I’m needed for a great mission on the other side of the veil. I’m sorry, but death is just part of life. I’m certain that there’s a great work for all of us, me included, when we die. As comforting as this idea may be to those who offer it, it is not comforting to my wife and children, who need me here and now.

Does it hurt? Are you in much pain? These are such personal questions that I don’t like to discuss them at all except with my wife, my bishop, and my doctor. Few of us want to talk about hurting—it is so negative that it makes us sad and depressed. In fact, there are times that I feel like walking away from the next person who gives me a bear hug (now, that hurts!) and asks me that question.

How long do you have left? I still cannot believe that people ask me and my family—especially my two teenage daughters—how much time I have left before I die. How could I—or they—possibly know the answer to that question? The doctors only make guesses, and I hope they are being pessimistic. But there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I prefer to live every day as fully as I can as long as I’m able. But only God knows the hour and the day, and he hasn’t told me yet. These past few months I’ve taken my kids on trips, taught my Gospel Doctrine class, and written fifteen articles and three books—in other words, I’ll work until I can’t.

Let me know how I can help. I’ve said this myself, dozens of times. This is well-meaning but meaningless. I prefer the approach of my neighbor who recently observed that six feet of my backyard fence had blown over in a recent windstorm. He didn’t ask; he just came over one day, replaced a rotted post, and repaired the fence.

There are infinite ways to act, to do, to get involved. You can winterize an air conditioner, water a lawn, wash and iron clothes, fix a meal. Just sitting and listening to a grieving family member is a blessing. Genuine acts of caring are maybe more important than loaves of bread. But empty gestures don’t do much. Don’t offer unless you follow up.

If you really had faith … Although this phrase is unbelievably cruel, many well-meaning people have said it to me, my wife, my family. I think we are a spiritual family, with strong testimonies and great faith. I have participated in scores of blessings that healed others—some of them true miracles. God’s answer in my case is a loving “no.” Of course, we’d accept a miracle; I pray for one. But it’s obvious that this is one of those times when there will be no divine intervention.

Try this! We’ve been staggered by the number of well-meaning friends who want us to hear tapes on healing, read miracle-cure books, or try herbs and diets. Most of these remedies are contradicted by my doctors, and none are scientifically proven. Some are even dangerous.

I want to see you, but I can’t face it. We all prefer to avoid death and dying. Many good friends have told one of us, “I want to come by, but I just can’t.” I have no answers for that, I guess. But avoidance is no answer to most of life’s unpleasant things. Even a short note or letter is better than staying away.

Now that I’ve covered things people shouldn’t do, let me say that there is plenty they can do! Family members aren’t always able to meet all of their own needs during times of emotional turmoil, and friends can fill in to make life easier. Think about these.

Are there some things you would like to talk about? At this time in our lives, memories are very important to me and my family. As I stand between the past and the future, I have reminiscences and questions. Walk with me through my memories. Don’t hesitate to say, “Remember when … ?” Personal and family histories can be enhanced in a priceless manner as we share memories—maybe even on a tape recorder.

Are there some specific things that you could use some help with right now? When my neighbor saw my broken fence and fixed it, he knew that I needed help. But other needs aren’t as easily determined without asking. I appreciate those who gently probe to see what’s needed; it’s more effective and appreciated than barging in and “taking over.”

I was concerned that my estate and the financial provisions for my family be in order, but didn’t quite know how to go about determining whether they were. One day my bishop, who is a certified public accountant, came to see me. “If you’d like me to,” he said, “I’d be happy to review your estate with you and your wife.” I was relieved to learn after his review that things were as we wished them to be.

Personal history projects often have many undone “loose ends.” Try finding out where you can help—transcribing tape recordings, labeling pictures, filing material.

“Can I put the new battery in the car?” “Would you like me to fix the loose carpet on the stairs?” “I’d love to give the children a ride to school” are examples of how you can help. But please let us decide if we need the help you offer.

And please don’t be offended if we say no when you ask. Maybe the time isn’t right just now. But it may be later.

Would you like a blessing? Both now and in the future, I hope that someone will say to my wife and children, “Would you like a blessing?” I have had several beautiful blessings since I became ill. But blessings can comfort other family members, too. When the teenager in our ward was killed, I visited his mother and gave her a blessing. Then I looked at his father. “I don’t believe that anyone has given you a blessing,” I said to him. “Would you like one?” “Yes,” he replied. No one had asked him before if he wanted a blessing.

Let me talk about death if I bring it up. I’m about to cross through a doorway into another level of existence, and although I have a testimony of Heavenly Father’s plan, I may want to express my feelings. Let me talk. Pray with me. Don’t be uncomfortable; I’ll love you for your understanding and patience.

Express your feelings. The closer to death I come, the more I need to hear that you love me. “I’m going to miss you” makes me feel good. This may be difficult for you to do, but your efforts are appreciated.

Understand if don’t want to see you. I may feel that this is a time for family only. I may be concerned that changes in my appearance would upset you. But I care very much that you care for me. Call me on the telephone, and if I am able to talk, I would love to share some time with you. Or send me a note. But please know that I care very much about you.

Keep my memory alive. This is a time of transition for my family, a time for grieving. Let my family members grieve. If they want to talk, listen. If they want to cry, just comfort them. Grieving is a natural, normal part of the death process, and letting them express their feelings will make the transition easier.

We need to confront death and dying better. We need to find a way to help that consists of genuine acts of love and compassion. Especially, we need to be careful of the things we say. The trauma is difficult enough without unnecessary hurt.

  • William M. Timmins, a former member of the Holladay (Utah) Twenty-seventh Ward, died 26 February 1989, as this issue of the magazine was being prepared. He was a professor of personnel administration and labor/management relations at Brigham Young University.

Illustrated by Mark Buehner