When Christmas Hurts
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“When Christmas Hurts,” Ensign, Dec. 2005, 18–21

When Christmas Hurts

From the Prophet Joseph Smith’s experience in Liberty Jail, I learned that we are never really alone in our suffering.

It is Christmas again. The woodsy fragrance of evergreens fills the air. The sound of Christmas carols wafts through malls, grocery stores, and tree lots. Ordinary houses become luminous, glowing in the dark with tiny twinkling lights. We feel anticipation, hope, and joy as we perform acts of service and reflect on the life of our dear Savior.

But Christmas can also evoke profound feelings of loss when the memories of loved ones no longer present are somehow amplified by the season.

Many years ago as a young girl, I learned how to find joy at Christmas even after losing the most important people of my childhood—my parents. The lesson came during a bleak emotional winter of my life. It was delivered by a young and earnest seminary teacher who taught me about a young prophet’s struggle with suffering and in the process gave me the Savior’s answer to one of life’s most difficult questions: Why do good people suffer?

I was only 17. Life was full of promise. I had a strong group of friends in the ward I had attended all my life. I was one of the lucky ones who loved high school—I had already found my niche. I was a writer. I wrote for the school newspaper. I filled spiral notebooks with my views on the Vietnam War, the latest music and movies, and how I felt about my hair. I was part of a witty and wonderful debate group who challenged my intellect and kept me laughing. Scholarships, college, further training in an art I loved were attainable goals—so close I knew they would be reached.

And then tragedy struck.

My dearest friend, my father—a short, heavy man with a big round face, a broad smile, a kind word for everyone, and always a stylish hat—was killed suddenly in an unusual car accident. Norris William Smith had been teaching driver’s education on a country road in the farming area outside our city, Idaho Falls, Idaho. It was the student’s first drive. She was only 14. She pulled out in front of an oncoming farm truck, her view eclipsed by a dip in the road. The truck broadsided the car with the worst impact on the passenger side. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital, my father—a vibrant, healthy, happy man—was dead.

The loss was particularly profound for me because just eight years earlier my mother had died after a long and painful struggle with cancer.

Life as I had known it ended. For months after Daddy died I dragged myself zombielike through each day as if I were running through water. Accomplishing the most mundane task felt monumental. The joy and zest I had felt for life flatlined. My grades slid. My school attendance became erratic. Even the health I had enjoyed became fragile. I no longer cared about my writing, about debate, about life itself.

And then Christmas came. Christmas—it had been my favorite time of year, and that of my parents also. My mother had clung to life to get through one more Christmas. The house had always been beautiful with the smell of a fresh evergreen we had cut ourselves in the foothills near our home. Mom had piled plates with divinity, the white, gooey, dissolve-in-your-mouth candy of Christmas. And the house had been festive with Mom’s homemade evergreen centerpieces—an artful touch of pine, candles, a few glass balls, and a spray of canned “snow.”

Even the year after my mother died, my father had carried on with amazing enthusiasm, considering the loss he had suffered. The tree went up. Excitedly, he and I raced together through the lighted, snow-filled streets of our little town buying Christmas presents. On Christmas morning at 3:00 a.m. when I woke up, he was so excited he leaped out of bed with a string of bells, ringing them madly and shouting, “Ho, ho, ho, Merrrrrry Christmas!” And there under the tree was a gift I had been longing for: a little set of wicker furniture just the right size for my dolls.

Now it was Christmas again, and the sound of bells, the smell of evergreen, the sight and feel of snow filled me with such a searing pain I did not know how or if I could survive. I felt utterly alone in the world. It seemed Christmas was no more. The Christmas spirit was gone for me, buried with those two dear people so profoundly absent from my life.

One day, overcome by despair, I escaped the raucous noise of my high school during lunch hour and trudged across the street to the seminary building. No classes were in session, and the building was dark and quiet, offering me exactly what I wanted: solitude. I sat at my desk in the darkened room and wept openly. I didn’t want to be alive. Why couldn’t I have gone with my parents? How was I ever going to get through Christmas—or life—without them?

What I didn’t know is that my seminary teacher, David Beagley, stood quietly at the back of the room watching. He was young and enthusiastic. Like my father, he had a broad smile and was able to make us laugh with his corny jokes. After a few minutes he quietly approached my desk. Sitting down next to me, he asked in barely a whisper what the matter was, although I’m sure he already knew. He had led my entire seminary class into my father’s funeral. But his question gave me the chance I needed to pour my heart out to someone, to share my sorrow.

After I had sobbed it out, he said he would like to tell me a story. The story went like this. It was the winter of 1839. The Prophet Joseph Smith had been illegally imprisoned again, this time in Liberty Jail, a dark dungeon of sorts in Clay County, Missouri. The Prophet had been in jail since November. The basement room where he and other Church leaders were being held was so small he could not stand upright. He had suffered from cold, filthy conditions, smoke inhalation, loneliness, and unwholesome food. The depth of his suffering came when he learned about the terrible condition of the Church members who were being driven from the state.

In utter despair he had gone to the Lord with one of the most poignant pleas in all of scripture:

“O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?

“How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?

“Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (D&C 121:1–3).

God heard Joseph’s cry, and that prison was transformed into a holy place when a beautiful, gentle, compassionate response came to the Prophet:

“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high” (D&C 121:7–8).

Then came the answer to one of mankind’s most difficult questions: Why does God allow people to suffer? “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7–8).

And finally, “God shall be with you forever and ever” (D&C 122:9).

Brother Beagley closed the scriptures. The room was utterly silent. My crying had stopped. The empty space in my heart was filled to overflowing with the sweet, warm feeling of the Comforter, and I felt comforted. I felt stilled. A lifting had occurred. My burden was being borne by Another.

From the Prophet’s horrible experience I learned we are never alone in our suffering. I saw that the Lord is aware of us and is close by. Most important, I learned that there is purpose to our pain, though sometimes it may be veiled for a time. I learned that even though our trials will not be taken away, Heavenly Father will visit us with His Spirit to comfort us and help us endure our suffering until our wounds are healed.

When I walked out of the seminary building that December day, the facts remained the same. I was without my dear parents. But my heart had somehow changed. For the first time since my father’s funeral, I was aware of a strength I had never felt before. I knew I was not alone. I knew there were reasons for my loss that I couldn’t yet understand. But I knew I could go on.

My Christmas, perhaps my very life, was saved in that seminary room 30 years ago. As I write, I am looking at a picture of a beautiful family that has grown up around me—my precious husband, Brian; our six daughters; their husbands; our grandchildren. I am no longer alone, and death is not my companion. I am surrounded by life.

I still love Christmas. Every year my husband and I and our six daughters cut our own tree. The bells my father rang so many years ago are not silent—my husband has taken over the tradition of ringing them and shouting “Merry Christmas!” Each year I place the tiny wicker furniture set out under the tree. Now it is surrounded by a living room full of wicker—my furniture of choice. And like my mother, I have learned to make divinity.

And I have come to know that each Christmas there will likely be an afternoon, an evening, or a quiet morning when, unexpectedly and without notice, the grief will hit again. All these years later I still miss their laughter, their voices, their presence. But I no longer fight it. When it comes I have a good cry, I look at their pictures, and I get out my Doctrine and Covenants and read Joseph’s humble, sorrowful prayer and the Lord’s compassionate, triumphant answer. And once again I find the strength to go on with joy.

Illustrated by Richard Hull

Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, by Greg K. Olsen, may not be copied