“On Death and Dying,” Tambuli, Oct. 1989, 35
When I was a bishop a few years ago, 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 in a car accident by a drunken driver.
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. Throughout the funeral service, as we reviewed the young man’s life and aspirations, the youth wept openly, vented sorrow, confronted tragedy and loss, and had their faith restored or strengthened. For years afterward 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.
That service was a form of cleansing, of renewal, as family and friends dealt with the loss of a loved one. But lately, I have come to realize 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 first-hand, because my body is succumbing to cancer and kidney failure. I know now that even though people mean well, they often say and do the wrong things. Here are some examples.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Many books have been written about 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, 1977.) Even President Kimball admits some deaths just don’t make sense but that sometime we will understand fully. Please don’t ask people who are dying—or their families—to explain an impending death.
What did you do to deserve this? Some ward members have asked me, my wife, and some of my children what we have done wrong to cause the Lord to punish us by taking me away. That people are even thinking this has been very hurtful to my family. Cancer—not sin—is killing me. The next comment is equally hurtful.
If you really had faith. … Many well-meaning people have said this to us. I think we are a spiritual family, with strong testimonies and great faith. I have participated in many blessings that healed others—some of them true miracles. Of course, we’d accept a miracle; I pray for one, but so far, God’s answer in my case had been a loving “no.”
God needs you 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 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 those who need me here and now.
Does it hurt? Are you in much pain? For me, 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 being hurt or in pain—it is so negative that it makes us sad and depressed.
How long do you have left? I am always surprised when people ask me and my family—especially me two teenage daughters—how much time I have left before I die. Only God knows the hour and the day. These past few months I’ve take my children on trips, taught my Sunday School class, and continued with my work. I try to live every day as fully as I can.
Let me know how I can help. I’ve said this myself, dozens of times, but words alone are meaningless. I prefer the approach of my neighbor when a section of my backyard fence was blown over in a windstorm. He didn’t ask if there was anything he could do to help, he just came over one day, replaced a rotted post, and repaired the fence.
There are many ways to act, or things to do, to get involved. You can help with home repairs, water a garden, wash and iron clothes, fix a meal. Just sitting and listening to a grieving family member is a blessing. Genuine acts of caring are probably more important than loaves of bread. But words without actions don’t do much. If you offer, follow up with action.
Try this! Many well-meaning friends have wanted us to hear audio tapes on healing, read miracle-cure books, or try herbs and diets. Most of these remedies are prohibited 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. 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 memories as I remember. Don’t be afraid to recall memories of shared experiences. Personal and family histories can be enhanced in a priceless manner as we share memories together—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. Gently ask or suggest ways in which you might help. For example, I was concerned that the financial provisions for my family were in order, but didn’t quite know how to go about determining whether or not 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 financial affairs with you and your wife.” I was grateful for his tact, and relieved to learn after his review that things were as we wished them to be.
We all have personal history projects that have never been started or completely finished. Find out where you can help—transcribing tape recordings, labeling pictures, filing material.
“Can I put oil in the car for you?” “Would you like me to drive you to the store?” “I’d be happy to help you harvest the vegetable from your garden” 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? I hope that when I am no longer able, 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 young man in our ward was killed in the accident, I visited his mother and gave her a blessing. Then I looked at his father. “I believe that no one 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 up the subject. I’m about to pass 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. In turn, tell me 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 I 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, comfort them, and don’t change the subject until they do. Grieving is a natural, normal part of the death process, and letting them express their feelings will make the transition easier.
We need to help those approaching death with genuine acts of love and compassion. Let the spirit guide you in what you do and what you say. The trauma is difficult enough without unnecessary hurt and harm.