Faith in the Shadow of Death

My sister-in-law, Lynda, is dying of cancer. It was in remission for eight years, but has now returned and is in her bones. Last Sunday, my husband, father-in-law, and Lynda’s husband gave her a blessing. I found myself thinking, “If it was Jesus blessing her, she could be healed. She WOULD be healed.� But I could not make the leap of faith to believe that this blessing, or any other, would heal her. I started to wonder if I am a secret skeptic whose skepticism doesn’t really show itself until moments of crisis, when someone with more faith would simply await the miracle.

When I told my husband some of my thoughts, he got quite angry and accused me of “writing Lynda off.� Eventually, he calmed down and articulated his feelings, admitting that he was angry with God, and that he couldn’t understand why this was happening to his baby sister. He begged me to make space for the miracle, which I said I’d do. But I must confess, I find it very difficult to truly and sincerely make that space.

I do have faith that comfort can salve the most wrenching of heartaches, that there is life after death, that the gift of enduring is probably greater than the gift of being healed. But these seem rather paltry compared to the kinds of faith expressed in the New Testament: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst heal me.� I am like Peter, falling into the water time and again as my doubts manifest themselves.

But there is another side to this question of faith. There is the mask of faith which merely conceals despair. The best example I have is when a twenty-year-old relative of mine passed away, also of cancer. Her grandmother was determined that a new combination of herbs would cure her, and her mother instructed the hospice nurse (who happened to be my sister) to not use the word “death� in the house. They were determined that this child would be cured–not just by priesthood blessings but by apricot pits, aloe vera, mega vitamins, etc. They clung to the testimonials various infomercials offer.

My sister, in her role as hospice nurse, approached the dying girl and asked simply, “Do you know what’s happening?�

The girl replied, “Yes. I’m dying.�

“How do you feel about that?� my sister asked.

“It’s all right.�

Then my sister called me to see if I could find some way to get the grandmother out of the house. This girl needed a peaceful transition, and the family deserved to be a part of her sacred moment of departure. The grandmother’s frantic denial was electrifying the air, so peace was not possible. Nor, strangely, was death.

When the grandmother finally left, the girl was able to begin to die. There were still some last efforts to bring her back and try just one more cure, but the dying was ultimately peaceful.

Surely it wasn’t faith which made that particular family so desperate to keep their daughter. But neither was it faith for me to deny the possible miracle which a priesthood blessing could bring to pass–even one given by mortal men.

I suggest that faith is not where we’d most expect to find it. For me, as I write these words, it seems elusive. I am trying to frame it right, but it seems to slip away and reveal the depths of water I’m sinking into. (“Peter, why didst thou doubt?�)

As Latter-day Saints, we certainly accept death as a part of life, but when it comes right down to it, and when it’s one of OUR loved one dying, it is so hard.

“Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.�

27 comments for “Faith in the Shadow of Death

  1. Thank you for this, Margaret. I’m so very sorry your family is going through this right now and will certainly be thinking of you.

    My favorite healing story is here. Alma asks Zeezrom not, “Do you believe you can be healed,” but “Do you believe in the power of Christ unto salvation?” I know it’s not exactly right to equate my little battles with cancer and death, but it’s all I can offer. So: this is something I started clinging to when we were trying to have a baby (a six-year struggle before we moved on to adopt). If I put my faith in a certain outcome each month, I found only hurt. It hurt enough that I no longer believe in what is going to happen tomorrow or an hour or a minute from now. And I think that’s okay. Because that one big miracle of the atonement, I can and do believe in. When I read the story of Zeezrom it seems that big miracle is the one that makes every other miracle happen. In my life it also seems, with time and continuing attention from me, to make the miracles that don’t happen okay. For me, the point is realizing that not knowing the future, or not knowing what God’s plan is, does not equal lacking faith.

    Elder Maxwell said all this, of course much more eloquently, in October 1998. And that was right after his first round with leukemia. I still love that talk and go back to it at least twice a year when I start thinking about all this. I think it has become one of my foundation stones.

  2. I’m praying for your family. This stuff is hard. I went through it with my mom not that long ago, and it’s still kinda fresh.

    However, I disagree with your notion that Jesus could save her if he was the one giving her the blessing. Not that I challenge his power to do so — because I don’t — but because it’s presumptuous to determine who he wants to heal (he healed very, very few in his mortal ministry) and who he wants to go through the experience (pretty much everybody). The purpose of the blessing isn’t to tie God’s hands and force him to heal somebody, because we can only use the priesthood power to do what God wants done.

    Your sister-in-law is going to die. So are you. She may even out live you — there are no guarantees for either of you. The only difference in that is that we know of something that will kill her given time, and, with you , we just know that something will at some point. In each case, every day brings both of you closer to your date.

    When you’re look at death right up close, when it’s coming soon, you begin to see that it’s not a bad thing. It’s just a painful thing. Kinda like birth in that respect, although the pain in death is different.

    I would suggest you just spend as much time with your sister-in-law as you can while still being reasonably normal, and be as normal as you can with her. Not phony normal, pretending that nothing’s going on, but just be around about as much as you would, plus just a bit more, and talk about whatever. Sometimes the talk will be of cancer and death and stuff, and sometimes it’ll be about whatever you’ve always talked about. One of the things we learned with Mom is the “You’re just so wonderful and we’re going to miss you so much” gets exhausting. Just because she’s dying doesn’t mean she’s a different person — she’s not more angelic or perfect or anything, and the burden of having to pretend otherwise isn’t a fair thing to add at this point. Most folks won’t get that, but, if you can be someone in her life that does, it can be a lot of help.

    One of the last things Mom said before she couldn’t talk was “this cancer is going to kill me, but I’m not going to let it take my sense of humor.” It didn’t. She made jokes without talking (they were about talking, actually). She spent a lot of time in and out of this world the last few days, but she wasn’t alone when she was out — people were there to meet her and help her through. When she finally left, it was okay. It was time, and it was peaceful, and it was done.

    Your sister-in-law is going to be okay. She’s going to be dead, but that’s okay. You’ll see her again. You’ll just have to spend some time missing her between now and then.

  3. Thank you, Margaret and Ana for your posts. I have been carrying a horrible, crushing weight on me for the last couple years and recently it’s gotten so bad that I feel I’ve been bleeding faith. Like you Ana, the (apparent) failure of my miracle to appear has severely hurt my faith but not, for whatever reason, my faith in God, Christ and the Atonement.

    Maybe if I can cling to that hard enough, someday I’ll stop feeling like this.

  4. Some might say I confuse faith with hope, but I don’t find any lack of faith in not expecting a blessing to cure illness. The reality is that bad things happen to good people in mortality, and I don’t recall any divine instruction that suffering can be completely avoided in this life by the exercise of any amount of faith. My faith — or hope — is in knowing that eventually all will be made right.

    This was most brought to mind when extended family asked for a fast dedicated to the restoring of a cousin’s vision. The best I could do was pray that she would cope successfully with her loss, not that she would regain sight. Good people go blind (or die of bone cancer) and faith does not prevent that particular consequence of mortality — not in my cousin’s case, not in my mother’s, not in your sister-in-law’s, and not in my own. Faith is confidence that the atonement somehow, eventually, makes right not only our sins, but all our infirmities.

  5. Ana–I would love to read Elder Maxwell’s quote, but when I clicked on “October 1998” I was taken to–general search. I’m not sure where to go from there. Would you mind cutting and pasting the quote? Thank you.

  6. “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.�

    Sometimes it is more “I’ve seen miracles, help me to forgive myself and my God when the miracles don’t come when I think I need them.”

    It is much harder realizing that miracles do happen, that God can and does intervene, yet …

    That caused me much more anguish in my life.

  7. Thank you Margaret. I really believe that the miraculous healings and the primitive gift to heal are real. But, I also believe that most all of us (especially myself) lack that faith. We live in a time and place where Faith isn’t so necessary and we are left to hope. Hope is wonderful and necessary, and there is no shame in it.

  8. The miracles that do happen teach us that all this is within the Lord’s power. We are not merely victims. We are held in kind and loving relations.

    The miracles that don’t happen have taught me other things. As I get older, I’m less urgent to have the course of mortalilty turned aside, for me or my loved ones. There is perspective that comes slowly but that makes it more and more okay.

    We do not want to stay here, as wonderful as it sometimes is.

  9. Shoot, I was so excited that I figured out how to make links! Ha!

    Here is the talk pasted from the November 1998 Ensign; I hope it will all fit here. I can’t choose a part

    Neal A. Maxwell, “Hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,� Ensign, Nov. 1998, 61

    Brothers and sisters, I am very grateful to be with you today. My pate is still somewhat shiny, but not because my barber friends have magnified their calling. Rather, it reflects more treatments, which are encouraging in spite of my alternating conference hairstyles.

    My gratitude continues to flow—foremost to the Lord, then to my special wife and family, competent and caring doctors and nurses, and so many friends and members who pray in my behalf.

    For a variety of reasons, brothers and sisters, today’s society seems to struggle in order to be hopeful. The associated causes and effects co-mingle ever so subtly.

    Our everyday usage of the word hope includes how we “hope� to arrive at a certain destination by a certain time. We “hope� the world economy will improve. We “hope� for the visit of a loved one. Such typify our sincere but proximate hopes.

    Life’s disappointments often represent the debris of our failed, proximate hopes. Instead, however, I speak of the crucial need for ultimate hope.

    Ultimate hope is a different matter. It is tied to Jesus and the blessings of the great Atonement, blessings resulting in the universal Resurrection and the precious opportunity provided thereby for us to practice emancipating repentance, making possible what the scriptures call “a perfect brightness of hope� (2 Ne. 31:20).

    Moroni confirmed: “What is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ� (Moro. 7:40–41; see also Alma 27:28). Real hope, therefore, is not associated with things mercurial, but rather with things immortal and eternal!

    Unsurprisingly, hope is intertwined with other gospel doctrines, especially faith and patience.

    Just as doubt, despair, and desensitization go together, so do faith, hope, charity, and patience. The latter qualities must be carefully and constantly nurtured, however, whereas doubt and despair, like dandelions, need little encouragement in order to sprout and spread. Alas, despair comes so naturally to the natural man!

    Patience, for example, permits us to deal more evenly with the unevenness of life’s experiences.

    Faith and hope are constantly interactive and are not always easily or precisely distinguished. Nevertheless, ultimate hope’s expectations are “with surety� true (Ether 12:4; see also Rom. 8:24; Heb. 11:1; Alma 32:21). Yet in the geometry of the restored theology, hope corresponds to faith but sometimes has a greater circumference. Faith, in turn, constitutes “the assurance of things hoped for� and the proof of “things not seen� (JST, Heb. 11:1; see also Ether 12:6). Thus hope sometimes reconnoiters beyond the present boundaries of faith, but it always radiates from Jesus.

    No wonder souls can be stirred and rallied by real hope’s “reveille� as by no other music. Even if a few comrades slumber or desert, “lively hope� is still there “smiling brightly before us� (“We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,� Hymns, no. 19; see also 1 Pet. 1:3). Hope caused downcast disciples to go quickly and expectantly to an empty garden tomb (see Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:8–12). Hope helped a prophet to see rescuing rain in a distant cloud which appeared to be no larger than a man’s hand (see 1 Kgs. 18:41–46).

    Such ultimate hope constitutes the “anchor of the soul� and is retained through the gift of the Holy Ghost and faith in Christ (Heb. 6:19; see also Alma 25:16; Ether 12:9). In contrast, viewing life without the prospect of immortality can diminish not only hope but also the sense of personal accountability (see 1 Cor. 15:19; Alma 30:18).

    Granted, the human scene includes many individuals who go decently about life’s labors, untouched by or unexpressive of deep religious feelings, but who, nevertheless, draw unknowingly upon “the light of Christ,� which to a degree lights every individual (see D&C 84:46; Moro. 7:16, 18; John 1:9). Commendably, other individuals have openly acknowledged spiritual intimations which sustain them.

    Nevertheless, because proximate hopes are so vulnerable to irony and the unexpected, there is an increasing and profound sense of existential despair in the world. A grumpy cynicism now pervades politics. Many feel burdened by society’s other accumulating anxieties.

    Even those who are spiritually secure themselves can sense the chill in the air. Cold secularism causes some of that shivering, as many have given in to what Senator Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down� (“Defining Deviancy Down,� The American Scholar, winter 1993, 17). Much despair truly comes of iniquity—but as God defines iniquity (see Moro. 10:22).

    There is so much unsettlement and divisiveness. No wonder the subsequent loss of hope almost inevitably sends selfishness surging as many, resignedly,turn to pleasing themselves.

    When hope is stripped away, Paul noted this tendency for some to eat and drink, reasoning that “for to morrow we die,� driven by the erroneous conclusion that “when a man [is] dead, that [is] the end thereof� (1 Cor. 15:32; Alma 30:18).

    Much as I lament the gathering storms, there will be some usefulness in them. Events will help to draw fresh attention to God’s higher ways and His kingdom, which is to “become fair as the sun, and clear as the moon� (D&C 105:31).

    Individuals and nations will continue to choose what they want, but they cannot alter the ultimate consequences of what they want.

    Therefore, in this hastened ripening process, let us not be surprised that the tares are looking more like tares all the time. During this time when nations are in distress, with perplexity, there will actually be some redemptive turbulence: “For the kingdom of the devil must shake, and they which belong to it must needs be stirred up unto repentance� (2 Ne. 28:19).

    Being so “stirred up� will be a real thing, though we can only speculate as to how it will be achieved.

    Meanwhile, those with ultimate hope accept the truth of this terse verse: “But all things must come to pass in their time� (D&C 64:32).

    It is well, therefore, to ponder the status of hope in our present human context when God’s commandments seem unimportant to many. Granted, as the scriptures say, “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right� (Mosiah 29:26). But if this does occur, bringing massive sea changes in society’s attitudes, then the judgments of God will come (see Mosiah 29:26, 27). Only the acceptance of the revelations of God can bring both the direction and correction needed and, in turn, a “brightness of hope� (2 Ne. 31:20).

    Real hope keeps us “anxiously engaged� in good causes even when these appear to be losing causes on the mortal scoreboard (see D&C 58:27). Likewise, real hope is much more than wishful musing. It stiffens, not slackens, the spiritual spine. Hope is serene, not giddy, eager without being naive, and pleasantly steady without being smug. Hope is realistic anticipation which takes the form of a determination—not only to survive adversity but, moreover, to “endure … well� to the end (D&C 121:8).

    Though otherwise a “lively� attribute, hope stands quietly with us at funerals. Our tears are just as wet, but not because of despair. Rather, they are tears of heightened appreciation evoked by poignant separation. Those tears of separation change, ere long, becoming tears of glorious anticipation.

    Real hope inspires quiet Christian service, not flashy public fanaticism. Finley Peter Dunne impishly observed, “A fanatic is a man who does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts� (quoted in The Third—and Possibly the Best—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, comp. Robert Byrne [1986], no. 549).

    Indeed, when we are unduly impatient with an omniscient God’s timing, we really are suggesting that we know what is best. Strange, isn’t it—we who wear wristwatches seek to counsel Him who oversees cosmic clocks and calendars.

    Because God wants us to come home after having become more like Him and His Son, part of this developmental process, of necessity, consists of showing unto us our weaknesses. Hence, if we have ultimate hope we will be submissive, because, with His help, those weaknesses can even become strengths (see Ether 12:27).

    It is not an easy thing, however, to be shown one’s weaknesses, as these are regularly demonstrated by life’s circumstances. Nevertheless, this is part of coming unto Christ, and it is a vital, if painful, part of God’s plan of happiness. Besides, as Elder Henry B. Eyring has wisely observed, “If you want praise more than instruction, you may get neither� (“To Choose and Keep a Mentor,� Addresses Delivered at the 1993 Annual University Conference, Brigham Young University [1993], 42).

    By pressing forward hopefully, we can, repeatedly and joyfully, stand on what was yesterday’s distant horizon, thereby drawing even further hope from our very own experiences. Hence Paul described how “tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope� (Rom. 5:3–4). Therefore, we rightly sing of God, “We’ve proved him in days that are past� (Hymns, no. 19).

    Granted, those with true hope still see their personal circumstances shaken at times—like a kaleidoscope. Yet with the “eye of faith,� even in their changed, proximate circumstances, they still see divine design (see Alma 5:15).

    The truly hopeful, for instance, work amid surrounding decay at having strong and happy families. Their response is the steady, Joshua response: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord� (Josh. 24:15).

    We may not be able to fix the whole world, but we can strive to fix what may be amiss in our own families. Tolkien reminds us: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule� (The Return of the King [1965], 190).

    Therefore, brothers and sisters, in our own little family plots, we can bequeath to the succeeding generations “clean earth to till�! Thus not only does charity begin at home, but so does hope!

    Whatever our particular furrow, we can, in Paul’s words, “plow in hope,� not looking back, and refusing to let yesterday hold tomorrow hostage (1 Cor. 9:10).

    Genuine, ultimate hope helps us to be more loving even while the love of many waxes cold (see Matt. 24:12). We are to be more holy, even as the world ripens in iniquity; more courteous and patient in a coarsening and curt world, and to be of strong hearts even when the hearts of others fail them (see Moro. 10:22).

    Hope can be contagious, especially if we are to be “ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh … a reason of the hope that is in [us]� (1 Pet. 3:15). Said President Brigham Young, if we do not impart knowledge to others and do good, we “will become contracted in [our] views and feelings� (Deseret News Weekly, 9 May 1855, 68).

    If we look for specific things we can do, the Holy Ghost will direct us, showing unto us “all things� which we should do, for this is one of His inspiring roles (see 2 Ne. 32:5). Our opportunities for helping others who have lost hope may be no further away than in our own extended families, a discouraged neighbor next door, or someone just around the corner. By helping a child learn to read, visiting a lonely patient in a nursing home, or by simply running an errand for a busy but overwhelmed parent, so much can be imparted to others. Likewise, a simple gospel conversation can impart hope. Meanwhile, never mind that the world will become more bipolar as between those who are secular and permissive and those who hold to spiritual values.

    Therefore, being blessed with hope ourselves, let us, as disciples, rather than being contracted, reach out, including to those who, for whatever reason, have “moved away from the hope of the gospel� (Col. 1:23).

    As in Charles Wesley’s words in the hymn “Come Let Us Anew,� our lives and times do glide swiftly away, and our glide paths vary widely, as we all know. But all those who prevail “by the patience of hope and the labor of love� will hear the glorious words, “ ‘Well and faithfully done; Enter into my joy and sit down on my throne’ � (Hymns, no. 217).

    May this glorious moment one day be ours to claim, through the gospel of hope—in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen.

  10. What a poignant post.

    I have struggled with these issues many times as I have had health problems and blessings and, as of yet, the problems have not disappeared. Not quite the same as your sister-in-law’s situation, but it’s all I have to relate to. And I can relate to the struggle and questions surrounding faith.

    I appreciated so much Elder Oaks’ words in this last Conference:

    Mortal exercises of [priesthood] authority are limited by the will of Him whose priesthood it is. Consequently, we are told that some whom the elders bless are not healed because they are “appointed unto death” (D&C 42:48). Similarly, when the Apostle Paul sought to be healed from the “thorn in the flesh” that buffeted him (2 Corinthians 12:7), the Lord declined to heal him. Paul later wrote that the Lord explained, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Paul obediently responded that he would “rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . for when I am weak, then am I strong” (vv. 9–10).

    Healing blessings come in many ways, each suited to our individual needs, as known to Him who loves us best. Sometimes a “healing” cures our illness or lifts our burden. But sometimes we are “healed” by being given strength or understanding or patience to bear the burdens placed upon us.

    Obviously, we are all in need of healing in one way or another, because life is just hard sometimes — and sometimes heart-wrenchingly hard (especially when things don’t work the way we want them to).

    One of the things I have been thinking about is that the purpose of faith is not simply to take away our pain and sorrow. If our sorrow and pain are not taken away, we simply cannot assume we just “don’t have enough faith.” I think faith is so much bigger than something to just to be exercised toward a desired end (according to our own desires and limited understanding). In fact, my thoughts at this point are that faith is what can keep us going, pressing forward with steadfastness in Christ, keeping our eyes on Him, trusting Him even as the waves pound around us. I am moved by the fact that Peter’s faith did not stop the waves; it enabled him to stay afloat in spite of them. Peter’s doubt caused him to sink in the turbulence, and that is what I hear the Savior was addressing when He said “why didst thou doubt?” I wonder sometimes if it takes more faith to accept our unmet desires, our “but if not” situations, than to have them removed from us.

    God bless you all at this very, very hard time. May you all find the peace and healing and assurance that need as God’s will unfolds.

    (P.S. I think this is the talk to which Ana referred.)

  11. Margaret, my prayers are with your family tonight. In situations where someone I love is dying I find faith particularly difficult to locate as well. I think that’s because I have to have faith that the person can be completely healed and simultaneously have faith in their death (that it will some eternity be “ok,” that they are going someplace after death, that it “means” something). The two possibilites are contradictory; hence, the necessity of and difficulty finding faith. I wish it was easier sometimes, but I’m also sure I don’t know what I’m wishing for. Death tests my faith daily: God knows, and can heal; God knows, and does not. Thank you for sharing this post.

  12. Margaret, my very deepest sympathy to you and especially to Bruce. A lot of things get easier when one finally becomes an adult, but just as it never gets easier to hear one’s parents fight, I imagine it never gets any easier to watch a sibling battle cancer.

    I confess to finding an appealing uprightness in your secret skepticism, although maybe I shouldn’t. When I was in London as a student, Gene England took us to a play in an obscure little fringe venue, a play called “Darwin’s Flood” by one Snoo Wilson. The play was a sort of postmodern existential Pilgrim’s Progress, and Jesus was represented by a hemmorhoid-afflicted Irishman pedaling his seatless bicycle uphill in the rain. The image has stuck with me, for obvious reasons, and the point has, too: for most people, Jesus only exists in extremis. There’s something craven about this kind of faith.

    And there’s something weakminded, it seems to me, in the kind of faith that so efficiently contains and denatures any troubling conclusion in the black box of “God’s will”—-any conclusion EXCEPT the possibility that the healer or recipient or the recipient’s brother’s wife simply lacked the necessary faith. I think you’re right to own up to the deficiency of your faith—-and my faith, I hasten to add, is no stronger than yours.

    On the other hand (see, I AM weakminded), I’m wary of the magical-minded faith of the child and the childish, the Tinkerbell variety: I DO believe, I DO! And if I rigidly insist that I believe, and through an extraordinary effort of mental discipline banish every shadow of every thought to the contrary, then the power of my mind will—what, change the physical realities around me? appease God sufficiently that HE will change the physical realities around me?

    I’m not helping any, am I.

    A final thought: in the present day, at least, faith healings seem to make fairly modest claims. Any physical crisis has a range of possible outcomes, and some outcomes that are not possible: a migraine can resolve itself or not, but a severed finger will not regenerate itself; a hormonal imbalance that threatens a pregnancy may resolves itself, but a dead and decaying embryo will not be restored. LDS healings, it seems to me, tend to focus on the most favorable of the range of possible outcomes, or to activate a powerful placebo effect, but don’t usually produce outcomes beyond the realm of the possible. Thus the efficacy of the blessing Lynda received may depend not only on the faith of the participants but also on the state of the disease.

  13. i hope these words will be as clear on paper as they are in my head….
    several years ago a friend had a massive stroke–the pain was a monster—(his wife told me this) anyway the elders came and blessed him to live—this happened over several days and then another stroke and more blessings and more pain then the stake pres came and laid hands on the good brother and said \”let the will of the Lord be done\”.
    his wife told me that soon after he had a look of peace on his face and she held his hand and after 3 hours he passed away. As soon as the stake pres. had blessed her husband she felt at peace for the first time in weeks
    so i just hope that when times of great testing comes to me that i will strong enough to let the \”will of the Lord be done\”

  14. I’m sorry about your sister-in-law, Margaret. I’m coming up on the 1 year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis (done with treatment and everything is gone for the present), and so I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing more lately. Does it show a lack of faith to do things (like writing letters to my young kids) to prepare in case this thing comes back, or is that just being prudent?

    I read this article from April’s Ensign. I don’t recommend reading it in the chemo room, as I did, but it addresses the same situation you are in.

  15. One of my grandmother’s treasures was a letter her mother had written as part of a RS lesson, to be read after her death. I think it’s a good idea for ANYONE to write an important letter to their children. There are no guarantees of anything. A good friend of mine who died of cancer spent her last months writing birthday cards, wedding cards, and valentines to be delivered to her children for years to come. And I did wrote a letter by proxy for my husband’s other sister, who died of MS. In my book _Heresies of Nature_, the last chapter is a letter from the mother (based on my sister-in-law) to her children. It’s actually a tape recording, made when she realized that very soon, because of the disease, she would not be able to speak. In real life, my sister-in-law did not record messages for her children, so I was simply fulfilling my own fantasy in letting her do it via my book. It was quite an emotional experience writing what I thought she would want me to say.

  16. God speed, Margaret. Thank you for allowing us, in a very small way, to participate the “fellowship of sufferings” with you. I also enjoyed reading Rosalynde’s post about faith–both this one and previous ones. She seems to capture nicely the tension we are all feeling between wanting to alter the course of events through faith, but wanting also to be content with that course.

    I wonder if the notion of receiving a witness AFTER the trial of our faith may play a role. Perhaps we find oursevles on one end or the other of that process–either needing more of a trial to test our faith, or no longer needing the witness since we’ve already received so many. No answers, of course, just thoughts. Either way, when I try to look through the mist of darkness, beyond the present confusion, I think faith boils down to simply gratitude for the future as well as the present knowing that God is always at the helm.

  17. Thanks Margaret for once again posting with such honesty and insight. I will be praying for your sister-in-law, and with your permission, I will ask my Sunday evening Bible study to pray as well.

    Kierkegaard, if I remember correctly, tells a story in Fear and Trembling that goes something like this. A young newlywed goes out on a hunt with some friends. While out in the forest, he begins to describe with great detail the wonderful meal that his wife will have prepared for him when he returns home. “It will be the most tender juicy steak that has ever been cooked! It will be covered with sumptuous, mushroom enriched, gravy. It will be served over a gentle curry rice pilaf.� When he finally gets home he learns that his wife has prepared for him a simple hamburger with french fries. He is not, however, disappointed. He eats the hamburger with great enthusiasm. His real joy was being with his wife and so the hamburger was as rich as the expected steak. Kierkegaard suggests that faith is like this. If he’s right, then the content of the imagined meal, what the newlywed actually expected, was not as important as it may have seemed. We can amend the story a bit and add another hunter who has been married for many years. He loves his wife. He has been married long enough to know that there will be no steak awaiting his return. He might say, “if only I could believe like my young companion�.

  18. Thank you, Craig. I was hoping you’d comment. My sister-in-law’s name is Lynda Young Tuckett. Her husband is Joe. Please do include her and her family in your prayers. Thank you for the reminder of Kierkegaard, who, as you might guess, is one of my favorite philosophers.

  19. One of the ways to increase faith is through gratitude. It may seem insensitive or belligerent to tell a person who is watching a beloved relative die from cancer to have gratitude, but there is a silver lining to every affliction. Not that one person’s plight is less or more painful than another’s, just that each of our suffering is different.

    Twice a year I make a pilgrimage back home to Utah to visit my family. One year as we pulled out of the driveway, and my parents were tearfully waving good-bye, I had the distinct impression that I would never see my mother alive again. She was not that old and had some health problems but nothing that bad. Six months later, there had been an event and complications but she was seemingly going to be fine. I remembered the impression and thought how foolish it was. But looking back now, that is my last memory I have of my mother in her right mind. I realized during the next visit that she had dementia and really wasn’t with it any more. My family keeps secrets and since I don’t live there, I am not necessarily part of the inner circle.

    My dad is so clever at hiding it. Mom is getting to the point that she can’t recognize her children or form coherent sentences. Dad can still get her through a 30 minute visit with distant relatives or ward members without them being suspicious. Unless they stop and think about my real mother, who had a sharp mind and strong opinions and was anything but quiet and deferential, never allowing others to answer for her and complete her sentences and thoughts. My parents are very private people and their ward members do not know why they have stopped attending church. Dad claims Sacrament meeting is better on TV. I don’t think he has told his own brothers and sisters either. In a way this is part of their unique suffering, the reluctance to allow others to help. What did her well-meaning visiting teachers get their demented diabetic for her birthday? Five pounds of chocolate, which was much enjoyed, by my kids.

    Because I show up so infrequently and maybe because I am still skinny mom readily recognizes me (long term memory intact) while my sister who is over there every day now is sometimes a complete stranger to her. Mom knows she has a daughter and she knows this middle aged woman with the same name as her daughter comes into their house every day, but she denies they are the same person. She sits chanting “that damned woman” over and over. She thinks my sister is stealing things fom them, when actually she could be faulted for pack-ratting rooms full of furniture and household items into their house for storage. Mom can be mean and has smacked her younger grandchildren for no reason. She might say vulgar inappropriate things, especially when my dad isn’t around. He can almost read her mind and redirects her constantly, not always gently either. On a particularly good day we visited and my teenage daughter went shopping with her aunt while I stayed with my parents. When they returned my mother could still remember my daughter’s name and mom proudly introduced me to my daughter as her grand-daughter visiting from Georgia. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

    If you have time to spend together with a dying loved one who has their mind intact, it is as valuable as gold.They will enrich you! I really can’t visit with my mother, my real mother; she is gone and there has not yet been a distinct event to grieve over (and I am not wanting one). What remains of her is a colossal mockery. Saddest of all; this is the only person her grandchildren will ever know in this life.

    My dad is the toughest old bird I have ever known. He almost starved during the Great Depression, was the only boy in his platoon to survive the fighting in the South Pacific. By sheer grit he kept that old cheese factory running with hundreds of lower economic class Mormon people employed over decades of manufacturing decline and even when he lost his job at age 62, he still managed to start up another plant and get it profitable and create more jobs.

    So now that he is in his eighties, how long do you think he will persevere before the inevitable day comes when he can no longer take care of his spouse of 55 years? He is the kind of guy who would push a handcart through 10 feet of snow with frozen feet. I volunteered to watch my mother for a couple days while he had a minor surgical procedure and even with my sister stopping by all the time, it was more than I could handle. She has deteriorated some since then.

    It will kill my father to ever have to put her away and it will probably kill him keeping her home. Sometimes I wonder what kind of a cruel God would arrange such a perfect disaster. Dementia can take over 20 years to run its ravaging course. Eventually dad will have to overcome his dedication to privacy (or whatever else you want to call it) and get some kind of home health care and take advantage of other supportive resources available in the community. I forsee a series of power struggles with my sister, who is no Florence Nightingale, having to wrestle control from him and forcing him to do what should be obvious. He won’t give up easy. All underlying family dysfunctions are being magnified and our private suffering intensified. Already there is quite a bit of friction between us siblings. Always has been. I don’t feel like I have the luxury of worrying about my faith or lack of it in the face of a brewing family feud. I just wonder if or how I can position myself to be helpful from so far away.

    I really don’t wish my mother had cancer. I wish she was well again. One of their neighbors and friends was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer a couple years ago. She wanted to see me, she had heard my parents brag about me so much over the years, and she stopped by for a brief visit when I was there. Although not in the best of shape, she was still able to dispense some good cheer. I was impressed with her emotional strength and positive attitude in the face of her impending fate. The woman was about 60 lbs and not able to climb the front steps without help and not willing to eat. She was out visiting others and she died a week later. Her family, though not forgetting her, has moved on. I would like to thank her and also to point out what a blessing it is to still be able to serve others, in whatever small way, a week before you finally get that last transfer home.

  20. I don’t know if my faith is weak. I completely believe that someone can be healed through faith and if the Lord wishes.

    I think I’m cynical a bit, because I don’t believe in miracles on demand. I think miracles can happen, but I don’t know the rules for when it can, and I think a lot of times it’s just random – the effect of life in a mortal world.

    My mother died when I was twenty of congestive heart failure. Her heart stopped without warning because of a virus, she went into a coma, and she died two weeks later without waking.

    Two years ago, my stepbrother (my father remarried) almost died of congestive heart failure. His heart stopped without warning because of an undetected congenital abnormality, he went into a coma, and after a week he woke up. He’s not without effects, but he’s alive and with his family and is expected to have a long life.

    Both of them got priesthood blessings. Both got blessings from the exact same people (my dad and older brother). They had the same coma. But while my stepbrother woke up my mother died and I don’t know why. If I thought there was actually a reasoning behind which blessings work I would be pissed because I don’t think anything can make up for my mother dying when we were all so young. If it’s such an ultimately good “it all worked out” thing, why isn’t it good for everyone’s parents to die so young and so suddenly?

    I believe we can be healed. It is also apparent to me that a lot of times we won’t, and it isn’t because God doesn’t love us. He does, tremendously – I never felt like Heavenly Father hurt her and us like this on purpose. We just won’t get better, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It works out in the next life, but not this one.

  21. Katie, I was watching Lynda’s two daughters during the blessing. One is mildly retarded and seemed not to fully comprehend what was happening. The other was in tears the whole time.
    I also helped raise my best friend’s daughter after my friend died in a car accident. I was very careful not to intrude, but there came a time when I slipped her a tape recording of her mother’s funeral. (She had been there, but not really able to take it all in, though she was 12 at the time.)
    There were other times when we were able to really talk about what she was going through. I was in the temple with her when she got married, and I gave her a 250-page book about her mother which I had written (something I don’t plan on ever publishing).
    What helped you get through it? What advice would you give to me as I help my nieces prepare for the likely scenario?

  22. I remember being incredibly grateful for people who had stories about my mom. I was just on the verge of becoming an adult, so I never knew her as a peer – only as my mother. There were whole sides to her that I’ve had to piece together, so I treasure it when people tell me the things that she liked. I have a letter from a woman who shared with me the advice my mom gave to her at the baby shower for her first baby – so I have my mom’s parenting advice. Before I went through the temple, my mother’s best friend pulled me aside and shared with me what my mother’s favorite parts of the temple were and how she felt about it. My grandparents around the time my mother did, but my aunts have told me how much my grandpa loved my mother – he was never quite the same after she died. The things I have from her that I treasure are the things that she loved – I have her recipe box. She painted a recipe box when she and my dad got married, and it’s filled with recipes in her and my grandmother’s handwriting.

    What almost no one did for me and what may not apply to your nieces was preparing me for how my dad would respond to the loss of my mom. My dad was engaged within six months after my mom died. That was too soon and he broke it off, but he was remarried to someone else less than a year later. He didn’t want to talk about my mom – he didn’t want to think about it. His response to her loss was to fill the empty space as quickly as possible and not think about it until it didn’t hurt so much. I felt like I was the only person who was even sad she was gone because my dad and his grandparents were so determined to put on a happy face. I can’t tell him how to grieve, but it was a disaster for me and caused a lot of hurt feelings for years after. I was very grateful to my aunts for inviting me to their houses for the holidays where we spent whole days crying for all the family members who had died. It was like that was a place where it was okay to be sad, and I needed that. I love my aunts for providing that. My dad will talk about my mother now, but it’s ten years later. I don’t know how their father will respond, but it could be anything and it could very likely not be in a way that’s helpful to the girls.

    I don’t know if they’ll want this, but I also love being mothered now. My boyfriend’s mother made me a cake on my birthday and I almost started crying in their kitchen. I adore being petted and checked and pampered and given advice – I generally ignore the advice just as much as I would if my mother were giving it, but I wallow in any love there is behind it. One of the shocks of mom dying was my discovery that I wasn’t strong and independent like I thought I was – I thought I could take on anything but it turned out that I counted on that loving safety net. I was never homesick and always adventurous before she died and now I dread change and I dread leaving any comfortable circumstances. My entire self-conception had to change, because Katie with a mother and Katie without are two different people. I don’t know what you can do to help that except maybe talk about it

    I’m happy and healthy and my life is great, but there’s part of me that will always be sad. Losing a mother is a tragedy, and while the Lord can and will comfort us and give us strength, he doesn’t take away that sadness. I found that the eternal perspective helps with some things, but it didn’t take away the need to grieve and recover. No matter that I’ll be with her again, I’m not with her now and I won’t be for (most likely) decades. Maybe they will need to hear (maybe several times at different points in their life) that that’s okay to be upset by her death – it doesn’t mean a lack of faith.

  23. Katie, that is a beautiful and important post. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it. I am 51 and have not yet lost either of my parents. (My mother didn’t lose hers until she was in her 70’s.) From all I’ve seen, though, I believe the grief is permanent, though it goes through many transformations and phases.

  24. It has been a shade over one year since my wife died of cancer. As far as I can recall, I never once prayed that she would be healed. The reason is that I sensed, from the day of her diagnosis, spiritual promptings that she was going to die. It seems to me that we can only have true faith in something that we know to be God’s will. Otherwise, it is just wishing, however mightily. I recognize that it is a bit of a paradox that you would have to ask God for something he already desires to give you (or to avoid asking him for something you know he doesn’t want you to have). All the same, that is the way I think it must be. By the way, I feel it is unfortunate that we equate having died with being dead. I do not feel that way at all – my wife has died, but I am certain she is not dead.

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