Grieving in Mormonism

A typical Mormon funeral is held in the Mormon chapel. The Mormon bishop presides and usually gives the concluding talk. The bishop often listens to input from family members about the program, but he has the last say. Most talks are meant to be “hopeful,” and less about the individual who has died than about the message of the gospel of Christ. With the bishop playing cleanup, if those messages haven’t been hammered home enough, he will ensure that people remember that Christ was resurrected, that we will see our loved ones again in heaven, and that (hopefully) we are all sealed together through temple ordinances.

I’ve been to such funerals as a grandchild for a grandparent, as a friend to a woman who lost her adult son, as a fellow ward member, as an ex sister-in-law for a very close ex-brother-in-law. I’ve been to a handful of non-Mormon funerals. I’ve also been to funerals that were held in local funeral homes where the family was in charge instead. I’ve been the parent who was mourning her lost daughter at one of those family-led funerals at the graveside, as well.

I think there is a distinct difference between a Mormon funeral and a not-Mormon funeral. Mormon funerals don’t have a traditional eulogy. They truly are not about the person who died. Many relatives see the funeral as a chance to proselytize. I’m not joking, though it can be done more delicately or more crudely. In some cases, Mormon families “reclaim” a “lost” Mormon relative by doing a very Mormon funeral. Sometimes these funerals do violence to the name and personhood of the person dead, as in the case of a transgender person whose Mormon parents refuse to honor their transition and dead-name their child throughout the funeral. It also happens when Mormon family members dress the body in Mormon temple clothes, whether or not the person would have wanted that.

The Mormon idea of an eternal family bound by temple covenants can be very comforting — to those who remain within the fold. To those who have left, it is trickier. I for one have made it clear to my children that when I die, they can make their own choices. If they want me to write something up, it will only be to help avoid disputes, not because I feel I should have control of my remains beyond the grave. I don’t believe in an after-life anymore, but I’m not offended by the idea that my loved ones still do, and funerals are for the living.

That said, I think that it’s important to talk about the ways in which Mormon culture and doctrine dismiss grieving. I felt this very keenly when my daughter died at birth fourteen years ago, in 2005. At the time I was very much a devout, believing, orthodox Mormon. I expected to feel comforted by what people told me about my daughter. Instead, many things people said increased my pain. The idea that I was supposed to learn a “lesson” in order to make my daughter’s death worth it was devastating. I spent years running around, trying to make sure that whatever I did was “enough.” Other people told me that my daughter had died to make sure the rest of us got to heaven, because, apparently, we wouldn’t get there without this very painful stick.

Still others simply told me that this was God’s plan and that I shouldn’t grieve because I’d see my daughter again soon enough, that I’d be able to raise her, that Christ would make sure that nothing was lost. These people also tended to tell me faith-promoting stories of feeling the presence of a dead loved one at important family events, or miracle stories where the dead loved one intervened in a potentially dangerous situation. Or they told me directly that they had had a supernatural experience where my daughter appeared to them and spoke to them.

I was asked just weeks after my daughter’s death to accept a calling as a leader over the children’s organization in Mormonism (Primary) and was pressured into it, despite my own misgivings. It was one of the most difficult times in my life, and I felt that all around me, people insisted that I should be ready to “move on.” I’m not sure if this is because they felt that my grief should be less because I’d never gotten to know my daughter (one friend said this directly to me) or if it was because they thought that I shouldn’t be sad if I truly had enough faith to believe I’d see my daughter again.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat through talks where people insisted that being sad or depressed was a sign of giving into Satan’s power. Or that Christ obviates the need for mental health medication or therapy. Or that we should always be happy all the time because God demands gratitude or we’re proven unfaithful. I’ve heard from plenty of Mormons that of course we believe in allowing people time to grieve, or that I misunderstood, or that this idea that we shouldn’t grieve is cultural and not doctrinal. Ultimately, I don’t care about any of these. I’m going to describe my experience as it happened to me and let people make assumptions about whether I misinterpreted what people were saying to me.

Offering comfort is important. Denying grief is something else entirely.

We are told to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. And to mourn with those that mourn. These are our specific baptismal covenants as laid out in The Book of Mormon. I had a friend once who told me that Mormons always get it backwards, that we comfort those that are mourning and mourn with those who need comfort. I think she meant by this that we tell people who are mourning that there’s no need for it, and that we can’t see how to help other people, so we mourn with them instead of taking the trouble to do something. Maybe this is true. And maybe this is also not really a Mormon problem? Maybe everyone dislikes mourning. Maybe everyone turns away from it and wants mourners to hide away because it’s inconvenient. If so, it’s still not what Christ has asked us to do.

We need to do a better job of listening to people who are mourning. Instead of telling them what we think would be comforting, we should be asking them what they want. Instead of just bringing food (which I didn’t know what to do with because I was throwing up for days), we could sit and listen to them talk about their feelings. I know that it seems like this is doing nothing, but for me, it was the only time that I felt any comfort at all. Being pressured to give a testimony of the gospel was so harmful to me. It required me to expend my limited energy for the comfort of others, and really, it was supposed to be going the other way, wasn’t it? Well, I realized that wasn’t the reality. I spent so much time and energy forgiving other people for terrible things they said to me.

I think that we Mormons need to take a better look at ourselves and our need to paper over grief. It’s one thing to offer comfort to the grieving. It’s something else to want to not have to look at pain because it’s inconvenient to ourselves. One of the worst things I think I was told when I was grieving my daughter was that I would be healed if I served others. I tried to do this over and over again. Not only was I serving in the Primary where the other children were a constant reminder of what I’d lost, but I took meals to other women who’d just delivered living children. I fasted for women who had difficult pregnancies. I tried.

And each time, I felt like I was denying my own feelings. I felt like God had demanded this of me, and I learned to hate that God who was so cruel. Grief is normal. Grief is all around us. Turning away from us makes us less Mormon, less Christian, and less human. Asking those who grieve to bear the weight of our expectations that they be happy is a terrible burden to demand they bear. It takes them out of the body of Christ and sets them apart from us.

The truth is, I’m never going to stop grieving. I understand that now. No belief in a loving God, no forgiveness of myself, no belief in an after-life, is going to take my grief away from me. It’s been an enormous relief to accept this finally and stop punishing myself for my normal feelings. I suppose people around me might believe that what I’m doing is wallowing in grief or defining myself by my grief, but whatever. You can think what you want of me. I don’t need your approval of my grief. I approve of it myself now. But this is one reason why I’ve stepped away from my Mormon community. I needed a safe space to process my grief. I needed it to be OK that I wasn’t OK, and within Mormonism, I couldn’t voice that.

Each day that passes, my grief is compounded by a new day that I will never share with my daughter. Some days I hardly notice my grief. Other days, it comes back to me even stronger than before. Whatever the stages of grief are, I don’t know that I’ve ever come to acceptance. And that’s the way it is. The people who are part of my community now know this. They just reach over and hold my hand, listen to me, and then nod their heads. We don’t comfort each other. We just mourn with each other.

(If you like my posts on Mormonism here on Medium, look up my podcast The Mormon Sabbatical)

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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