The Mormon Sabbatical: New Thoughts on Death

I’ve heard many a Mormon say, “I don’t know how I’d live if I didn’t believe in an after-life” or about someone who has left Mormonism, “How can they keep going on day after day, knowing that this life is all there is?” It was definitely one of the hardest things about my original transition away from traditional religious beliefs to let go of the idea that I would live again, that death wasn’t really something to worry about, that all the people I loved would be with me again in the next life in the same way that they are now. I clung so hard to the idea that nothing would ever be lost. And you know what? The best thing about my life now is my realization that this is all I have. If that makes no sense at all to you, keep reading.

When I believed that I’d have my children, my parents, my faithful friends, everyone I loved, with me again in the next life — I didn’t value them as much as I do now. If that sounds ridiculous, let me explain a little more. It’s not that I loved them less. I mean if you’d asked me, I’d have said that I loved my children as much as I could love anyone. It was a revelation to me when they were born that I could love so completely. It felt like there was no other part of me than the part that loved these tiny creatures that needed me so absolutely.

And then sleep deprivation hit. And the terrible twos. And potty training. And saying “No” to everything. And running around naked at a family party. And refusing to walk to school. And hitting the other children for no good reason. And getting them to practice the piano. And eat the food that I made even if it wasn’t their favorite. And grades. And church activities. And on and on. (I liked the teenage years by and large, so I won’t go there.)

I yelled at my kids. More than I wish were true, even if I’m being kind to myself about having five kids in eight years and trying simultaneously to jumpstart a career as a young adult fantasy writer with a national press and a national agent from the wilds of Utah when I rarely could leave the house. I punished my kids when they stepped out of my very strict lines. I can’t say I really enjoyed them. I was too busy trying to make sure they did what I said so that we could all be in heaven together again.

It’s true that I had a sense of safety that God was protecting us and that nothing bad would happen as long as I followed all the “rules.” I was blind to the real threat of death that was on every street corner. I panicked about that loss of control after my youngest daughter died at birth in 2005 and I spent several years in a deep suicidal depression because I felt at fault for her death (though that was actually ridiculous in the circumstances).

I’ve come a long way since then. I no longer spend a lot of time worrying about death. It seems like I had to do all that teenage work about thirty years late, but I’ve dealt with it now. It’s not that I think I have control over life and death. I don’t. But what death means is that life is so much more precious to me now. This moment is all that I have.

I know that this statement would have baffled the old me. How can you like something that is surrounded by terror and sadness? Well, it’s hard to explain if you haven’t really faced death before, and I don’t think I ever did as a Mormon. People died, but then I waved a hand and told myself I’d see them again and there’s no real sorrow there. You’re just waiting until later and it will all be fine.

The cure to my suicidal depression was partly realizing that death was coming for me soon enough. I didn’t need for it to be right now. I could wait for the final sleep, the final release of all my troubles. Because I would only have one chance to live, however miserable that chance is.

I think about this a lot in the midst of situations I once would have called terrible and painful.

Kidney stones.

One child’s suicidal depression.

Another child’s cutting.

My marital problems.

The painful process of leaving Mormonism.


Exhaustion (more and more often now that I’m getting older)

Waiting in line

Sitting for two hours in the pouring rain, waiting for my son’s commencement ceremony to, well, commence.

Hoping for something for a child or other loved one that I have no control over.

Instead of wanting to push these away so I can work toward perfection or making it to the next life, where everything will be perfect, what I feel now is the sweetness that tinges everything that is temporary. And everything in this life is temporary. Everything lasts for only this moment and then it will be gone. Pushing away the bad means pushing away all the good that is inextricably intertwined with the bad.

During my kidney stones in the hospital, my husband held my hand and kept me sane.

My son’s graduation, however physically unpleasant, was one of the most joyous days of my life. I was well aware that it would only last for a few hours and I clung to those while they were mine, then tried to let them go. Because I have no guarantee I will have more hours like those with him, and at the same time, it’s likely that there will be other events, good and bad, that I will share with him and that this one will seem then like it doesn’t matter anymore.

Listening to my teen/grown children weep is one of the greatest privileges of parenthood. I’m not sure I have words to express the painful pleasure that comes with realizing that this person trusts you deeply enough to be vulnerable with you, combined with the realization that there is absolutely nothing you can do to fix their pain. Or that you should do to fix their pain, because this is their life and their journey and you are just here to witness it.

That’s all we have. The chance to witness. The chance to breathe a little while together. And then it’s gone.

I remember a few months after my daughter died, I watched my other children walk up the hill in our backyard in their snowsuits, rope pulling their sleds in hand, and they screamed out in delight as they zoomed down the hill. I was inexpressibly angry that they got to be alive and my youngest daughter didn’t. They got to enjoy going down that hill and she never would. She also got to skip all the bad parts of being alive, but I didn’t feel any comfort at that. Because how could I? That is what living is.

I’m not a fan of saying that bad things happen for a reason, or that God wanted this to happen so I learned a lesson. But I did learn a lesson. And if this bad thing happened for a reason, to teach me that life is short and that we don’t get to pick and choose, I embrace that lesson. I embrace all of it. Life to me is only so sweet and so precious because it ends. I can’t know when it will end. I don’t get to choose. I say “I love you” to my dearest ones whenever I have a chance because you never know. If that sounds morbid, yeah, it probably is. It’s also true, as true as anything I’ve found in this side of my life.

(If you liked this post, you might like the first episode of my new podcast, The Mormon Sabbatical:

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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