She Who Loses Her Life Shall Find It

Mom Hand

Dear Will:

I’m sorry that I have not written for a while. Truth be told, I’ve started down this path a half a dozen times and have been unable to find my footing. So tonight I’m simply going to start walking and see where it leads.

On the Friday entering Memorial Day weekend my mother, Becky, passed away. She was 91. Having lived a full and blessed life, she was ready to move on to “what’s next.” The last year of her life wasn’t easy, given the gradual decline of her body, and she admitted that she would just as soon be done with it all. She told me, in fact, that she was curious to see what’s it’s like on the other side. (Me too.) So now she knows, and you and I are left to wonder.

I said she lived a blessed life, and I think it would be fair to say that she died a blessed death as well. She pretty much stayed away from the hospital, and since my father left her with sufficient savings she could afford to stay in her home where we could sit and visit and hold hands until the very end. We found a saintly woman to look after her most days, and when she couldn’t, my brother, sister, and equally saintly sister-in-law filled in the rest. On the day she passed away, my mother’s home was filled with laughter and love and many of the people she cared about most.

Just before she died, those of us who were with her circled her bed for a family prayer. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes later that she slipped away, so quietly that, even though we were right there beside her, we didn’t even notice at first. There was no drama. No trauma. She simply stopped breathing. It was very sweet.

If you had been at the funeral, you would have heard this recurring thought: My mother was the most unselfish person imaginable. Her life reflected an unwavering commitment to doing what would make other people happy—because that’s what made her happy as well. I think that’s what the Savior had in mind when He taught that she who loses her life shall find it (Matthew 10:39). She gave and gave until she had nothing left to give. And yet, as I think I have mentioned before (for example here and here and here), I continue to benefit from her many, many gifts.

The death of a loved one is one of those moments in which we are all forced to confront one of the central questions of all existence: Is that all? In that instant when her heart stopped pumping, did Becky Watkins cease to be? Or does life continue in some other form? Even for those of us who faithfully show up for Sunday School (and occasionally dash off letters like this one), we must consider whether or not we actually believe what we say.

So for the record: I do believe. I believe Jesus, who said: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). I believe Paul, who wrote: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). And I believe my mother, who taught me these things when I was a small boy and continued to reinforce them throughout my life. I have no doubt that my mother lives on and that we shall be reunited some day.

And so I do not mourn her passing. But do I miss her? Every single day.

PW

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What Do You Say?

Dear Will:

A friend of mine died last week. He was only 57, and as far as most of us knew, he was in reasonably good health. But then he broke his leg, which led to an infection, which led to pneumonia, and before we knew it he was on life-support. On Monday night, his wife of 30 years honored his wishes and instructed his doctors to disconnect the equipment that was keeping him alive. Within 15 minutes he was gone.

What a jolt. Those of us on the periphery had been told that he was slowly improving, but then last weekend he took a final, fatal turn for the worse. As you might imagine, his wife was devastated—is devastated. As she said to me: “We were supposed to grow old together. Now what am I supposed to do?”

What do you say to someone in a moment like that? Mostly you offer trite words of consolation: “I’m so sorry. He was a great guy. It’s not fair that you should lose him at such an early age.” And on and on. But as I said, such pronouncements, however sincere, are trite at best. They do not begin to provide substantive solace or meaningful counsel.

The truth is that the only way to get one’s bearings after the unexpected loss of a loved one is through words of eternal significance. When my father died last year, those were the only words that brought me any sense of comfort. I remember that the words of Job came repeatedly to mind at that time: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). Knowing, as I did, that life extends beyond this mortal existence made it much easier for me to accept his death.

The scriptures teach that faith leads to hope. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland put it this way:

Faith, Mormon taught, leads to hope, a special, theological kind of hope. The word is often used to express the most general of aspirations—wishes, if you will. But as used in the Book of Mormon it is very specific and flows naturally from one’s faith in Christ. . . .

What is the nature of this hope? It is certainly much more than wishful thinking. It is to have “hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise” [Moroni 7:41]. That is the theological meaning of hope in the faith-hope-charity sequence. With an eye to that meaning, Moroni 7:42 then clearly reads, “If a man have faith [in Christ and his atonement] he must needs [as a consequence] have hope [in the promise of the Resurrection, because the two are inextricably linked]; for without faith [in Christ’s atonement] there cannot be any hope [in the Resurrection].” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon [1997], 334–35).

No doubt there will be the chance to talk of such things in the days ahead. In the meantime, I pray for those my friend left behind—his wife, his siblings, his close friends—who find themselves wondering about death-too-soon and life hereafter. May they come to know, as I do, that “by man came death, [and] by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

PW

I Wish You Could Have Known Him

Dear Will:

It is with a combination of sadness and joy that I write to tell you that on April 17 my father passed away. He was 86.

We were fortunate to have him at home and alert for several days prior to his death. On Easter Sunday (just five days before he died, as it turns out), the family gathered at his home, where he was under hospice care. There were nearly 20 of us there, and in spite of his condition it was fun to be together. We took turns sitting around his bed and keeping him posted on the Masters golf tournament.

Earlier that day he had asked me to give him a Priesthood blessing, “releasing him,” as it were, to let go of mortality. So when the meal was over (he ate nothing) he said to me, “Let’s get on with it.” After a family prayer, I placed my hands on his head and pronounced some simple words, blessing him with comfort and peace and the assurance that he was “free to go” whenever he felt ready to do so.

It was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. Afterwards, the grief I felt was overwhelming—a physically crushing sensation that all but consumed me. After pronouncing the blessing, each one there took a moment to express their love to him, one at a time. When each person had had a turn, he gathered us around his bed for some final words of counsel: He asked us to take care of my mother, to love one another, and expressed his confidence that God would watch over us after he was gone.

We cried a lot that day. But as I look back on it—now two weeks later—I recall the day with a great sense of joy and gratitude. What a wonderful blessing it was for us all to be together when he was still lucid, for us each to have some time with him to express our love, for the Spirit of God to be there in our midst and bless us in our moment of grief. I realize that often death comes so quickly and unexpectedly that we don’t get the chance to say our most tender goodbyes. Because we had that chance with my father, that Easter Sunday will remain a favorite memory of his dying days.

His funeral was last week. It became a great celebration of the man as we reminisced together about my father’s life: his charm, his idiosyncrasies, his talents, and his many accomplish­ments. Friends and family gathered from across the map, including some elderly lifelong friends of his. I was comforted by their presence there, for I saw it as an affirmation of a life well-lived.

I had the chance to speak at his funeral service, and although it wasn’t easy, I was honored to do so. I told some favorite stories, including this conversation:

Me: “Dad, if you really loved me you’d buy me a car.”

Dad: “Well, now you know.”

I expressed my thanks for all he taught me and all of the ways in which he blessed my life. In conclusion, I echoed the testimony of Job: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). I know I will see my father again, and when we see each other, we shall embrace and enjoy the richness of eternity together. And until then, he’s in a better place, freed at last from his crumbling mortal body.

I’m sorry you never got the chance to know Jay Watkins. He was a good man. You would have liked him.

PW