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Those who follow Meridian, know that we lost our beautiful, oldest daughter Melissa, on Sept. 10 of this year when she unexpectedly died in her sleep. I continue to process in writing my feelings about our loss at this Christmas season and explore my tender feelings of gratitude for the surpassing comfort that only the Lord can bring.
I hung the Christmas stockings this year with poignancy. As the children have grown and left home, I have continued to hang those many stockings, as a wistful reminder of earlier days, but nothing has been so tender as this year—because I put up Melissa’s stocking with the sure knowledge that it will never be filled again. Every year I will hang it, and every year it will be a mute reminder that she is gone.
Perhaps I could relieve my loss and leave it in the box, but then, I fear, the hole would be worse, an unused Christmas stocking left behind.
We were once walking through a cemetery in Sturbridge Village where 37 of Scot’s ancestors were buried. Melissa, wearing a red wool coat, a slash of color in the gray winter scene, lingered for quite awhile before a three hundred year old slate tombstone. She had tears in her eyes for the woman there who was buried alone, without husband or children or relatives. “Who remembered her? Who remembers her?” she asked. “Nobody.”
It makes me want to shout out now since she has died, “I remember you. I will always remember you.”
Funny things happen to you when you lose someone close to you in death. Every part of your soul is wrenched and you can’t predict when you will find yourself in a puddle of tears or exploring thoughts that have never arrived in your soul before, like the thud of a suitcase landing on the baggage claim.
Scot was closing out Melissa’s phone the other day, and could hardly make it through what should have been a routine business call. For the person on the other end of the phone, it was all about dollars and cents, but Scot’s voice quivered about a phone he’ll never call again and a voice he’ll never hear.
I had a dream a few weeks after her death that a relative was coming from the other side to get my husband Scot. I had seen her coming and assumed it was for someone else, but then it was clear she was going to take my husband instead. In my dream I started screaming, pleading, imploring with my whole soul, “No, you can’t take him. You can’t have him. Not Scot. Not Scot.”
I awoke worried, but then relieved, because I knew this dream wasn’t prophecy, but an expression of pain. The world seems more fragile and therefore more precious to me these days. If someone you love can suddenly die, what can be counted on?
Even as I ask that question, I already know the answer—not in some abstract way and not in theory only. Here is a mystery, though I am grieving, I am also aware of a light that runs through my system, seeks out every lost corner, and fills in every dark crack. Where there is pain, the Lord rushes in if I don’t resist Him.
I am sturdy. The center of my life has not flown to pieces. Light and assurance fills me.
He says, “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee” (3 Nephi 22:10) The mountains of my life have shifted, there has been a quake in my sense of well-being, but I can testify that what He speaks in scripture is true. This God who has always been my friend and his words, which I have studied and pursued my entire life, have not failed me—not in any way.
Perhaps I can feel His friendship now, when I am desperate, because we have always been such friends. In this difficult time, I have learned more than ever before of His loving goodness. Singing with the choir in my ward, I heard the truth in the last verse of “Silent Night.”
“Son of God, love’s pure light.” Ah yes. This I know. I am bathing in love’s pure light even when I cry.
He is good on his promises. “He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light that is endless, that can never be darkened” (Mosiah 16:9)
I can see that God is willing to give all of us much more than we ever suppose. I have spent too much time in shallow waters, while He was always willing to fill my soul and expand my mind, spent too much time in shadows when he would shower me with light. Perhaps grief is an invitation to the sunlight of His embrace—for there is really nowhere else to turn and half-measures will not comfort.
Others know this secret—and sometimes, as I have, learned it in hardship.
A friend sent this story to comfort us, which I now profoundly understand. There is a song that is sung in many Christian churches called “It is Well with My Soul.” The first verse goes like this and then continues in equally beautiful poetry.
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll:
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
It is the story behind the creation of this song that makes it more poignant and explores this contradiction. Sorrows roll and it is still “well with my soul?” How can this be? This is an answer I want, an answer we all want who mourn or are burdened.
Horatio Spafford, a prosperous lawyer and devout Presbyterian Church elder who was active in the abolitionist crusade and other significant reform movements, wrote this song. What he did was to go about doing good, but it did not always look from the surface that that good was returned to him.
In 1871, Chicago was decimated by roaring flames that leaped 100 feet high and ate through the city, turning 2,000 acres to ash. Horatio lost most of his business and real estate holdings in the fire.
A freakish wind whipped the fire into masses of over-heated air that began spinning violently upon contact with the cooler air so that one witness said, it “drove the flames before it with a force and fierceness which could never be described or imagined.”
In the end $200 million worth of property was destroyed, 300 lives were lost and 100,000 people—one third of the city’s population—were left homeless. Horatio, with his business decimated, certainly knew what it was to have his life stained with ash.
Two years later in 1873, still shaken with their challenges, Horatio sent his wife, Anna and their four daughters to Europe on a ship hoping they could renew and rest from their worries. At the last minute Horatio was detained by business and the girls went ahead, sailing on the ocean liner S.S. Ville du Havre.
This name may not ring in our minds like the Titanic, but what happened was a maritime disaster of enormous proportions. The ship was hit by the British iron sailing ship Lochearn and within 12 minutes on November 2, 1871 sunk into the watery depths of the Atlantic, killing 266 passengers, including all of the Spaffords daughters, Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta.
Unconscious and floating on a plank of wood, Anna was picked up by the crew of the Lochhearn. Nine days later, Anna landed in Cardiff Wales and cabled Horatio, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”
Could there be a more plaintive message? Of course, Horatio, immediately left Chicago to sail to Europe to bring his stricken wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain called him into his office to tell him that they were just going over the spot where his four daughters perished.
He wrote, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”
It would hardly seem the time to write a song, let alone one that is called “It is Well with my Soul,” when everything seemed so completely unwell. Yet, I actually find myself feeling the same way. Here I am devastated at Christmas with the loss of our daughter, and yet, and yet, it is still well with my soul. I am intact and connected to Deity. I am assured even when I weep. I can feel secure and loved even though I cry over our daughter’s early death.
This mourning has become for me an invitation to know more. How do you become so marvelously resilient? I want to be. How do you take the knocks of this mortal life—which are many and shared by us all—and find renewal and hope and spiritual optimism even in the midst of this wounding? I see there are those who do. They must know something that I very badly want to know.
I was once in a hot air balloon that somehow couldn’t get off the ground. Instead it got a little lift, then dropped, then skidded across the ground with several uncomfortable plunks. It finally just came to an unceremonious stop, never able to get off the ground for this ride. We finally all got out, both bruised and disappointed because we had supposed we would fly.
I don’t want to skid and plunk with the burdens I carry and never soar again. Everywhere I turn these days, the Lord is sending me hints about resiliency.
During scripture study I come across this story told by Elder Russell M. Nelson. When President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie, were in Central America years ago, heading from a chapel to the airport, they were in a car accident. A truck loaded on top with unsecured metal rods barreled into an intersection and to avoid collision, the driver slammed on his brakes “launching those iron rods like javelins to pierce the Hinckleys’ car. Windows were smashed; fenders and doors were dented. The accident could have been very serious. While shattered glass was being removed from their clothing and skin, President Hinckley said; ‘Thank the Lord for His blessing; now let’s continue on in another car.’”
That was it. Pieces of shattered glass on clothes and skin were not enough to shatter their well-being. Their spiritual capacity and resilience were intact.
Jacques Lusseyran, famous as a blind, French resistance fighter when Hitler attacked France wrote, “When you said to me: ‘Tell me the story of your life,’ I was not eager to begin. But when you added, ‘What I care most about is learning your reasons for loving life,’ then I became eager for that was a real subject.
“All the more since I have maintained this love of life through everything: through infirmity, the terrors of war, and even in Nazi prisons. Never did it fail me, not in misfortune nor in good times, which may seem much easier, but is not.”
Oh Jacques Lusseyran, what do you know? What can I learn?
These stories intrigue me, not because I want to pretend that I am not mourning a real loss right now. I am not interested in shoving my feelings away or pasting on a happy facemask. What I really want to know is how to drink from that source that gives real renewal and rebirth, tapping into that eternal wellspring that continues to flow even in the driest of seasons. It is possible and there are clearly those who have learned. Could there be anything more eternally important than learning to open your heart to the source of that light?
“And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space”(D&C 88, 11,12).
This is what makes it well with our soul, even in times of shadow.
This God of love is also a God of well-being—even in our trials—perhaps especially in our trials where He can teach us things that we cannot see, and do not seek, when we pretend we are making it on our own.
I panicked recently because I couldn’t remember Melissa’s singing voice. I tried to recreate it in my mind—and it wasn’t there. Oh no, oh no. Don’t let this limited mortal brain lose her. I don’t want her gestures or the toss of her head or the turn of her speech to gradually fade from me.
That’s when I received a golden gift. Our son Eliot texted us in the middle of the night to say that Melissa’s friend had posted a video of her singing at her mission Christmas program from years ago. I rushed to the computer to see that girl I knew so well singing in her crystal clear—and yes, oh so familiar voice—“A Window to His Love.” The idea of this song is that those around us can be a window through which we see God’s love.
I wept as I saw the video, and replayed it again and again and again. Hearing her solo was a mix of tenderness and torture for me, yet I couldn’t resist hearing it on a sort of endless repeat. There she was. Every gesture known so well by me. Several times a day, I play it still and snatches of the words she sings play upon my mind and seem prophetic.
“I want to be so pure and clear
“That you won’t even know I’m here”
“I want to stand so straight and tall that you won’t notice me at all.”
“With each passing day
I want to fade away.
“And with each passing year
I want to disappear
So only He can be seen
And I become a window to His love.”
Oh, Melissa, who would have ever supposed? Even in your death, you have become a window to His love for me. You have become, as the song says, “A bearer of the message He’d have me bring to you.”
His message is that He is there at midnight with a light that can never be extinguished. His message is that because of the empowerment given me through His atonement, I do not need to collapse, but can work toward soul resilience and greater spiritual capacity.
His message is about you too. You are not gone, not someone I left behind on the road and years from now on my journey, you will be so far away in time and memory that I can barely access you. You are alive and vibrant and well, and our tracks are parallel. We are still on a journey together back toward the ultimate comfort of our real home.
Someone wrote, as if in the first person of one who has died, “Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
“Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why would I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.”
I want to think of you, my daughter, with joy, not tears. I want to hang your stocking on the mantle and know that far from being empty, it is full, filled with the love and light that only the true Giver can bring—and did—on Christmas.
Every Christmas I am there in my mind at the manger. I would have burst into songs with the heavenly choir—as I am certain we all did—because we couldn’t help ourselves. Singing flowed forth because we couldn’t contain our joy.
We knew, oh Jesus our Savior, that you would be with us not only in every weakness, but in every emotional extremity.
“Be near me, Lord Jesus. I ask Thee to stay.’
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.”
That is a prayer that is already answered. He has stayed close by us and loved us—and will continue forever and ever. No other gift could ever compare.
This is the video the author describes of her daughter, Melissa, singing “A Window to His Love” in the mission field.