Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
I was stringing lights this weekend until the family room looked aglow and thinking of our daughter, Melissa. Some years ago we didn’t think she would be coming home for Christmas, but on Christmas Eve, much to our surprise, the doorbell rang and there she stood on the front porch, the glow of Christmas lights reflected on her face. She had driven the miles from Boston to Virginia to surprise us. It was the best Christmas present I ever received.
I wish the doorbell would ring this Christmas and she would be standing there, but she died suddenly and unexpectedly September 10 from complications following surgery and that doorbell will not be ringing for me this Christmas or on any to come.
I have debated about writing this article because it is so intensely personal, but when I hesitate I am impressed again to share some tender feelings. This will not let me alone, and so I plunge into my own heart hoping that someone, somewhere will be lifted and that I can express in some small way my unspeakable gratitude for the comforting power of the Savior’s atonement.
As I write this, part of me still doesn’t believe it is true, because how can someone so vibrant and alive and important to you just suddenly be gone? Now, no matter where I look or where I go wandering in this whole world I can’t find her face, and it will be a long, long time before I see her again.
The shock and pain of this death has carried me to place I’ve never been before. One night years ago, we were lying in bed during a thunderstorm when a sound crashed over our head like two earths colliding with a primordial roar. It registered in my nerve endings, thundered through the house, and actually knocked a neighbor out of bed. Some suggested it was a lightning strike or sheet lightning directly over our heads, but we never learned for sure what it was. It was unforgettably out of my realm of experience.
I thought, before that night, that I knew what deafening noise was—and I was so wrong. My understanding of sound waves and their possibilities had been contained in some safe, knowable range. Loud could be painful, but nothing like this. Now, with this, pulse-stopping, earth-shattering bellow, I knew something more about what sound could do.
My grief at my daughter’s death was the same. I have been heart broken often in the past. It is part of the human condition, but this was entirely new in its power and intensity. I could hardly have been more bodily and emotionally shocked if I had been hit by a truck. Each morning after her death, even before consciousness, I awoke in so much pain, I couldn’t muddle out why. Then it came to my waking mind, “Melissa is dead.” It was like a terrible chant that came drumming through my brain all day long. Conversation was a burden, not because I didn’t value the connection, but because nothing in my system seemed to work, including the ability to make a sentence.
I arose, only to want to go back to bed. It was as if someone had taken a spigot to my body and drained all vital energy and life force away. Or as if someone had poured glue over my system so that nothing could move. Sometimes I howled in grief. Sometimes I was just paralyzed. A child you have born and known and raised is connected to you in every cell—and each one was feeling the wrench and tear of disconnection.
I wanted to go to a movie because I told my husband, Scot, I just want to identify with someone else for two hours. Can I just not be me for a little span of time? We went to a movie on a week-day night, but when the credits rolled we were both blubbering. It wasn’t a sad movie. I suggested we stay for a second—for the first one hadn’t been enough of an escape. We managed to be the only people in the theater for a 9:00 p.m showing of Pete’s Dragon, but when Pete snuggled into the dragon’s hug, it was too much for me. I was grateful for an empty theater so I could sob without an audience.
Despite a movie’s failure to offer comfort, I did notice that the only time I felt any relief in the first two weeks was at the temple, where the Lord gave me understanding and a suggestion; when I received a priesthood blessing that was powerful in its message, and at church, when friends flanked me with their love. This is tell-tale, I thought. The distractions of the world may be shiny, but they are thin. What is essential for comfort, the necessary balm, the lifting of the feeble knees can only come through God.
I love the song “Homeward Bound” that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings. Sometimes the part of me that is homesick for the Lord, just puts that song on repeat and I listen to it again and again. These words especially have echoed in my heart since our daughter’s death.
“If you find it’s me you’re missing,
If you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening,
In the road, I’ll stop and turn.”
Has she stopped and turned—hearing my calling to her? Everything reminds me of Melissa. I am curling my granddaughter Jane’s golden, still-baby fine hair, and suddenly it is Melissa’s hair I am fingering, the golden strands plying through my hands. How many hundreds of times did I do her hair as she grew up?
I am teaching Sunday School at BYU and one girl is caught up in the message. You can see her emotions and thoughts play across her face. Oh, I remember, that is Melissa, whose love of learning you could see on her face, who put her whole body into performing the violin or singing. I can see it in my mind’s eye.
I am walking across the Harvard Yard leading a church history tour after her death, but she is walking with me as we did so many times before when she taught there. With that same tour we visit Louisa Mae Alcott’s home in Concord, but for me I am at the same place years ago and 18-year old Melissa is saying she hopes to work there next summer. Oh, Melissa, you are everywhere for me.
How can I endure? The Lord must help me.
I visited the “Light of the World” garden, that includes 15 scenes from the life of the Savior, sculpted by Angela Johnson and I am caught up with the marks in His hands in one statue. I can’t stop looking at them. Who put them there? Something that I’ve always known, hits me hard. I put them there. It wasn’t just the Jewish Sanhedrin or the Roman soldiers. It was me, not just with my weaknesses—which, as He kindly told the woman washing his feet, “are many”, but also with this grief that I can’t possibly carry. I can’t.
Two thousand years ago he took my searing grief upon himself, this grief I didn’t even know I would have. He carried it then for me and so I know he will carry it now. But what does that mean and how can I feel that power? If he took upon himself the pains of his people—of me, how can I be relieved of this burden?
I have to know. I am really desperate to know because this is “a grief that can’t be spoken, it’s a pain goes on and on.”
I know what I want. I have heard others say when a loved one dies that it was as if they were surrounded in a blanket of comfort. I know what that is—and often have felt that cascade of light that is the Spirit that touches, lifts and blesses and suddenly makes all things right and heavenly.
I want that and I suggest to the Lord that this would be a good time to send me that profound comfort that only the Spirit can give. I want Him to comfort me in the very particular way I am asking. I want this blanket of light to curl up in. But days pass and I am not feeling this and I suspect that my own nerves are too frayed to receive.
So I keep asking in prayer how He can comfort me—and he says to me what he said to Nephi, “Look.” “Look, Maurine, look. Pay close attention.” And thus I do pay close attention, looking for His hand, and gradually, bit by bit, I see. I see clearly that every day I am being carried along with His grace and gifts. My eyes are opened.
What is this solid, foundational, peaceful core growing inside of me? It is the fruit of many things.
First, in this time of my deepest tragedy, I find no part of me that is mad at God. I don’t feel to whine or pout or shake my hand and question Him. I don’t feel to say, “Why me? Why break my mother’s heart?”
This is not because I have always been so unshakeable. I remember times years ago in the midst of difficulty and what looked to me to be unanswered prayers, when I felt ignored by God and even a little huffy that He didn’t come and ease my every difficulty. But I have grown since then and my friendship with the Lord is deep and unwavering. He has been my friend and my support. When I have cried out, He has answered ‘Here am I.’ When I have sought Him, He has been found—not always on my time schedule or always in the way I preferred, but through these many long years together, I have come to say like Nephi, “I know in whom I have trusted.”
I feel so blessed that through my tears, I trust Him now. This feels like ballast inside of me, keeping me grounded and whole. What immense compounding of my pain there would have been had I felt angry and alienated at God because my daughter died way too early in my estimation. This sense of trust I feel toward God is a gift of the atonement, the balm offered by the suffering Son.
The Lord said, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an expected end (Jeremiah 29:11) The Lord does nothing to hurt us. “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world, for he loveth the world” (2 Nephi 26:24).
The Lord tells me to trust Him, that he will not hurt me, and I do.
Second, based in that trust, I am confident that though she is not here, that Melissa lives as the vibrant, talented eternal soul she has always been and what’s more, she is surrounded by people who love her. I can feel that as a certainty that only comes through the Spirit.
I do not need to grieve that she is unhappy or lonely or that all the promise of her life was cut short. I could wallow for days in those thoughts if I let myself—the songs she will not sing and the classes she will not teach–but the Lord tells me that He knows her and loves her and none of her potential is lost. She lives in a joyful place, and I can feel that. Mortal limitations have been left behind. Who am I weeping for? For me, not for her. Ask not “for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”
I cry out, “But I would have liked so much more life with her,” and the Lord answers, “You will have it.” He says, “Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spake concerning you” (Joshua 23:14).
Third, I was so entirely weakened by Melissa’s death, I wondered how to function at all. But, now I know even more profoundly the enabling power of the atonement. When Nephi was bound by his brothers, Nephi cried out, “O Lord, according to my faith which is in thee, wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren; yea, even give me strength that I may burst these bands with which I am bound” (1 Nephi 7:17).
Elder David A. Bednar said of this situation, “Do you know what I likely would have prayed for if I had been tied up by my brothers? My prayer would have included a request for something bad to happen to my brothers and ended with the phrase ‘wilt thou deliver me from the hands of my brethren’ or, in other words, ‘Please get me out of this mess, now!’ It is especially interesting to me that Nephi did not pray, as I probably would have prayed, to have his circumstances changed. Rather, he prayed for the strength to change his circumstances. And may I suggest that he prayed in this manner precisely because he knew and understood and had experienced the enabling power of the Atonement of the Savior.”
With about the strength of a rag doll, I needed the power that can only come from the atonement—especially when only three weeks from our daughter’s death, we left to lead a Church history tour. This means for my husband, Scot and me, that we teach all day long as we lead a busload of people to the Church history sites, see to their needs and help create a loving community among them with fun and insight and joy.
How could we possibly do this? How could I do this? I prayed for strength. A few of the people on our tour knew of our recent loss but we didn’t tell the others so a shadow wouldn’t be cast over their experience. We prayed for the empowerment offered by the atonement, and that gift was given so freely to our wounded hearts.
When I left, still in shock and trauma, I couldn’t imagine talking, let alone teaching, but immediately strength was poured into me. It was like a waterfall of power that was so far beyond our own. Oh, the merits and mercy of the Lord, who gives what we need, who parts the Red Sea for us, who carries our burdens.
I knew where this gift of strength came from, because as I searched my own system, I didn’t find it there. That strength has just continued to be showered upon us. We can function, We can smile. We can think beyond our pain. What a remarkable gift. I know Whose arm I am leaning on.
Fourth, it is a mortal thing to know fear, because none of us can be certain what is coming tomorrow. I have certainly grappled with it in my life at times. Now, however, with our daughter’s death, something has happened in my life. One of the worst things has happened that I could imagine, and what do I find? I have been carried along and through by the God I love.
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).
In my depth, I was not separated from the love of God. What a remarkable thing to learn. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4).
He carries me. He wipes my tears. He teaches me to triumph over fear by demonstrating that I am not abandoned in my depths. He pours power into me, when I would rather collapse. This is the atonement at work and I praise the Lord forever for this gift.
One last thing. I received two gifts that were not coincidences and were not accidents, and I want the Lord to know I noticed.
I had been praying wistfully about how much I wish I could just talk one more time with Melissa. She was the best conversationalist around, but mostly I just wanted to hear her voice. Then, one day I went to text a daughter, Michaela, whose name also began with “M.” When I wrote the first letter in my text search bar, what should pop up automatically in my text as I searched, but “Melissa.” I had forgotten that we had ever texted, because mostly we talked on the phone.
But there it was, screen after screen of our conversations that I did not know were there. I read them with joy and laughter and a sense of who we were together and I heard the Lord tell me that this was the answer to my prayer. I accepted that joyfully.
The next time I went to reread these conversations, I couldn’t find them under “Melissa” in my text. They were actually listed only under her old phone number. That these texts popped up when I only put “M” was just a gift. I knew it and I knew God knew it.
Then also one night, we were out to dinner and were talking tenderly of our memories with Melissa. A gifted pianist played all evening which soothed our souls. We talked so long, the restaurant emptied and only we were left with the pianist. After a few minutes of silence, she began to play the only spiritual song of the evening, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
As we left, we lingered at her piano, to hear the rest of the song. “Did you play that for us?” my husband, Scot asked. She said, “I had put my music away and was ready to go, when the Spirit said, “You need to play one more song.”
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was a favorite of Melissa’s. She had performed and recorded it with the BYU Women’s Choir when she was in college. She had mentioned it again just days before her death. There couldn’t have been a song that more clearly would identify to us that she lives and that the tender talk and a few tears of that evening registered in heaven and were acknowledged on earth.
How can I express my gratitude for the Lord’s goodness? I know that in Gethsemane when he was taking upon himself the pains and grief of countless billions, that there was an individual moment just for me and the tears I would cry. We are in this grief together while He watches out for Melissa where she has another world in which to sing.
Because of the Savior’s great sacrifice, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Thank you hardly seems enough to say.
This Christmas Eve, I will be waiting for a knock at the door that will not come, but we will invite the Savior in with fuller hearts.