Editor’s Note: Beloved Meridian author Darla Isackson passed away. We will continue to share her wonderful insights here periodically.
Though this article was originally published some years ago, her opening feels just as applicable today.
In the past few months so many thousands of people have experienced major loss and been plunged into grief. TV images of people struggling, suffering, even dying as a result of natural disasters and man’s inhumanity to man have become a daily occurrence.
Though grief comes in many different ways, grieving loss is a universal experience no mortal can long avoid; we can’t opt out of it. However, the way we choose to respond is one of life’s great tests — and great opportunities. Have you noticed how dire circumstances bring out the best and worst in people? I’ve been touched by stories of rescue, help, and kindness in the aftermath of tragedy, but saddened by the opposite.
Some interpret tragedy and loss as proof there is no God — or if He is there that He is totally distant and unconcerned with human suffering. They may close up, become bitter and angry, allowing the adversary to influence their thoughts and feelings. They choose misery. Others find grief the very doorway to spiritual evidences of God’s loving care; they open up and become more believing and compassionate. Some rail at God for the loss of loved ones, loss of homes and comforts, and so allow the adversary to keep them in negativity, fear, and darkness. Others turn to Him with greatly increased realization of their need for spiritual strength and comfort — and find it.
The Purpose of Adversity Is to Bring Us to Christ
A total paradigm shift is possible when we remember that “all flesh is in mine hands” (D&C 61:6) and that God’s purpose in affliction is to turn us toward Him. In Hosea 5:15 we read, “In their affliction they will seek me early.”
In Helaman 12:3 we read, “And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him.”
Do we not live in a world in great need of remembering the Savior of the World? Are the afflictions we are seeing turning hearts to God? As believing Latter-day Saints, the question is, will we remember Christ always as we covenant to do as we partake of the Sacrament? When tragedy hits us personally will we choose to remember Him or will we choose to be miserable as Satan is?
Satan, the Fountain of Misery
Satan epitomizes misery and desires all men to be miserable like unto him. In 2 Nephi 2:18 we read, “And because he [Satan] had fallen from heaven, and had become miserable forever, he sought also the misery of all mankind.” We can be certain that when we find ourselves thinking thoughts that make us miserable they come from the father of misery. We can choose not to let Satan remain anonymous. We can call him out, saying something like, “Satan, I will not listen to you. I recognize your lies even when they are subtly mingled with truth, because they make me miserable. I refuse to believe them.”
Refusing to Choose Misery
President Russell M. Nelson in his October 2016 conference talk, “Joy and Spiritual Survival” said, “These are the latter days, so none of us should be surprised when we see prophecy fulfilled.” In that talk he offered a perfect example of Latter-day-Saints suffering extreme trials but refusing to choose misery:
Because of Missouri’s infamous extermination order, issued at the onset of the grueling winter of 1838,7 she [Eliza R. Snow] and other Saints were forced to flee the state that very winter. One evening, Eliza’s family spent the night in a small log cabin used by refugee Saints. Much of the chinking between the logs had been extracted and burned for firewood by those who preceded them, so there were holes between the logs large enough for a cat to crawl through. It was bitter cold, and their food was frozen solid.
That night some 80 people huddled inside that small cabin, only 20 feet square (6.1 meters square). Most sat or stood all night trying to keep warm. Outside, a group of men spent the night gathered around a roaring fire, with some singing hymns and others roasting frozen potatoes. Eliza recorded: “Not a complaint was heard—all were cheerful, and judging from appearances, strangers would have taken us to be pleasure excursionists rather than a band of gubernatorial exiles.”
Eliza’s report of that exhausting, bone-chilling evening was strikingly optimistic. She declared: “That was a very merry night. None but saints can be happy under every circumstance.” (Eliza R. Snow, in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom (1877), 145–46.
President Nelson concludes, “That’s it! Saints can be happy under every circumstance. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year! My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.” He continued to make a strong point that the Savior must be the focus of our lives and that He is the source of joy.
I think of many times when I’ve realized I was choosing misery by focusing on my own pain, inadequacy, failure, ineptness or limitations. When I chose to “look up” and focus instead on the Savior, my feelings changed, although I had to keep making that decision to maintain the change. I love Deanna’s Edwards idea that “Joy is not the absence of pain but the presence of God.” My friend Peg penned a couple of lines that share that same perspective:
I weep into the dark and lonely night
Until Jesus comes, embracing me in light.
Can Loss and Grief Foster Personal Growth?
Surprisingly, my own person experiences with grief have shown me many faces — some easier to appreciate than others. Grief over my son’s suicide urged me to a deeper level of scripture study than ever before, motivating me to review, reanalyze, rethink my entire life and realize how few years I may have left. This experience caused me to treasure my time and use it more carefully. I’m so aware of things no one will do if I don’t do them. And I’ve become achingly aware of weaknesses I still have to overcome.
I’ve come to ask searchingly, “Can our individual specific sources of grief and loss be exactly what we need for personal growth? Can we choose to turn to Christ because of them?
Disillusion is a Blessing that Often Accompanies Grief
My grief for my son included my grief for all my own lost dreams, for my absolute failure to create the ideal family that I was so certain of when I was young. I’ve learned that creating the ideal is NOT what life is all about. Instead we are here to learn from our experiences and to recognize our dependence on the Lord. We all experience disillusion as we learn and grow; it’s an important part of life — a blessing because it means learning to see the truth more clearly. Who wants to stay in a fantasy world of illusion? Truth is “knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24). I want to live in truth. Being free of illusion is freedom indeed: “and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Working My Way through the Process of Grieving
During my initial grieving process after my son’s death, I read many books, attended a grief recovery class and support group where others whose loved ones chose suicide shared their pain and their strengths. Groups are also available for families of those whose loss came in other ways. The most healing thing of all was my increased personal scripture study, prayer, and therapeutic writing because those things opened me the most to the Comforter.Other helpful things along the way: I went to the doctor and got the medical help I needed. I started exercising more and made sure to feed myself well; I listened to my body when I needed extra sleep. (Grief work can be exhausting!) I went to counseling, talked to the bishop, and received blessings.
As a friend promised me soon after Brian’s death, the waves of grief come at more infrequent intervals as time passes. Now they rarely knock me down, and often just lap at my ankles.
We Need One Another
Some solitary grieving may be necessary, but by and large a griever needs to tell their story and receive support from others. They need to be listened to. They need to know that even one other person understands what they are going through.
I was blessed when I chose not to keep my son’s suicide secret, not to hide, but to be able to write my feelings and have them treated with respect and care. The loving responses of Meridian readers and other friends strengthened and lifted me — it meant so much not to feel alone in my grief. Several mothers who had also lost sons to suicide wrote and rallied around me, assuring me that hard as it was, I would survive. Mothers who had the courage to share their stories in books helped me know that so many of the things I was experiencing were normal, to be expected, and that I was not going crazy.
When we reach out to others, listen, share, and cry together, we are keeping our baptismal promise to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:9). We need to help each other move ahead and focus on the Savior’s help and the needs of our current life.
As time goes on and we move back into life, it is very important not to make a tragedy the focal point of the future. Even though the tragedy happened and is hauntingly, painfully real, it is only one of countless happenings. That one event does not wipe out all the good in the rest. That idea can make a powerful difference in our thinking.
The massive disasters of hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis sometimes make me feel that I’m not justified in grieving my own tragedies, which seem small in comparison. However, there is no such thing as one person having a better reason to grieve than another — and we all grieve at 100% for us. However, the important thing to remember is that grief does not need to include misery. Sorrow is a part of life, but misery is optional and is a choice to align our thinking with the adversary’s instead of with the mind of Christ.
The universality of grief—especially grief over the loss of loved ones— comes largely because of the universality of love. Love and grief are opposite sides of the same coin. One of the best lessons I’ve learned is to tell others today that we love them — we must not wait for a tomorrow that may never be. I’ve often been bathed in love since Brian’s death and have tried to shower a lot around to others too. It’s so easy to tell my grandchildren how much I love them, a little harder to tell my grown-up family members and friends, but I try to do it — frequently. One never knows when one fleeting opportunity to express love could be the last in this life.
I praise the Lord for His plan, for the Comforter that has kept me sane, for the scriptures that daily feed my soul and remind me of sweet spiritual promises that can still be mine. I cling to the two scriptural witnesses that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28, D&C 100:15)
The Spirit has truly sustained me day to day in the aftermath of my losses. I bear witness that there is nothing we need fear in this life as long as we hold fast to our connection with the Holy Spirit. I bear witness of the truth of the 23rd Psalm, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” I bear witness that we can trust the Lord to be with us, no matter what.
I remember hearing President Ezra Taft Benson say there is no human condition which the Savior cannot comprehend or for which His love will not reach out to the individual. The scriptures are emphatic on this point – “He comprehended all things” because “He descended below all things” (D&C 88:6; 122:8). The Savior was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (see Isaiah 53:3, Mosiah 14:3), but he was never miserable.
This picture, recently posted in Wallace Goddard’s Meridian article “To Truly See Your Children” is such a beautiful reminder of the Savior’s love and comfort, available to us every minute of every day in mortality. Through all the pain, through all our trials. He is there. We simply need to open our hearts to his loving care.