When death takes away a loved one, we often face pressing questions of the soul that only the restored gospel of Jesus Christ can answer.
Last week my wife’s mother passed away after a short battle with stage 4 cancer. The night before her passing, I awoke in the middle of the night with responses to some of the questions I had heard family members asking. I believe the principles contained in these answers can apply to all of us as we face the death of loved ones, especially those who die in the faith.
Why did she have to die?
The answer to this question is simple. It is because of the Fall of Adam and Eve. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God warned them, “thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Moses 3:17). As a result of their choice, “death hath passed upon all men, to fulfill the merciful plan of the great creator” (2 Nephi 9:6). Or, as the Apostle Paul succinctly stated, “As in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). Death is unavoidable. Eventually, all of us will die because of the fall of Adam and Eve (see DC 101:31).
Why did she have to die now?
Again, the answer is simple. It is because she had cancer. Disease and infirmities and physical accidents are all part of the mortal experience brought on by the Fall. Sometimes we assume that God gave us these things, but that is not true. Many of the trials of life come simply because of our mortal and fallen condition. In fact, God is the one who warned us of these consequences when he made the forbidden fruit available. He clearly stated that the fruit would bring death and all the pain of mortality that accompanies it. Adam and Eve, representing all of us, chose to Fall and bring these things into the world. It had to be our choice so that we can’t blame God for any of this. We chose this, and he warned us of it.
A story shared with me by a friend powerfully illustrates this point. He had a massive heart attack and almost died. While recovering in the hospital, his son visited him and said, “Dad, this isn’t fair! You have served as a Bishop and stake president. You have devoted your life to teaching the gospel as a religious educator for the Church. Why would God do this to you?” My friend’s response was direct and profound. He said, “God didn’t do this to me. My mortal body did this to me.” What my friend understood clearly is that tragedies come from the Fall and they cannot be blamed on God. In fact, it is God who helps us through those tragedies, and it is only through his plan that we will ever be saved from them.
Why didn’t God heal her?
I think this is the real question that the first two questions intend to ask. This is the heart of the matter. We believe God has all power to heal and that he loves all his children, so why didn’t he answer our prayers and heal her?
Again, the answer is simple. The answer is that he will heal her. He just hasn’t done it yet. I learned this profound truth through an experience I had as a Bishop. I received a phone call one evening that a man in my ward was in the hospital. He was at the end of a years-long fight with cancer and his wife called me to give him a priesthood blessing. As I was putting on my tie, I was pondering about what I should say in the blessing. In my mind I offered up this short but sincere prayer, “Father, what should I say? Do you want me to bless him to be healed? Are you going to heal him?” As I finished those words, the Spirit whispered back this answer to my mind and heart, “I will heal him,” there was a pause and then the message continued, “… in the resurrection.” At that moment, I knew that he would die, but he would still be healed.
As I reflected on this profound message, words from the Book of Mormon came to my mind, “Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame … this mortal body is raised to an immortal body, that is from death, even from the first death unto life, that they can die no more” (Alma 11:44-45).
Although I had never thought of it that way before, the resurrection will heal us all from all the afflictions of mortality. Every prayer for healing, every priesthood blessing, will one day be answered in the resurrection. It is the only permanent solution to the problem of death. All other healings, miraculous as they may be, are only temporary. Even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, later died again. The enduring and eternal healing we seek can only come from the resurrection. That is the miracle healing we all will receive through our Savior Jesus Christ. Speaking at this man’s funeral, I felt inspired to say these words, “Not everyone walks away from the hospital bed, but everyone will walk away from the grave. By the power of the resurrection of Christ, all will be healed from every affliction of mortality.” In the end, everyone will beat cancer.
But didn’t she have more work to do?
There is always more work to do, but we have this assurance from President Joseph Fielding Smith: “No righteous man is ever taken before his time. In the case of the faithful Saints, they are simply transferred to other fields of labor. The Lord’s work goes on in this life, in the world of spirits, and in the kingdoms of glory where men go after their resurrection. (Funeral services of Elder Richard L. Evans, Ensign, Dec. 1971, p. 10).
The Lord’s promise to Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail applies to each of us. The bounds of our enemies (which includes cancer and other diseases) “are set, they cannot pass. [Our] days are known, and [our] years shall not be numbered less” (D&C 122:9). This does not mean we won’t die young, Joseph Smith still did, but it means that the lives of the faithful will be preserved until they have lived long enough to accomplish the Lord’s will for them. We may live much longer than that, but we will not die before that.
Where is she now and what is she doing?
The Book of Mormon explains that “there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection” and “the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise” (Alma 40:9, 12). Another revelation explains further that the faithful “continue their labors” in the spirit world (D&C 138:57). This work includes preaching the gospel, but we would also assume that it includes their service in families as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandparents and siblings. No doubt they “continue their labors” in that sphere also.
An illustration of this is found in the life of Elder Bruce R. McConkie. Shortly before his father Oscar McConkie passed away, he gathered his children and grandchildren together and said, “I am going to die. I don’t know yet what my assignment will be in the spirit world, but this much I do know: when I die I will not cease to love you; I will not cease to be concerned about you; I will not cease to pray for you; and I will not cease to labor in your behalf” (The Bruce R. McConkie story p. 243).
Although there is a veil that separates them from us, we are confident that “they are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p. 326). We would assume from this that our loved ones are aware of important events in our lives. Specifically, temple marriages are said to be performed before God, angels, and witnesses. What other angels would want to attend our temple sealings but our loved ones who have passed on? Understanding this offers powerful motivation for us to be there in the temple at those events so we can feel their presence again.
What will happen to her?
Just as the Fall of Adam and Eve brought an inevitable death to all mankind, so the Atonement of Jesus Christ brings an inevitable resurrection. “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). It is necessary for us to pass through death so that we can be resurrected. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “If there had been no fall of Adam, by which cometh death, there could have been no atonement of Christ, by which cometh life” (McConkie, May 1985 Ensign). The joy of resurrection would not be possible without the sorrow of death. President Russell M. Nelson powerfully taught this when he said, “We can’t fully appreciate joyful reunions later without tearful separations now. The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life” (Ensign, May 1992).
Part of the joy of resurrection will be the reunion it will bring with our loved ones. The prophet Joseph Smith saw in vision that faithful saints are resurrected with their families. He explained, “So plain was the vision, that I actually saw men, before they had ascended from the tomb, as though they were getting up slowly. They took each other by the hand and said to each other, ‘My father, my son, my mother, my daughter, my brother, my sister.’ And when the voice calls for the dead to arise, suppose I am laid by the side of my father, what would be the first joy of my heart? To meet my father, my mother, my brother, my sister; and when they are by my side, I embrace them and they me.” He then concluded with this comforting promise. “All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 295-296).
At the viewing of my mother in law, my son turned to me and said, “Dad, it just doesn’t feel real. It feels like grandma is still here.” I had been pondering that same thing earlier that day and shared with him what the Spirit taught me. When I had the thought that death just didn’t seem real, the Spirit whispered to me, “That’s because it’s not.” I reflected on that throughout the day. Death doesn’t feel real because it isn’t real. The reason it feels like they are still alive is because they are still alive. The reason it feels like we are just going to wake up and see them again is because, one day, we will.