I was listening to a talk show and the host, who is Jewish, was telling about his experience sitting shiva for his recently departed mother. It was the first time he’d ever sat shiva, and he didn’t know if he would like it or not, but it turned out to be a positive experience for him–just sitting and waiting, waiting for people to come and bring his family food, sitting and talking about his mother, whom everyone loved. He expressed his gratitude for the Jewish law that required him to do this, for the wisdom of his ancient religion.
My mother died on a Sunday morning, almost thirteen years ago. On Monday morning my alarm clock went off. I could hear a fierce wind storm going on outside, and I really didn’t want to get out of bed. “My mother just died,” I thought. “I shouldn’t have to go to work, right?” So I called my editor and left a message on her voice mail: “My mother died. I won’t be in today.” Then I went back to sleep.
On Tuesday morning, I got up and went to work. I was opening the mail, and my editor came and stood by my desk. “You know, Rebecca,” she said quietly, “I appreciate your dedication, but we’ll get the paper out without you. No one expects you to be here today.”
To tell you the truth, I was a little embarrassed. It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment, but of course no one expected me to be there that day. Or any day that week. I just didn’t know what else to do. I think I said as much. Something like, “I have to do something.” I said I would go home early, maybe work another half-day on Wednesday. The funeral was Thursday, so I wouldn’t be in on Thursday. “Why don’t you stay out Friday, too,” she suggested.
A few months later I was preparing for my upcoming wedding–”preparing” being a loose term. I didn’t know any more about preparing for a wedding than I did about mourning for a dead mother. My sister offered to help me with my reception; I just had to tell her what I wanted. But I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t care about having a reception–I mean, I wanted one, but I didn’t care what it was like or what food was served or what decorations there were. What did it really matter, anyway? My mother was not going to see me get married. I felt her absence intensely.
At some point my roommate sat me down for a heart-to-heart. She was concerned about me because here I was, moving forward with a wedding and looking for an apartment and making all these life changes when my mother had just died a short time before, “and it seems to me,” she said, “that you never really took the time, well, to grieve for her.”
What could I say? Of course I hadn’t taken any time to grieve for her. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. What did people expect me to do? They didn’t expect me to go to work or plan a wedding or do any other normal life things, but what was I supposed to do instead? I thought everyone was supposed to deal with grief in his or her own way, which would imply that there was no wrong way, and yet apparently I had done it the wrong way. I hadn’t taken time to grieve. I didn’t have an ancient religion commanding me to sit at home for seven days, sitting and waiting, waiting for people to come and bring me food and give me their condolences and talk with me about my mother. I had to choose for myself what I was going to do, and I guess I chose poorly. But even after this was pointed out to me, I didn’t stop and try to correct it. I couldn’t do it when the loss was fresh; what was I going to do with this cold, stale grief that was already gathering dust? I figured it would keep. I had the rest of my life to get used to not having my mother.
Mormonism doesn’t give a lot of guidance so far as grieving is concerned. I supposed there are guidelines for funerals. We’re supposed to contemplate the doctrines of the gospel and draw comfort from them. In my experience this translated to an implicit commandment not to grieve, or not to grieve too much. How could you be devastated when you knew that your loved one had gone to a better place, that her spirit was still alive, that you could be reunited again someday, for eternity? This knowledge should bring you joy, even in the darkest of circumstances.
I vividly remember sitting in my parents’ living room that Sunday morning with my five-year-old niece. “My grandma is with Jesus,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you sad?” she asked.
I worried about what to say. She was a very young child, I couldn’t burden her with my failure to draw comfort from the doctrine of eternal life. “I’m a little bit sad,” I said.
“I’m a lot sad,” she said. And that’s when it hit me. I was an idiot, and my five-year-old niece was wise.
“I’m a lot sad, too,” I said.
Mormonism is not big on ritual. We have a few ordinances that have to be done a certain way, words that have to be said in a precise order; the most holy things we do–the sacrament, baptism, laying on hands, most everything in the temple–have to be done just so, the same every time. But for the most part, as we live our religion from day to day, we eschew ritual and repetition for fear of falling into mere routine or habit, rendering our behavior empty, rote, dead; we strive to be worthy of the Spirit so we can be guided by the Spirit. The Spirit always knows the right thing to do. But if you don’t have the Spirit, what do you do then? You flounder, and you’re lost.
At least that’s how it is for me. When I have nothing to say to God, I stop praying. Sometimes I would love to have a prayer or two that has already been written for me, that I had to say, just so that I could keep up some kind of conversation with my Heavenly Father, even if it would (as my Primary and Sunday School teachers always warned) bore Him to tears. Maybe I wouldn’t meant it. Maybe it would be insincere. But guilt or some other feeling or obligation would make me say it, and maybe I wouldn’t flounder; maybe I wouldn’t be lost.
I am a slothful servant who needs to be commanded in all things. Many times I would have been grateful for a religion with 613 commandments that told me everything I needed to do, especially when it came time to mourn and I was just fresh out of ideas myself.
My sisters and I dressed my mother for her burial. It was not the spiritual experience I’d been led to hope for. It was an experience, and I’m grateful for it; I’m grateful for the ritual and the feeling that I did something that I was supposed to do. I’d been taught to expect more, though; even if no one meant to teach me that, it was what I learned. “We are close, very close, to the spirit world at the time of death,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer. “There are tender feelings, spiritual communications really, which may easily be lost if there is not a spirit of reverence.” My sisters remarked while we were dressing her that our mother’s body was “not her.” Without a spirit, the body is just a body. But my mother’s body was my mother’s body; I didn’t want it to not be her. I wanted to feel something else.
We dedicated her grave four months after she was buried. We did it on the morning of my wedding day, in fact. The timing was odd and not ideal, but two of my sisters lived out of state and would only be there for a couple days; no other time slot would work. I told my dad I didn’t mind, and I don’t think I did. After all, what did I know about how to grieve or how to get married? What else would I do on the morning of my wedding? Would should I have done?
In my father’s prayer, he made specific mention of me getting married that day. He asked for a blessing on me, that I’d remember that true happiness would come from keeping my covenants.
My mother died early on a Sunday morning. At the time I was in the Relief Society presidency of my singles ward, and I had responsibilities that needed to be attended to. I called the Relief Society president and told her that my mother had died and that I would be there for sacrament meeting but probably not for the other two hours. “Rebecca,” she said, “you don’t have to come to sacrament meeting.”
Well, of course. Of course I didn’t have to go to sacrament meeting. No one expected me to. But I did anyway. I didn’t know what else to do.
While I was sitting there in the chapel–so unnaturally quiet without any children–and the sacrament was being passed, I had the most intense transcendent experience of my life. It’s too personal to share, but for a few seconds I knew as much as it’s possible for any mortal to know that there is a life after this one, and that God is very merciful. More merciful than I would have previously given Him credit for. It is only a memory now–a very faded memory, stale and cold and gathering dust, and most of the time I don’t know what to do with it–but I can never give it up because it is upon those few seconds in sacrament meeting that I hang my whole testimony. It has saved me more times than I can count. And I have that memory because on the Sunday that my mother died, I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was fall back on habit, on routine.
All of this is on my mind because on conference weekend I was back at my father’s house, and on Sunday we took my grandmother to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandfather’s grave, and we took that opportunity to place some on my mother’s as well. It had been years since I’d been to the cemetery. I didn’t remember where her grave was. My father couldn’t remember her plot number. It took us a while to find her. My father isn’t sentimental, but he is dutiful. He cut the flowers and put them in water, and then he left me to go tend to my grandmother.
I didn’t know what to do. My mother wasn’t there. Should I be saying something? Should I be thinking something? Should I be trying to connect with her spiritually, somehow? Would it work, or would I be disappointed, again? My experience in sacrament meeting thirteen years ago has never been repeated, and I don’t expect it ever will; I wouldn’t even dream of asking for such a thing. So there I was, in the cemetery, staring at a grave marker, and once again, I was at a loss for words.