Part I is here.
While crossing the Atlantic, I could not help wondering, chess-game-like, what the various alternate futures would be for my family. I tried to focus on something other than my own misery. But I would fail every few minutes and I would start sobbing. My row was empty. No one spoke to me and I think that was a good thing. Communication was probably out of the question. In regard to this I’ve wondered whether Mormonism may make death more difficult. Its emphasis on family and the promise of continuing family relationships in the hereafter is unique and runs against an embedded Puritan tradition in much of American Protestantism that such hopes constitute the sin of avarice. In some ways perhaps Mormonism gives us less preparation for such loss.
Struggling with the death of a loved person can be a most trying experience. Ranking death experiences in terms of difficulty seems crass. Each death is different, often claiming its own special moments of agony and gravity in different survivors. This is not an academic discussion. It represents a small part of a personal journey, though that journey involved careful study.
Perhaps I played out my actual future somewhat poorly. There were several years of depression, where I found it just possible to function in my job and family as a kind of surface wave, propagating along without disturbing the darkness beneath. My children, I think, took the brunt of my half-daze. It was difficult to fully participate in their lives. Like many people, I surmise, I kept the depth of my own darkness a secret and consequently their’s may have been hidden from me. By the time I became more or less “normal,” several had or were beginning to exit high school. The fact that they are well adjusted human beings (who I not only love but respect in the deepest sense) may best be laid at the feet of my wife, their associates perhaps and their own physical and spiritual genes, if you will.
What role does religion play in death? This is the kind of question that foments other questions of diamond hardness. Religion carries some kind of comfort to the grieving – I’m guessing that deep down that is a hope shared by most people who participate. Nineteenth century ministers regarded dealing with death their most difficult duty. How to provide comfort to the grieving? What could be offered in the way of shoring up parishioners without violating denominational imperatives?
In Mormonism, which has an obvious relevance here, much of the comfort offered involves abstraction: we sometimes call it “perspective.” But this kind of comfort can take time. It is not an injection of anesthetic, a drug hit that alters errant brain chemistry. But even when the chemistry is not an issue, the comfort usually takes time. It works (or fails) differently in different people. What I can do is say a bit about how this worked with me. There is another more immediate sort of comfort that I will mention shortly.
My own theological/ontological space at the time of my son’s death did not really allow for the possibility of annihilation of the person, though I certainly had some questions. But I was reminded of another position (among the many) while I was stuck in Europe desperately waiting for travel arrangements home. My host and his wife, who were also good friends, walked with me in the deepening dusk one evening. While slowly passing gardens and corn fields, we spoke of death, and its meaning. Nominally Catholic, my friends nevertheless made it clear that for them, death was surely a point of utter termination. No soul or spirit or ongoing consciousness or afterlife had a place in their universe. Extinction – the only outcome.
They gently, mildly, explained: your personal immortality exists in the memories of those left behind (and therefore paradoxically, and by definition, immortality does not exist). In my numb state at the time, this essentially ricocheted off. I tried to evoke my own thoughts about death, but I was convinced at the time that they received this as they would a children’s myth, that any highly rational person, as they perceived me to be, would eventually come around to see the true state of things.
In spite of such beliefs, they called the local branch president (not by my request – I was doing a close impersonation of an inanimate object), who left his employment to come to their home and give me a blessing. This was a remarkable experience, since I had no idea what he was saying. My skill with the language was minimal. After the president left, with a tearful hug, one of my friends tried to translate for me. I don’t recall the words now, but it was clear that she did not understand them. The expressions were foreign to her, though she knew the language as a native would. But it didn’t matter. There seemed to be a calming influence that lasted through the night.
Since that time, I have been part of other deaths. And in particular, as Mormon friends have lost family members, I have heard them express the view that they could not have come through the experience without “The Gospel” and they express wonderment at how non-believers get through such loss.
I find this an interesting expression. It seems almost to reflect a kind of anthropic principle. They may in truth have been unable to get over their awful emotional gulfs without their bridging beliefs. The nature of those beliefs is quintessentially interesting in itself. But the extension of this idea is perhaps too complex to explore sensitively here. For me, I am not sure that any conscious thought at the time was a comfort. I found little that lifted me in the funeral sermons. I am sure they were excellent, but I cannot witness to it. I think there were less tangible things, not necessarily overtly connected to formal religious belief, but something more primitive, that brought stability.
Finally, I felt my European host’s beliefs to be a remarkably bleak view of reality. Their idea of permanence seemed hollow at the time though I knew many shared their reasoning. But their expressions surfaced in my mind in later years and invoked a gradual but complete reexamination of my own thinking and beliefs about life and death.
[Part 3 here.]
 It is of course true that both historically and in the present, there are religions that are not affronted by the idea of personal annihilation.
 I don’t wish to convey the idea that my friends were telling me what to believe. The conversation simply and naturally led to them expressing their own position.