Does Mormonism break our ability to properly grieve?

(CW/TW: Domestic abuse; gun violence)

Recently, a terrible crime was committed in Southern Utah. A man shot and killed his wife, his mother-in-law, his five children, and himself. It is a horrible story. But what interests me today are the public statements made by both the man’s family and the wife’s family. I’m sure you are already familiar with both and they are abyssmal, although in different ways. However, they both point to something I’m curious about: do Mormons know how to properly grieve?

Now I want to be clear, I understand that everyone grieves in their own way and that nobody should be held up to some sort of standard for proper grieving. But, in Mormonism, we all know what good grief looks like.

The missionary who stays on their mission. The family who focuses all their eulogies on how they’ll see their family again soon. The calm reassurances that this was for the best, that it was part of God’s plan, that they were needed to serve a mission in heaven. Good grief pretends that death is a mere inconvenience, bad traffic that delays a joyous reunion. And Mormons project it, because, I think, any admission of actual grief is seen as an admission that the gospel isn’t working at the moment. If my heart is a huge gaping hole, why haven’t I turned to Jesus to fill it?

Take the man’s family’s obituary. It reads like the obituary of any well-beloved man who happened to die young. Many of the initial comments on it talked of his church service, of his love for his children, of his being a family man. I don’t fault the family for this, in all honesty, because it would be natural to want to remember your child, your brother, your uncle in his best light, but it also makes you wonder if it had been his mother, instead of his mother-in-law, who died, would the obituary have read the same? Grieve means dealing not only with death, but with the ways death disappoints you. No doubt, for his family, how and why he committed this atrocity is a mystery. Do they blame themselves? Do they wonder how they could have stopped it? Do they just want to pretend that nothing is wrong, that he just was momentarily clouded by darkness, that their son and brother will be returned to them in the infinite? The obituary betrays nothing of this. It is just a listing of his laudable achievements. And the comments, reading that particular room, follow suit. And so you get this horrible spectacle of well-meaning people praising the past deeds of a mass-murderer.

The women’s family, channeled their denial of grief into a political statement. They recognize the horror of what has transpired, but their great fear is not that others might experience the same pain, but that theirs can only be compounded by the politicization of the event. Again, I can’t fault them for that. The commentariat are mostly interested in the dark humor of the other family’s obituary at the moment. But their certainty that someone is going to hold up this case to be an example of why guns should be better controlled is misplaced. Domestic murder-suicides barely make the news anymore; maybe in two years it will appear on Dateline. There are people who have been drawing connections between this crime and a wider culture of misogyny and patriarchy within Mormonism, but I haven’t seen anyone question anyone’s 2nd amendment rights. It is probably out there, but I haven’t seen it. So here we have people attempting to pre-empt the politicization of tragedy by politicizing tragedy.

The truth is that grief is a natural disaster of a thing. You cannot control it, you cannot avoid it, you cannot wish it away. It is sometimes a tsunami and sometimes a ripple. It dwells in your unconscious, quiet, until it feels a need to jump up and roil your life. The gospel, at its very best, helps you give it context, but the only purpose it can ever have is to grieve. You cannot wrench it away from that into a tidy lesson. So, let’s show a little grace to both families. They are doing what they think they should (showing solidarity with church and country), but behind that façade, they are staring into the abyss along with the rest of us.

Comments

  1. I have cancer. It’s serious. I’ve noticed some tendency from church members to be avoidant in a way that stifles the grieving necessary to look a possible death in the face fully. (This not limited to the ward but also from other Christian friends I grew up with.) Some are willing to walk me me in my acceptance that the outcome may be bad—my prognosis is 50/50.

    I’m writing up my experience in a book, LIVING: 101 Lessons from a Father with Cancer. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t accept my death could be near. (I’m active on FB and post occasionally on Twitter about this.) @rNPVJeff on Twitter to connect most easily.

  2. nobody, really says:

    I remember the tears at my grandmother’s funeral. She suffered a stroke while giving a talk in Sacrament meeting, and the end came quickly. I also remember at the funeral, when my bishop uncle’s fingernails dug deep into my arm as he hissed “You stop that! You stop that right now! You’re going to make people think we don’t understand the Atonement and the Resurrection!”

    I was 12. On that day, I learned that to Mormons, a composed public appearance is far more important than private grief. Funerals are simply a means to demonstrate to others that we are able to suppress emotions.

  3. What I find abysmal is your criticizing these families responses to the most horrendous of situations. Those whose faith comforts them in tragedy should not be mocked as being socially pressured or insincere in their reactions. It’s easy to tear others down. How about building others up?

  4. @Allen – There is no criticism, and certainly no mocking, of the families in the author’s post. He simply points out how the families have responded to a tragedy, noting that he cannot find fault with those reactions, and goes on to make broader observations about how Mormons tend to grieve (or are unable to grieve). I found his post diplomatic and insightful, allowing us to look at ourselves as members of the church and how we may be missing something important in the way we grieve (or fail to grieve) in the face of death and tragedy.

  5. Antonio Parr says:

    Jeff Stewart – I pray that you will find comfort and strength and healing and longevity.

    This passage from Numbers comes to mind:

    The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:

    The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:

    The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

  6. Antonio Parr says:

    I think Latter-Day Saints do an amazing job of comforting those in need of comfort. Writing from the perspective of a convert, I have feelings akin to awe at the way Church members rally around each other (and, often, the broader community) during times of hardship.

    As to the process of grief and mourning, I agree that we sometimes respond stoically rather than with weeping, the latter of which was something that Jesus did when confronted with the death of a friend. Grief is a way of acknowledging the depths of our loss, and is an essential part of our journey.
    In order for our tears to be wiped away (as promised), we first need the tears.

  7. I don’t find Mormon funerals uplifting. I recently went to a Southern Baptist funeral and it was a celebration of life, of her life, of faith. The organ was fun and there were drums and a tambourine. There was a talk about the plan of salvation (although they wouldn’t have called it that) There were tears and praise. I want my funeral to be like that. What Mormons do is tradition. I feel like they are depressing. If we believe in God’s plan funerals should be more a celebration. Grief is part of that, and it’s OK to so grief because is shows you loved the departed.

  8. I feel like the family came from a place of not wanting the father to be remembered ONLY for…the one thing he will now probably always be remembered for. I can clearly see the irony in calling him a “family man,” but I also feel like I can see where his family was coming from.

    I’ve occasionally been appalled at fellow members’ condescension toward the grieving for “not understanding the Plan of Salvation,” but it’s been the exception, not the rule.

    Nobody, your experience is heartbreaking. It was your uncle who didn’t understand the atonement — Christ’s willingness to suffer with the suffering.

  9. When loved ones die, Christians attempt to comfort one another with “They are in a better place.” We all know the best place is with you. This is especially true for people who have lost children. The plan of Salvation and the Atonement offers solace, but we are humans who should grieve. Let’s normalize comforting people with hugs, not empty words.

  10. I guess I have more of a reaction to the comments than the OP here. As with so many things, I think the experience with loss and, specifically in the examples here, with funerals and obituaries, varies across locations and people. I feel bad for the person that commented about their uncle and insisting there be no tears. My experience as a 12 year old when I lost an aunt, a grandparent, and a cousin within a month of each other was so different – tears flowed freely during the classic Mormon funerals, and no one was trying to get them to stop to show some (mis)understanding of the atonement.

    I think, by and large, as a membership we get it. Are we as a society/culture afraid of death? I think so. Does that get translated via our Mormon culture excessively at times to trying to stifle “true” grieving? I also think so, to varying degree at various times. But I think most people truly get it – losing a loved one leaves a gaping hole that just isn’t filled by saying you’ll see them again. Rather, it is spoken as a balm to help cope with the pain that remains. Beyond that, I guess I just haven’t personally experienced personal pain being so wholly swallowed up in Christ so as to not recognize the pain anymore. But oh, how I hope that can happen someday. For me and my challenges, and for everyone else and theirs. We all have sources of grief, some piercing in their suddenness and others grating in their slow, inexorable crawl.

    Can we do better? Of course. But I find myself inclined to acknowledge the good, like Antonio Parr, instead of focus on the negative experiences as somehow representative of something much more aspirational. Let’s do what we can to correct those misunderstandings (which can cause so much pain and confusion!), but not lose sight of the deeper doctrine we seek to understand.

  11. I question whether the writer here has ever suffered a real loss that resulted in grief. A funeral is not necessarily for grieving alone and an obituary is certainly no place for editorializing. What part of “grief” are you really objecting to? What haven’t you seen in this case or in other LDS funerals that you really find is a problem. Your experience surely has not been mine in the Church. Grief is an expression of love. It’s a process. And plenty of LDS people, myself included, experience it in both public and personal ways. I don’t see the masking and putting on of brave faces you claim. The broad generalizations of this article are not accurate nor well thought out. I do not know the individuals or family of those in this tragedy but I have followed the story with interest. And I have seen plenty of appropriate grieving that needs no critical review.

  12. Jeff Westover, and I just cannot relate to your comment. I remember my first funeral. I was 8 and it was for my great grandmother. I knew her really well because she lived with my grandmother. I remember my grandmother crying and my mother’s reaction of disapproval, and my uncle trying to hush her. So, my first memory of a Mormon funeral was one of grief being shamed because it showed “lack of faith.” I wanted to hug my grandmother and cry with her, because it was going to be an awfully long time before we saw great grandma again. But, I didn’t dare because I could see that being sad was bad. It was saying that God didn’t exist, because if God did exist and Mormonism was true, then we had no business doubting we would see her again. As if we get to see her tomorrow and I knew it might be some 70 years before I get to see her. Then they closed the coffin and we went into the chapel to hear how we shouldn’t be sad and shouldn’t grieve. We should instead celebrate that we will be together again….yeah, in some 70 years. I wanted to kick our stupid bishop.

  13. Grieving, in any form, for any length of time, is fine.

    Denial is something else entirely. Denial is to make lies seem like the truth. Denial is to keep oneself (or others) from progressing. Denial is wrong, harmful, and should not be indulged, enabled, or tolerated.

    This is not to say there must be loud words, fighting, accusations, or ugliness. It can be done appropriately. It requires firmness, conviction, a standard of truth, consistency, and love. But do not let lies stand. This helps no one; not the grieving nor the deceased.

    I’ve heard of funerals where abused members of the family started speaking their truth. If there was grieving it was because of misdeeds, suffering, and pain. Those are moments of healing. That is the real legacy of the Atonement.

  14. My family and I are Church members. My teenage brother killed himself in 2020 (I wrote his obituary and put in it that cause of death was suicide). I spoke at his funeral. My grandmother died unexpectedly last October. I spoke at her funeral. Also that October, my husband’s boss’s 18-year-old daughter (boss is a stake president), died suddenly a few days after being diagnosed with leukemia. We attended her funeral.

    At these funerals there were tears. People were grieving. But the funerals were not depressing, as one comment on here said our funerals are. Some might be, but that is not the cultural norm, at least here in the Western US. They are siritual and emotional, an homage to the life of the person. Member funerals are not a show with tambourines because they are another form of Church meeting when they take place in the chapel, and are presided over by a Church leader. A life sketch is given. Music is part of the program. Family and friends share memories and express their feelings. It’s true that my grandma, as expressed by her baby brother Blaik when he spoke at her funeral, in death is happily reunited with her long-dead parents, youngest child and daughter who died hours after birth, her younger brother who died a few years prior of cancer, and her grandson (my brother), and it’s also true that we miss her. It’s true she misses her husband of fifty-nine years and the rest of us. It’s also true that it is a happy thing that she can rest now from her physical body which was old and worn, the mental health challenges she had, and the stress of a husband with dementia. There is genuine comfort and peace in the knowledge that the grave hath no victory, because of the Savior, that we know where our loved ones are while we are temporarily separated.

    As for myself, I have a robust personality. Grief doesn’t do a lot to me, and I think my testimony of the gospel makes grief affect me even less. Grief touches people differently, even if they take comfort in the Plan of Salvation. In Saints Vol. 3, John A. Widstoe’s wife was very affected when their young adult son died unexpectedly. My husband’s boss’s family all spoke at the funeral of the teenage daughter. They cried and expressed their heartache. I remember the mother saying she would mourn her daughter every day for the rest of her life. (The boss told my husband he thinks of his daughter every day.) But they also testified of Christ. And to my grandma and the boss’s daughter, that is quite fitting, because they loved Jesus.

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