How Do You Deal With Death After Mormonism?

From the time I came to understand the reality of death, I was very fortunate not to lose anyone I loved. That all changed last month, when my dad called me in the middle of an event I was hosting in my backyard to tell me that after a long illness, my mom had passed away that night. She was 51.

“Your mom’s gone. I’m so sorry.”

It’s strange what you notice in a moment of trauma. I ran inside and sank down on my couch, my best friends surrounding me, and cried. Someone’s drink was dripping on the floor. I talked to my dad, hoping I didn’t sound drunk. The music was still playing outside. Every once in a while the sound of laughter made its way inside to the living room, which was silent except for my sobs and the occasional whispers of my friends filling someone in on what had happened.

“Your mom’s gone.”

I hung up with my dad, took a deep breath and reapplied my mascara. I had an event to host.

My mother and I hadn’t spoken for six years at the time of her death. It was a painful choice I lived with every day, but it was one I had to make for the sake of my own mental health — and now it’s one I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. In the weeks leading up to her passing, I had learned she was ill and had decided to write her a letter, and since I didn’t have it in me to visit and I didn’t see the point of reopening old wounds, I decided to keep it simple: tell her I love her and tell her some of my favorite memories with her.

I never sent it. I just couldn’t get it right after days of finagling, and one day I looked up and weeks had passed since I started writing it. I decided to finish and send it that weekend. The next day, she was gone.

I’ve always been discomfited by how Mormon culture treats death. I do think there’s value in drawing comfort after losing a loved one from wherever it may come, but not at the expense of the personhood of the deceased.

Too often, I saw members of the congregation disregard a mourner’s pain:

“You’ll see them again. They’re not gone forever.”

“They’re happier now. Their trial is finally over.”

“Heavenly Father needed them in heaven. They were too good for this Earth.”

If you believe in the Mormon view of the afterlife, I can understand why you would think focusing on that almost cheery “this life is a test” worldview is the most comforting way to behave when someone loses a loved one. But you know what it actually feels like when someone tries to feed you some tripe about how much better off your loved one is now that they’ve passed away?

It feels like they’re discounting the dead. Like the lives of the dead only have value once they’re over. Like you shouldn’t feel like your body and soul are being ripped to shreds, another piece gone every time you have to get out of bed in the morning or talk to a co-worker or pretend for even a minute that your entire world hasn’t just crashed down around you.

It took a shattering loss to make me feel like maybe, just maybe, I could do it all again. Maybe I wanted it to be true, after all.

And yet … It’s tempting. It’s tempting to fall back into that mindset, even if only for a time, anything to help ease the pain of knowing you can never fix what was broken, heal the scars that had built up over the years. I unofficially left the LDS church in 2013, the same year I unofficially left most of my family, and it took a shattering loss to make me feel like maybe, just maybe, I could do it all again. Maybe I wanted it to be true, after all. Maybe if I just tried to believe.

I didn’t, of course. My testimony is about as real to me now as Joseph Smith’s multiple versions of the First Vision were at the time. But it shook me that there still existed within me this tiny seed of hope that maybe all wasn’t lost forever. A moment later, it was gone.

So how do you deal with death after Mormonism? How do you grapple with the realization that this life might really be the only shot we get? How do you come to terms with the reality of death without the crutch Mormonism provides you to limp past the finish line?

I was a child when my grandfather died, and I remember slowly coming to the realization that he wasn’t coming back. And now, as a grown adult, I find myself experiencing death for the first time all over again. So how do you deal with death after Mormonism? My answer? I just don’t know. But I hope I figure it out.

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