A word to the teachers out there. I know what you are thinking. Something like, “Ugh. I got the death lesson?!” So, if you have a family event in another ward that might precipitate trading this week, always a good plan. But for you unlucky suckers who drew the short straw, here goes!
Joseph Smith had a lot of experience with grieving. The lesson lists his bereavement resume in a jumbled order, so here it is chronologically:
- 1810 – brother Ephraim died (JS age 5)
- 1823 – brother Alvin died (JS age 18)
- 1828 – lost first son, Alvin (JS age 23)
- 1831 – twin children Louisa & Thadeus died (JS age 26)
- 1832 – adopted twin son Joseph died due to exposure from mobbing incident (JS age 27)
- 1840 – father Joseph, Sr. died (JS age 35)
- 1841 – son Don Carlos died and brother Don Carlos died (JS age 36)
- 1842 – other unnamed son died (JS age 37)
Q: How did Joseph’s life experiences influence the revelations he received and the foundational concepts of the restored church?
How to Give Comfort
I feel disposed to speak on the subject in general, and offer you my ideas, so far as I have ability, and so far as I shall be inspired by the Holy Spirit to dwell on this subject. (1844)
So, he is not making a pronouncement of doctrine or revelation. He just says that he feels moved to speak because he has experience. Perhaps, there’s a bit of counsel here for all of us – if you don’t have experience with grieving, you don’t need to speak about it. At times, people seem willing to chip in their two cents because they understand the Plan of Salvation, but they may do it in a ham-fisted way because they really don’t have experience with actual grieving. So, mourn with those that mourn. But if you don’t have mourning experience, shut yer trap. (Since I have very little personal experience, I fall into the latter camp).
Q: Many people join the church because they seek comfort at the time of grieving. How can we offer lasting comfort and not just empty platitudes?
How to Understand Truth
I want your prayers and faith that I may have the instruction of Almighty God and the gift of the Holy Ghost, so that I may set forth things that are true and which can be easily comprehended by you, and that the testimony may carry conviction to your hearts and minds of the truth of what I shall say. (1844)
He doesn’t specifically say that all he is going to say will be true, just that he wants to share truth and a hope that individuals will be able to feel the conviction of what is true in their hearts and minds.
Q: Why is it important that Joseph acknowledged he wasn’t always speaking doctrine or revelation, but sometimes just an opinion?
How to Live & How to Die
And may we contemplate these things so? Yes, if we learn how to live and how to die.
This has been a warning voice to us all to be sober and diligent and lay aside mirth, vanity and folly, and to be prepared to die tomorrow. (1843)
For some reason, the highlighted phrase sounds like the Klingons (sorry, non-Trekkers) saying, “Today is a good day to die.”
Q: What does this counsel mean to you?
“The Dead” vs. Death
I have a father, brothers, children, and friends who have gone to a world of spirits. They are only absent for a moment. They are in the spirit, and we shall soon meet again. The time will soon arrive when the trumpet shall sound. When we depart, we shall hail our mothers, fathers, friends, and all whom we love, who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (1844)
When we lie down we contemplate how we may rise in the morning; and it is pleasing for friends to lie down together, locked in the arms of love, to sleep and wake in each other’s embrace and renew their conversation. (1843)
This makes death sound more like a slumber party than being torn from our loved ones, or like Brigadoon. Joseph does not talk about death conceptually at all; he only speaks of “the dead,” those people whom we love, with whom we have shared our lives, and with whom we will commune once more. This is another insight into Joseph’s views on the communal nature of worship and salvation, that we covenant with other seekers of Christ, and we bear one anothers’ burdens, and rise together and greet one another with joy in the resurrection.
Q: Why is it significant to speak of “the dead” rather than “death” in LDS doctrine? What is the difference?
Parents Grieving for Children
He told us that we should receive those children in the morning of the resurrection just as we laid them down, in purity and innocence, and we should nourish and care for them as their mothers. He said that children would be raised in the resurrection just as they were laid down, and that they would obtain all the intelligence necessary to occupy thrones, principalities and powers. (Mary Isabella Horne remembering Joseph’s words in a statement she gave in 1896)
Q: How does this idea provide comfort to grieving parents?
Joseph made a lot of these statements in 1844, right before his own death. How was Joseph an example of someone who knew how to live and how to die?
What are your thoughts on this difficult lesson? Anything particularly resonate for you? Any additional words of advice for those teaching it?
Well written. I’ll comment more later.
I lost my father at age 18. For a while I thought this would help me give this style of lesson, and sometimes it does.
What I have learned, however, is that some people do not wish to be comforted. They do not want you to say anything to offer words of comfort. They want you to listen. Say nothing, do nothing, then simply say, “If you ever want to talk about it some more, I’m here for you.” That’s it.
Because they need to air their anger and grief to a noncritical audience that isn’t trying to make them forget the grief and pain. Comforting those in need of comfort is very often just a matter of listening to them and saying absolutely nothing. Listening is a dying art, and we need to save it.
D+C somewhere-‘Thou shalt live together in love,inasmuch as thou shalt mourn for those that die’
It has been infered and said to me that to grieve is to show a lack of understanding of the plan of redemption.I think it’s often just too hard for us to bear the grief of others-who wants to go there as long as there’s something else to do?I used to be angry that my friend’s had deserted me when i most needed them-that it seemed to be my job to make my grief palatable for them,but I hope I’ve grown up a little and can forgive them.I think it’s important to know your limitations,but also not to try and justify them.We all get to be scared of death.
Regarding question number five: I’ve always liked the phrase, “those living on the other side of the veil,” as opposed to “the dead.” I don’t know where I first picked it up – I think maybe a temple president many years ago. It just kind of stuck with me.
Benjamin O. is wise. I too have noticed this in some who have lost a loved one. They don’t want to talk about it at the time. They just want to get through the funeral. Sometimes, it’s best to just be there and to continue to be nearby over time. When they are ready, you will be there for them.
Excellent lesson! I agree that mostly those grieving need to be heard and understood.
Not only that, but it is hard to screw up listening quietly. I’d also note that grief is not a time to get competitive with people.
As for grief and the plan of redemption, “Jesus wept” refers to the death of Lazarus, whom he was about to raise from the dead. If Christ felt sorrow, we can too.
But, from the perspective of someone who has lived ten thousand years, a period of separation of only fifty or sixty years really is short, as is the distance from one side of the veil to the other. On the other hand, I can barely take it when I’ve a child at college or at camp for a week.
Well done post.
I think Ben O has it right. People want to be listened to. N+o amount of talking can comfort someone like a listening ear. You run the risk that the talking never ends so the listening never ends, but it is chance you have to take to help someone out.
Joseph was well acquainted with death and handled it well. With what we know as Latter-day Saints, death should be easier to handle. not easy, but easier. that has been my own experience.
Stephen M said: “it is hard to screw up listening quietly.” This is a great point.
The other thing I thought was interesting about this lesson is how much death JS encountered. A skeptic would say he created doctrines to give him comfort in his grief. A believer would say it seems to have influenced which doctrines he asked about that then became the foundation of the gospel (family sealings, temples, eternal progression, baptism for the dead, etc.). Or one could go so far as to wonder – did he have those experiences so that he would ask about those things so that those would become foundational principles?
“Did he have those experiences so that he would ask about those things so that those would become foundational principles?”
No – at least not in my opinion. I am in the “prophets often receive revelation on things about which they care deeply”, but I don’t think they experience the death of others in order to learn about death. It’s too easy to take that and turn it into “God killed so-and-so to teach me something”. I’m positive that’s not what you meant, hawk, but I know people inside and outside the Church (more outside, frankly) who think that way.
Ray – yes, I agree that goes too far (and you’re right it’s not my view); plus we also have to keep the perspective that people in the mid-1800s simply experienced a lot more death. Infant mortality was much higher and life expectancy much lower. They didn’t even have toilet paper, for Pete’s sake!
There is a good post over on Times & Seasons about how saints in the 1800’s handled death. The discussion in the comments is interesting, as well.
The thoughts about listening are right on. People who are grieving (believers or non-believers) need someone to listen more than they need someone to explain things to them. Those who want an explanation or some reassurance will probably ask for it.
I’ve never been hit too close to home with grief, having lost one grandparent when I was only 3 and the others when they were 85, 90, and 88. IMO, no grief necessary, just separation. I haven’t lost any closer relatives or a close friend. Perhaps because of my lack of personal grief experience, I still find myself uncomfortable in situations where I visit those who are grieving, whether a viewing, funeral, or as part of a church calling. How many times have they already heard that someone is sorry for their loss? I’d do well to ignore the discomfort, close my mouth and just listen.
Hawkmaan, any relation? Then why not Hawkbooy
Yes, there’s a husband-wife relationship going on here.
Why not Hawkboy? A) How many men want to be called boys? B) Back in the comics of my youth, Hawkgirl was married to Hawkman. There was no Hawkboy that I know of.
I am happy to be told that someone is sorry for my loss-we need forms to expressthings to big for words sometimes and not everyone is a wordsmith.We’re only human.
Thanks for a great post and comments. I have to teach this lesson next week, so I appreciate it. Great ideas.
I had an unfortunate experience on my mission where I failed to listen appropriately. Instead I tried to talk and share my own painful experiences. To empathize. A mother had lost her child and was exceptionally bitter over the experience. I remain convinced to this day that if my missionary companion and I had just listened to her, and only listened, until she had said ALL she wanted to say, she might have eventually come around found some measure of peace. I still wonder what happened to her.
On the other hand, when I think about the times when I’ve decided to shut up and REALLY listen, I have been amazed by how much people will say. And Stephen M (Ethesis), I disagree: it is amazingly easy to mess up listening. All you have to do is open your mouth. People are remarkably poor at listening to others, and I think our current political debates are proof of this. Reading over internet forums shows a similar problem: we don’t really read each other’s comments–we note the general content then start composing our own retort to what we want the to have said.
Listening and reading the actual content of a post is a nearly dead set of skills (and I’m not sure the latter was EVER alive). I grieve for their passing, for we are all poorer without them, and when they are gone, this society will die also, for civilization is dependent on them in no small degree (the ability to communicate being that foundation on which society thrives, and these are essential portions of communication in my view).
Sorry for the doom and gloom. That’s my mood this morning.
We did a very good listening exercise in a work training we put together for leaders a few years ago. The key was to really listen, not just to be silent and waiting for your turn to respond. You had to listen closely enough to both the content of what the person was saying and the emotion behind it that you could then say it yourself as if it were your story and your emotion. After a few tries, people could actually feel the feeling the other person was talking about. It really increased empathy. That’s a contrast to usual attempts at “empathy” when I’m sitting there thinking, “I have no idea what that must be like. I have no similar experience. I’ll just smile and nod.”
it is amazingly easy to mess up listening. All you have to do is open your mouth. i.e. quit listening. I think we agree.
There is a book I’ve just begun reading which takes Joseph’s encounter with death as the motive force for his search for God and the development of the LDS Church. It’s called “The Mormon Culture of Salvation” by Douglas J. Davies, a British scholar of religion at the University of Uppsala. It’s quite fascinating. He argues that Mormons are obsessed not with DEATH, but with the DEAD, a useful distinction to make. It robs death of its sheer terror and domesticates it a bit.
Thanks for the insights. I have to teach this lesson Sunday and the comments have really helped me in preparing. I think your ages of Joseph in your bereavement resume are a little off though. Joseph would have been those ages in December of those years. But, since his birthday is in December, he hadn’t turned that age yet. He was 4 when Ephraim died, 17 when his brother Alvin died, etc. down the list ending with being 36 not 37 when his unnamed son died in 1842.
Nice catch, Sarah.