The End-Stopped Line

May 2, 2005 | 34 comments
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Sixteen years ago today, May 2, 1989, was a Tuesday. I got up and went to school that morning, along with my three other school-age siblings; I was fourteen, in ninth grade, an everting adolescent just starting to worry about my weight, thinking about my first AP exam in a few weeks. My mother probably stayed in most of that day, occupied with our new two-month-old, Abraham, and the three other home-age children. My dad went to work, and then to a school board meeting that evening. My grandma was in town, too, visiting for a few weeks. That night, sometime after bed but before midnight, my barely-five-year-old brother Jacob died.

More than a year before that evening, Jacob had been diagnosed with astrocytoma, a rare spinal cord tumor that had spread to his brain by the time it was discovered. The blond, ruddy three-year-old became a bald, beaming four-year-old and then a dark-headed, ivory-faced five-year-old as his disease propelled us through the corridors of childhood cancer: diagnosis, aggressive chemotherapy, blessed reprieve, relapse, withdrawal of therapy, and then the pure, timeless capsule of weeks or days before death. Jacob had lapsed into coma at home some time earlier—I think it was just a few weeks, but my faulty memory leaves Jacob that way, upstairs on my parents’ bed, for months—and his breath that night fell into a distinctive meter, called Cheyne-Stoke, that thrums with the increments of death. My parents gathered me and my sister Gabrielle to the bedside, and, together with my grandma, we witnessed the end—not, as in the movies, in a moment, but in a series. The last tear, the last breath, the retreating pulse, a collecting compact heaviness in the body and then its long, slow cool.

That was the end of Jacob’s life, but it is nearly impossible for me to make a story of Jacob’s death—as I have done dozens of times, in conversation and writing, during these sixteen years—that ends there. So irresistible is the upward swing of the redemptive memoir, so kinetic its inverted narrative arc, that I cannot stop the inevitable denouement: “We’ve been so comforted by the knowledge the gospel brings,” or “The experience has brought us so close as a family,” or “We know he’s a valiant missionary in the spirit world.” These words are not untrue, but, in truth, I resent them—and I blame the exigencies of the form, or the tyranny of social convention—every time I let the phrases crowd through. Jacob died, and that, so far, is where the story of his death should end.

My reluctance to retrofit Jacob’s story with a shiny, upbeat ending may be nothing more than aesthetic snobbery: upbeat endings are cliche, and if as a sister I failed to rescue my brother from cancer, at least as a writer I can redeem his story from cliche. Then again, my resistance could be an unwholesome fruit of the sort of pride that, overrun by tragedy, refuses all comfort and grafts in bitterness. Or it could be an honest shrinking from pressure on a still-painful wound, though I think this is least likely: my parents and my sisters Gabrielle and Rachel, Jacob’s twin, still carry fragments of grief that will never work themselves free, but my other siblings and I have, I think, fully healed from our loss.

No, this is not about the remnant of a poorly-processed grief. In my view, my parents’ finest joint achivement is their successful reconfiguration of our family ecology around Jacob’s absence: Jacob is still a part of our lives, easily—though more infrequently—touched in conversation, present but not oppressive in our home, accessible through voluntary family rituals. No child ever enjoyed a healthier healing environment than I did after Jacob’s death. Nor is this about a bruising encounter with theodicy. It never occurred to me to ask why God had let this happen, or who was being punished: this was not the way we negotiated the problem as a family, and it is not the way I make moral sense of the world.

As best I can discern, my dislike of the providential conclusion is a kind of loyalty to a deeply-felt personal proposition that, in its emotional logic, is utterly incontrovertible: the world would be a better place if Jacob hadn’t died. The emotional traffic in counter-factual narratives is a treacherous one, of course, and probably unprofitable, too, but I can’t keep myself out of it. Would I have grown into a weaker or lesser person if my brother had lived? Jacob died at the end of my adolescence, and at that stage tragedy no longer alters character but merely reveals it: Jacob’s death may, for example, have abetted my indistinct personal memory—forgetting was an important topos of my grief—or fostered my ability to separate and handle discretely the various strands of my life, but it did not create these tendencies.

What about my mother? The loss of a child is a catastrophe of such magnitude that it will remodel an inner topography at any stage of life; did this loss make my mother stronger, teach her irreplaceable truths? I can never really know, of course, since a child is as incapable of fully knowing a parent as a parent is incapable of fully opening to her child. Certainly my mother has mourned and comforted during the past sixteen years with an authenticity that only a bereaved parent achieves, and she has channeled the fierce energy of her grief directly into Kingdom-building. But my mother was remarkable from her youth; Jacob’s death didn’t change that. And she has said that her grief has borne both a brittleness and an urgency that, taken together, have exacted an enormous personal cost over the years. This year it is the thought of my mother, not my brother, that brings me to tears. Indeed, I sometimes think that my impulse to supplement the story of Jacob’s death with the redemptive ending is, more than anything, a child’s effort to please her parent, as if my easing of the story could somehow mitigate her pain.

All this is beside the point, of course. Jacob is the protagonist in the story, and what matters, narratively, is his outcome: would Jacob have been better off escaping death? This question is the natural habitat of the counter-factual narrative, the stuff of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I’m no Dickens or Capra. I don’t know. And after sixteen years, I’m unlikely to find out. But spirit, desire, blood and bone, even springtime rioting in its youth—all in concert call the boy back from the valley of the shadow of his death.

There are those reading this post whose grief is rawer than mine is now, and realer than mine ever was. Many of them have will have dealt with their pain more gracefully than I have mine, and they will probably be right to feel that my intransigence is presumptuous and self-indulgent. I ask your forgiveness; in the end, I must have my redemption, and I must have it from you.

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34 Responses to The End-Stopped Line

  1. Soyde River on May 3, 2005 at 4:50 am

    Perhaps because mine happened a very long time ago; and perhaps because I was seven when my brother died of meningitis (he was nine), I was able to push it all away into some forgotten corner of my mind, and learn to deal with the inexpressible. My life went on, through the divorce of my parents (much of it due to the inability of my mother to deal with her grief), as I was sent away to boarding school at age 10. I never saw my father for the next eight years, and I saw my mother four or five times a year, as she and my sister lived in a little one bedroom apartment, in impoverished conditions.

    No one knew then, because of the paucity of experience, the effect of divorce on children. My insubordinate rebelliousness was, I now understand, partly my anguished soul’s way of dealing with the unsupportable.

    It wasn’t until years later, when happily married, and my wife would comment on things which had happened in her life at ages 5,6,7,8,9 and 10, that I suddenly realized how bereft I was of memories. I do not remember my brother. I do not remember that we played together, laughed together, fought and cried and ran and jumped and sang and whistled and whispered and talked.

    You remember. I only have the assurance that I will see him again, and that in the healing and redemptive power of the Atonement, all will be made right again and all wonderful and ineffable things forgotten will be brought to our remembrance; and we, and our memories, shall be made new again.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on May 3, 2005 at 7:05 am

    Rosalynde, this is the best post you’ve written yet, and considering your skill that’s saying a great deal. It is a thoughtul, beautiful, and painfully honest piece of writing. My thanks for putting it here so that I could read it this morning.

    “As best I can discern, my dislike of the providential conclusion is a kind of loyalty to a deeply-felt personal proposition that, in its emotional logic, is utterly incontrovertible: the world would be a better place if Jacob hadn?t died.”

    This is really the heart of the issue, isn’t it? This is why miscarriages, stillbirths, childhood deaths, tragic accidents and brutal crimes, wars and rumors of wars, and sins and misfortunes of all magnitudes are occasions for mourning: as much as we believe, or want to believe, that a loving God sees all and makes His works manifest through all, we also cannot avoid the insistent truth that it would have been a better thing if that sin, this death, this accident, that calamity, hadn’t ever happened. We say that all trials are occasions for the improvement of our faith; we affirm that through repentence and endurance God will give us beauty for all the ashes of our lives–but, deep in our hearts, those convictions run against the obvious: death and sin and blood and horror are bad things, with terrible costs, and no sane person doesn’t, somewhere in their soul, really kind of wish that maybe, just maybe, they could have happened to someone else. This isn’t a question of theodicy necessarily, though it can become such. It’s just a deep and abiding pain, magnified by an awareness that one’s world of experience and possibility has been narrowed through a tragedy or mistake.

    I think that the experience of consolation and affirmation, the conviction that God will heal our broken hearts and make all things clear and clean in the end, by no means inevitably follows from our beliefs, or from any set of religious beliefs. There needs to be some creativity on our part; we have to appropriate and interpret the teachings and promises which are there, and fit them to our moment, our impressions and memories and needs. Those who confidently, and seemingly unreflectively, internalize a tragedy by way of saying that it was all an obvious part of God’s plan, that they can see the hand of the Lord in the evil they’ve experienced and how it’ll all work out for their own good, are themselves engaging in a rather aggressive bit of interpretation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or false with being able to affirm such things; it’s what I think all quests for consolation demand. It’s an admirable and humbling thing, or at least can be, I suppose, to see someone (like Rosalynde’s mother, perhaps) find for themselves truth in the face of such a radical narrowing of one’s life; it can be an important and needed guide for all the rest of us, when our lives get broken. But providential comfort doesn’t come automatically; the losses still remain. If we want providence to cover and redeem the pain, then I think (baring some revelation from above) we’re going to be obliged to patch together such interpretations ourselves, and no two people’s sewing job will be the same.

  3. Steve Evans on May 3, 2005 at 8:53 am

    There must be something terribly important about grief, mourning and loss for it to play so central a role in our lives. I’m glad to have read this, Rosalynde — thanks for opening up that part of your life for us.

  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 3, 2005 at 9:30 am

    and if as a sister I failed to rescue my brother from cancer, at least as a writer I can redeem his story from cliche.

    I liked that line and thought. It is the cliches that are most embarassing and the most oppressive.

  5. Gordon Smith on May 3, 2005 at 10:42 am

    Thank you, Rosalynde. And thank you, Russell, for that insightful comment.

  6. Floyd the Wonderdog on May 3, 2005 at 10:57 am

    I know the pain you feel. My father died when I was 11 and my only son passed days after his 18th birthday. I wish my father had been alive to ordain me a deacon and to hug me when I came home from my mission. I wish that I could have hugged my son when he came home from his mission to Mongolia (a family joke and later my son’s desired field of service) and played with his children. It’s like a missing tooth. Our tongue just seems drawn to that empty spot.

    Christ prepared us for our son’s death and supported us after his passing. With sadness, I have to say that if this ward was all that I knew of the church, we would have gone inactive. I would be hard pressed to be in a church with such unchristian people. The members were extremely insensitive and some were purposely cruel. Our Home Teacher (a former bishop) stopped coming after my son passed. Then after several months he approached me in the hall and without a word greeting said, *Are you over it yet?* Not wanting to take offense, I asked for clarification. *Are you over your son’s death yet?* It struck me that he considered my son as a disease and that he didn’t want to be exposed to it. I told him that I would not be over my son’s death until I could hold him in my arms again.

    Within a month of my son’s death, my wife was approached by the bishop’s wife. She began telling my wife how she loved to see her sons grow to be righteous young men. Then she said that she was glad to have three sons because if one died then she would still have the others. Did she forget who she was talking to? Did she forget that we lost our only son? Probably not. She had also approached a sister going through a divorce and told her how happy she was to have a righteous and loving father. After my wife went into the bathroom to cry, this *sister* started the rumor that my wife was having a nervous breakdown. God will repay.

    Only one member showed up to see how we were doing. He had multiple body piercings, at least one tattoo, and smoked. As he shyly told us of his concern for us and asked how we were doing, I understood what Christ meant when he said that harlots and publicans would enter the kingdom of heaven before the scribes and Pharisees. When he stands to be judged, I will speak up in his defense.

    One of my daughters decided that if God let her brother die, the church must not be true. Another has been dealing with extreme emotional loss and depression. Would our lives be better if my son hadn’t passed away? I don’t know. But, I know that I trust God and someday I will hold my son in my arms again. Then Christ will swallow up my sorrow in joy.

  7. Floyd the Wonderdog on May 3, 2005 at 10:59 am

    Whoops. Should have read *a righteous and loving husband*, not *father*.

  8. annegb on May 3, 2005 at 11:31 am

    Floyd, I am so sorry that woman treated you like that. People like that don’t last very long in my presence.

    My son also died not long after his 18th birthday. I’ve encountered the gamut. A few years ago, my friend, who was in the Relief Society presidency, had to teach a lesson on adversity at the last minute. She put us in a circle and tried to have us bond, using me and another sister as her foils, trying to draw us out and share. I was just stunned by the insensitivity. One sister actually said that she believed God loved us more because we had suffered more. I thought, “that kind of love you can have, hon, let’s bury your kid and see how you feel then.”

    Rosalynde, I have trouble following you sometimes, so forgive if I missed your point. I, too, struggle with the idea that sorrow or extreme tragedy is supposed to somehow uplift or make us better people. I was so mad for so many years, I’m sure people got sick of my complaining. I am still convinced that I got more than my share, and God somehow got his record keeping mixed up.

    But I have come to believe, just in the last year–it’s been 13 years since James’ suicide, a rough 13 years–but I am coming to some kind of acceptance and a belief that I must use this pain to lift others or it will have truly been in vain. I make a real effort to reach out now, to say to others, “my heart aches for you.” I don’t know how to put it into words, but it seems with this extreme grief, when you survive, you have a responsiblity to use it to bless others. When you are ready, not before. I told my friend whose son killed himself in September, “you get to decide how you deal with this. There are no rules. No right or wrong. You make your own rules. Nobody else gets to set a timetable or what is right or wrong. If you tear off all your clothes and run screaming obscenities down the street, that’s okay.”

    I don’t know if this makes any sense. Rosalynde, my kids still struggle with their brothers’ death, in so many ways. My daughter, who was 5, and adored her brother, still grieves. I am sorry that anybody has to go through this. And so grateful for Jesus, how did He do it?

  9. Sumana on May 3, 2005 at 11:32 am

    A beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking post, Ms. Welch. Thank you.

  10. alamojag on May 3, 2005 at 11:32 am

    Rosalynde, what a wonderful post.

    Russell, your comments express how I feel after the losses my wife and I have had recently. Even with the knowledge that there is something else, it is hard not to think life would be better had any of our children survived more than a few days.

    Unfortunately, our experience with the local branches have been too similar to Floyd’s. Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and we will not attend. My wife has only attended fewer than a half-dozen times since our last miscarriage, and the branch president where we live forbad the relief society president to visit her in the hospital after her complete hysterectomy last year. That is one of the reasons we have had our records moved to another branch.

    Like Floyd, if this are were our only expreience with the Church, we would have left it completely. Like Floyd, the only member who visited my wife after her hysterectomy was an “outcast”; and overweight, tatooed grandmother with several teeth missing, but full of the love of Christ.

  11. jane webb on May 3, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks Rosalynde for the subject. The grief I’ve experienced from losing my 13 year old brother, when I was seven, will always be a big part of who I am. His death was especially traumatic since I was alone after the earth caved in to entomb my brother and his best friend in their underground tunnel. My panic was excruciating as I tried in vain to dig out my neighbor as I could hear his muffled cries for life, so close but too far.

    The experience has had everlasting consequences as my search for understanding and peace led to the Church. We are an eternal family now and our ancestors are beneficiaries as well thru ongoing Temple work. Still, I yearn to have my brother back in this life, where I knew him and loved him so much.

  12. Paul on May 3, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    “Like Floyd, the only member who visited my wife after her hysterectomy was an ‘outcast’; an overweight, tatooed grandmother with several teeth missing, but full of the love of Christ.”

    And maybe that’s the point of the pain. No doubt this woman had suffered in life. She reached out full of the love of Christ, which is the end.

    I too have tried to make sense of personal tragedy (my own and others). I can’t. I cry a lot (I guess as a man on an anonymous board, I can admit as much, but only a few know.) I am angry, depressed, confused . . . But I am certainly not indifferent to others’ loss.

  13. Jed on May 3, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Rosalynde.

    The “He was needed on the other side” line rings especially hollow when a mother dies leaving little children behind. I think we ought to put that line in cold storage. What kind of mission could possibly be more important than helping an innocent child rise above a fallen world? What kind of God would say teaching missionary discussions is more important than teaching your own children?

  14. Keith on May 3, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    Rosalynde,

    I remember when you wrote about this in Honors Intensive Writing. I remember your going to the hospital room after Jacob was gone, staying there for a while (do I have that right?). I remember even then that the essay sought to make sense, to find healing–but not a superficial healing brought by easy answers or answers that did not make sense to you.

    Do you still have that essay somewhere? It might be interesting to compare that and the other essays you’ve written about this–to see the path your response has taken.

  15. Nate Oman on May 3, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    Rosalynde: Your comments remind me of a time when I once taught a lesson in Elders’ Quorum on the resurrection. My problem was that sitting in the front row was an elder who I know had recently been diagnosised with cancer that was probably fatal and uncurable. I couldn’t bring myself to teach a lesson on how the resurrection is a comfort in the face of death. I do believe that it is a comfort, as it happens, but I seriously doubted my ability to bring off such a lesson in a manner that would be compelling to this elder. So instead, we talked about all of the ways that the resurrection is signicant other than as a comfort to the bereaved or the dying. I wonder if I did the right thing.

  16. A. Greenwood on May 3, 2005 at 4:01 pm

    “As best I can discern, my dislike of the providential conclusion is a kind of loyalty to a deeply-felt personal proposition that, in its emotional logic, is utterly incontrovertible: the world would be a better place if Jacob hadn?t died.”

    I don’t know exactly what you and Russell Fox, in his follow up, had in mind. I do know what I have in mind. Although I would not express it the way you have, I have felt something similar. We have a way of talking in the church; we treat the good that comes out of death, pain, and misery as so all-encompassing that it swallows up the evil of the death, pain, and misery, and all thats left is good, good, good. Something in me rebels at the thought. Evil is evil. We can talk about things good and things evil, and even find the connections between them, without pretending that the one or the other does not exist.

    ————————————————————————————-

    I would be very much interested in what your parents did to keep your brother Jacob a part of the family.

    ————————————————————————————-

    Finally, in my own experience of unusual trials–death, pain, sickness, humiliation,–I’ve found that no one ever reacts to me the way I’d like. Or, if they do, its by chance almost. People have been comforted by acts and statements I would have found outrageous. I myself have bitterly resented behavior one day that moved me to tears the next. So I’ve come to expect little. More importantly, I’ve seen that I have no right to expect anything. When trials have brought me unusual suffering, I almost always have felt that I deserved some kind of special treatment. But I’ve never been able to embrace the feeling without recognizing that I was betraying my grief, anger, or pain, by turning my trial into an instrument for my own betterment.

  17. Rachel on May 3, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    I’m Rachel, Rosalynde’s sister and Jacob’s twin. Rosalynde, thank you for writing that. I hate writing about Jacob’s death, and I hate trying to explain how my life was made by his death. I hate it because I hate myself in those moments. I can’t help but turn his death into a self-aggrandizing story that makes me the protagonist in the next Richard Paul Evans book your visiting teacher will give you next Christmas. So Rosalynde, I’m glad you wrote and not me.

    Mama and I went to the cemetery yesterday. It was really nice; one of the nicest things I’ve done in a long time. We lay on the grass on either side of his grave marker and talked about lots of things. I suppose in round about ways we broached the very subjects discussed in this post. We talked about mothers and children, and we talked of the atonement’s redemption of memory, how it is infinite not only in the past history of the world, but also in the past history of our individual lives. Memory is a funny thing. I don’t have comprehensive memories of my time with Jacob (or the time immediately after it, either). I also have no idea what sort of girl I was before, during and after that time. That probably isn’t unusual, given the fact that I was only five years old. But what sometimes troubles me is the nature of my memories – they are trivial, mundane, selfish memories. Of course they were, though. Mostly I’m a trivial, mundane, selfish sort of person, so I shouldn’t expect anything profound from my experiences. I wish I wasn’t the way I am. It might make Jacob’s death more acceptable if I were more than I am.

    But this is what I remember from Jacob’s death. I knew he was dying. Our family had known for a while, and I think people took especial care to attend to the little five-year-old twin. At the end of his life, I remember taking care of Jacob in a very motherly sort of way. Jacob was something very young and very tender, and he had to be carefully protected. When he finally died, though, I didn’t know it. I was not there for those last moments. I don’t know that anyone even told me he had died. What happens after death? Must someone call the mortuary, and do they come collect the body? Are there official papers that have to be signed? I don’t know, and I never thought of it until now. But he died, and all I knew of it was that he was gone. I went up to my mother’s room where Jacob had slept, and he was gone

    Then our house was full of motion. Our house, which I remember vividly being a cool, blue, shadowed, silent place, became filled with people. There was no cold settling of our house; it was busy. The kids had to sleep on floors, I think in my parents room, although I could be wrong, to make room for everyone. The morning of the funeral my mom wanted me to wear a blue dress with yellow flowers on it. It had a sash tied to it that I hated with the helpless hatred that only children feel. Secretly I cut of the sash, leaving ragged ends of fabric sewed to my dress. I think my mom was angry about that, but I remained sullenly satisfied with my alterations.

    During the funeral program we had at our church, one of the sons of a friend of my mother’s sang “I am a Child of God,” during which he cried. I thought it strange that he cried. I wasn’t crying. I didn’t cry that whole day, and didn’t even feel like crying. After the program, I think our family sat around in folding metal chairs in the Relief Society room while people filed past to offer their condolences, I guess kind of like a guest line at a wedding reception, except for opposite reasons. I sat on Rosalynde’s lap, actually. I was very uncomfortable because I had a barrett in my hair that was digging into my scalp, but I was afraid to move because, well, I don’t know why, I guess because I thought that Rosalynde might think that I didn’t like sitting in her lap or something. I remember that though many people that walked by, only one person leaned down to give me a hug and a kiss, and I felt very neglected, and justified in my petulance.

    At the cemetery, we took lots of pictures, and I didn’t want to be in any of them. I carefully stood exactly behind my older siblings so that no one could see me. At that point I think all my siblings were then angry at me, but they didn’t make me show myself in the pictures.

    And after that, I don’t remember anything until I went to kindergarten four months later. So those are my memories. I had no self-awareness, and no other-awareness either. I wish I could remember more of Jacob himself, or more of anything other than myself. But I guess that’s a high wish to have for my former five-year-old self.

    I used to think that having a brother, a twin, no less, who died automatically guaranteed me an advantage in sainthood, that grief (sometimes feigned) would lend me a nimbus of holiness. But unfortunately that’s not true. It doesn’t even set me apart that much from other people in the world. Most people have tragedies, and most people don’t deserve them. If you were thinking of feeling sorry for me, please, please don’t, because I’m too afraid that I WANT you to feel sorry for me, even sixteen years later. That’s all I can say about Jacob’s death. Anything else I might add will be tawdry. No conclusions, at least not this time.

  18. Rachel on May 3, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    Adam,
    Yesterday our family had dinner made from many of Jacob’s favorite sick foods – green jellow, tuna fish sandwiches, and blueberry muffins. At the cemetery, my mom and I sang a lullaby that reminds us both of Jacob. For family home evening we had a slide show with pictures of Jacob (and consequently me) when he was little. When the kids were younger, we used to watch family videos a lot. One of my treasured memories of my little brother Benjamin came when we were watching a video with Jacob in it. Benjamin began weeping for the loss of his big brother. There are pictures of Jacob all over the house (maybe more of him than any other child). And yes, we do use our experiences with Jacob’s death to teach principles of the gospel. Every Christmas we write letters to Jacob and Isaac (another brother who died) and put them in their stockings. Our family went to the cemetery every week during the year after Jacob’s death. Now we go on holidays and special occasions, but we still go. Those are some of the things we did as a family to keep Jacob a part of our family. Rosalynde will better be able to tell you how in the months and years following Jacob’s death our family changed and rebuilt itself.

  19. Matt Bowman on May 3, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    I admire the faith and strength of those who can, like Russell said, see the hand of the Lord in something as grim as the death of a child. But, to borrow from Adam, evil is evil, and pain is pain, and though I haven’t suffered this sort of tragedy, there’s still something remarkably human and therefore comforting when Christ Himself weeps for the death of Lazarus, despite knowing He could raise him.

  20. Naomi Frandsen on May 3, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    A note from the Frandsen in the Eastern timezone: thank you for everything everyone has written, especially my two sisters. I didn’t cry yesterday, and it didn’t even occur to me to cry. Being just a little behind everyone else is one of the things Jacob’s death and living with his death has revealed to me about myself. annegb, I wish you could have been in my family’s ward when Jacob was dying. I wish you could have been in the wards of Floyd and alamojag too. Responding and reacting to death is something that I feel scared to do because I feel like I’ve never done it right. It seems like that can be a general feeling–we are careful about death, careful about the way we talk about it, careful about what we do to other people who have experienced it. Is there anything else that we tiptoe around more? Is there anything I’m more scared about messing up (not married, don’t have kids, otherwise there might be things I feel more scared about messing up)? Well, I’ve stewed over this comment for 15 minutes so I think I’ll end it now.

  21. Russell Arben Fox on May 3, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    That’s an important obseravtion Matt; thanks for making it. Christ not only knew that Lazarus’s life didn’t end with mortality, He also knew that He was about to bring him back to mortality. And yet He still wept. Why? Because the evils of mortality–death, tragedy, sin, loss, all of it–hurt so damn much.

    Like Adam, I believe evil still is, and always is, evil. That’s why finding solace from out of what God’s promises us, or provides to us, in the midst of evil demands real effort, real faith and even real interpretive creativity on our part, because whatever “solutions” may be there really just aren’t obvious; they’re not just not laying there, waiting for us, plain and straightforward and readily available to all. The loss and pain still clings to us as we try to come up with some sort of cover for our wounds, some kind of consolation, and some are more successful then others. But to say, whenever (if ever) we’ve successfully “worked through our grief,” or sewn together our covering, that now all at once the loss isn’t a loss anymore, that there still isn’t anything clinging to us, weighing us down? Ridiculous.

  22. seven bohanan on May 3, 2005 at 5:53 pm

    Naomi, are we so careful about death because, in the end, the comfort of faith is much colder and inadequate than one would want? That is not to say that the things hoped for are not true but that hope alone fails. Or do those of us who have walked through the shadow of the valley question the strength of the sun?

  23. A. Greenwood on May 3, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Nate Oman,
    I think you did the right thing. It is the sure hope of resurrection that can comfort the dying, not being informed that the resurrection brings comfort. You’re like the spouse who says ‘I love you,’ not ‘you feel happy when I tell you I love you.’

  24. John Welch on May 3, 2005 at 9:26 pm

    Many responses have relayed fleeting moments when they hoped to be comforted by their fellow Christians, and were not. It is nice that most of these stories do have redemption, even if healing came from an unexpected place.

    As a young physician caring for sick and often dying patients I see a deep need to be reconnected with other people as my patients’ and their families weather their estrangement from the society of normalcy. To those not suffering, interactions with people in these situations are often unpleasant, unfamiliar and desperately wished away. It is when we are needed most that we fail.
    In my first month of internship I cared for a woman with an unbelievable fungating breast tumor. The cancer was twice the size of her breast and was actively eating its way out of her body. Her room was filled with the rank odor of rot and her bedclothes were wet with the foul, dark ooze from her breast. She was unkempt and mostly unpleasant. When I first met her, and then during rounds, I had a prolonged struggle not to smirk or even openly giggle. The situation was so foreign, so bizarre, so horrible, that I fought to preserve any sense of dignity. During her week on my service I did all the things a good intern should. I arranged a CT scan. I consulted Surgery for palliative intervention and Oncology for possible chemotherapy. I aggressively treated her pain and nausea. I transfused her to replete the pronounced anemia from her chronic, bloody ooze. I arranged home health to keep her supplied with medicine and bandages. I made follow up appointments for her with the best Oncologist I knew. But I failed her. I was one of the first physicians she met. She had largely relegated herself as an outcast of society, homebound with a body becoming increasingly non-human. Instead of encircling her in the arms of safety, bringing her back into human society, I knew my uncomfortableness and smirk had confirmed her knowledge that even here, her illness was distasteful, if not unwelcome.

    Alma’s charge to his followers is to comfort those in need of comfort. This is hard. Watching other people suffer is unpleasant. It is foreign. It is strange. It is even repulsive. When possible we isolate it in hospitals, away from the rest of society. At best, our response is often cliché: a pan of lasagna. On behalf of those of us who have done stupid, inconsiderate things, I wish to apologize. The moments when we can offer comfort are fleeting and catch us off guard. They are often bypassed when they should be engaged. Our hollow comfort is more often intended to comfort ourselves than others.

  25. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 4, 2005 at 5:33 am

    If you tear off all your clothes and run screaming obscenities down the street, that’s okay.” — people often seem to treat you as if they expect that to happen.

    Finally, in my own experience of unusual trials – death, pain, sickness, humiliation, – I’ve found that no one ever reacts to me the way I’d like. Or, if they do, its by chance almost. People have been comforted by acts and statements I would have found outrageous. I myself have bitterly resented behavior one day that moved me to tears the next.

    Other than being badgered a week after a child has died to confirm that you are ok and can now be ignored, I’d agree.

    People want to feel that they are immune to living in a fallen world. Especially in our lives, most normal human experiences escape us. War is not fought in our cities every generation or less. Plagues do not randomly strike us. We tend to feel either immune, or terribly self centered (thinking of 9/11 vs. normal traffic deaths each year).

    In many people’s heart of hearts, they do not really believe that the world is really fallen, that when it is described as a vale of tears, that the scriptures are really correct. I’d have to agree that they treat examples to the contrary as if they are contagious and look for explanations that make it unnecessary for Christ to heal us. In a way, they deny that salvation is really necessary.

    Interesting post and comments here, interesting to read what is written now that I’m back.

  26. annegb on May 4, 2005 at 10:04 am

    Stephen, I hope I didn’t offend you with my example. It was just that, and you’re right, I find people watching me a lot. I’ve never lost it in front of anyone, except my husband, and that’s been rare, but I wanted that poor woman to know she had the right to be a little crazy at a time like this.

    Most of the time, I think people mean well with their comments and I try to give them that. Until you’ve experienced this kind of loss, you really don’t understand.

    But I go back to Rosalynde’s initial beautiful post and tribute to her brother. I think your family is handling your brother’s loss correctly, Rosalynde. Although my daughter and stepchildren, and my husband, remember my son, they don’t honor his memory, as I do, alone all the time. Nobody remembers his birthday or the date of his death, and I am slightly envious of you for that gift of mourning together. I don’t dump it on my family, but it is a lonely feeling.

    You are a lovely writer, Rosalynde.

  27. Mark Martin on May 4, 2005 at 10:18 am

    Seven years ago, two women in my branch, ages 25 and 30, were killed in an automobile accident en route to a Young Singles conference we were attending in Palmyra, NY. The Palmyra CES director was very good in talking with our group the day following the accident. Rather than pretend that we could know how it fit into a divine plan, he simply said, “We don’t know why this has been allowed to happen or why they were taken. We won’t know during this life. God sees a much bigger picture than we do.” Rather than try to explain a grand reason for our tragedy, he simply acknowledged that it hurts, and that we don’t have all the answers. He also mentioned a similar situation when Alvin Smith died at age 23 due to a doctor that didn’t know what he was doing.

    John’s comment (#24) reminds me that recently I wanted to skirt around discussing the death of a fellow employee’s son. Dealing with such things doesn’t come naturally to us humans. I’m guilty of this too, I now realize.

  28. Rosalynde Welch on May 4, 2005 at 11:09 am

    Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed, particularly to each person who has shared his or her own experience. I wasn’t sure if the post would generate discussion, but if it did, I was hoping it would be just as it has been.

    The question of how to relate to a bereaved person can require real thought and care; Nate, I think you did precisely the right thing in the situation you described. A few months after Jacob’s death, I realized that people have an overwhelming need, if they are going to speak to you about the death at all, to offer words of comfort meant to lessen the loss and grief. This is a perfectly understandable response, and although it’s not always satisfactory to the bereaved, I came to accept and appreciate those expressions–even if I didn’t agree with their interpretations–as tokens of human love and relationship, infinitely precious. And occasionally the words would indeed hit the mark, and I would feel genuinely comforted. Still, though, I usually try not to say anything to a bereaved person that would sound like I’m trying to find good from their evil–unless it’s explicitly requested, or I feel moved by the Spirit to do so.

    What has been persistently puzzling to me, then, and what I’m working on in the post, is why *I* feel such a compulsion to add those silver linings *to my own story,* even though I object to them the moment they pass my lips. Both the redemptive words and my resistance to them are part of my own “reading” of the event–my interpretation, as Russell says. It’s a kind of aesthetic activity, a very human response and perhaps a godlike one, as I suggest, to give the shape of some kind of story to one’s own experience. But, as I tried to get at in the end, I don’t want to imply that those who have given their stories a different shape have gotten it wrong. Listening to one another’s stories, and taking them on their own terms, is, perhaps, the only source of dark grace to be found in the shadowed valley of evil.

  29. Rosalynde Welch on May 4, 2005 at 11:51 am

    Adam, a few more thoughts on what my parents did after Jacob’s death. As Rachel said, they instituted regular family rituals, like weekly visits to the cemetery, gifts at holidays, commemorations of birthday and anniversary of the death. But these were always kept fairly light–my parents didn’t require us to express grief or even any particularly deep feelings at these events–and completely voluntary: nobody was required to participate, and there was absolutely no guilt-trip if somebody chose not to. We kept pictures of Jacob up around the house, and we kept special objects around, but there was no sacred “shrine,” and life quickly moved on. My parents didn’t leave his room intact, or his clothing in the dresser, or anything like that (although they saved special articles of clothing in special places). They spoke about him often, and encouraged us–but didn’t require us–to talk about him too, but it didn’t have to be in reverential or grief-stricken tones (although it was okay if it was). We’ve always included him in the number of children in our family–it would feel intensely disloyal if one of us left him out–and in recitations of the names of the children. Three children were born after Jacob’s death, and my parents have made a special effort to help them get to know Jacob, and often spoke of how they were with Jacob before they were born (I have my doubts about the doctrinal correctness of this, but absolutely no doubt about its emotional correctness). My parents encouraged the older chidren to write about him and process their grief in other ways–with the funeral program were included poems or pictures by the siblings old enough to produce them.

    I really don’t know how my parents knew to do all these things–as far as I know, they just followed their instincts–but, like I said, I think they struck precisely the right balance between keeping Jacob present, but normalizing his memory and allowing life to move forward.

  30. Christie Frandsen on May 4, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    Rosalynde’s beautiful essay, along with all the deeply insightful and introspective comments, is one of the sweetest gifts I have ever received. As Jacob’s mother, one of my greatest fears was that this brave and beautiful boy would not be remembered, that his brief life would never make a difference in this world beyond the eternal impact it has had on my own immediate family. I thank you one and all for opening up your heart and letting Jacob’s story (with whatever ending you want to add) enter in. I wish I could sit down with each one of you and have a long and deep conversation about death and grief and the LDS response to mourning (and non-LDS — we are not alone in our discomfort with those who mourn — I think it’s just that we EXPECT we should be able to do better than others). If this is allowed, let me offer a book recommendation — Mourning With Those Who Mourn, edited by Jane Brady and Steven Walker. You might have to ask your Church book store manager to pull it out of the warehouse for you — it came out years ago and was never a big seller (thus verifying how uncomfortable we are with this topic!!). It is not light reading — it is a raw and honest and heart-wrenching series of essays written by those who know firsthand the full force of grief. There are no Ensign stories here with pat answers and satisfying endings. And yet there is wonderful and important insight for those of us who want to be better at keeping this part of our baptismal covenant. Track that book down and read it.
    In response to Rosalynde’s question about WHY we seem to need to put our own ending on to these devastating experiences — I have a theory. I think this deep need we all have to make sense of these irrational and unpredictable tragedies of life is actually a Christlike, godly desire — it is, in fact, an act of divine creation. God took the debris of chaos and destruction (“matter unorganized”) and called it to order, made sense of it, turned it into something useful and beautiful and life-sustaining. I believe He asks us to do the same with our lives — take the broken pieces, the mess, the shards of agony and incomprehensibility and call it to order — with the help of the Spirit, make some sense of it, fit it into a pattern of beauty and faith and life in your family. I believe this is one of the great powers of the atonement — to make of these broken pieces a beautiful stained glass window that will illuminate and inspire all who see it. Satan is ever the destroyer; Christ is ever and always the Creator — and He invites us to try our hand at this godly pursuit in our own lives. This is what I have tried to do in my own life and in the life of my children as we live now without Jacob and Isaac. THis may seem to some to be hopelessly and superficially Pollyanna-ish — as if this is an excuse not to grapple with the deep, hard issues of loss and the ravages of mortality. But anyone who has earnestly tried to create beauty from ashes knows this is NOT the easy way out of grief — I believe it is Christlike way.
    So Rosalynde, keep trying to find the right ending for Jacob’s story — the one that makes sense to you, brings you peace, and fits his beautiful life into your stained glass window.

  31. William Morris on May 4, 2005 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks, Rosalynde.

    Would that we all could have people like you, your siblings and parents to speak for and about us and remember us when we are gone.

    I share your discomfort with upbeat endings. And yet — the more I read and write about and try to write Mormon literature, the more uncomfortable I become with endings that have no glimmer of redemption. I think sometimes that for many (esp. Mormon) narratives there may be a right note, the one that is not relentlessly chirpy and upbeat, that is redemptive and yet contains undertones of ambiguity and even darkness — that the presence or occurrence of evil is held at bay or even diminished (for now) or will be recovered from but that it isn’t gone.

    And by redemptive, I don’t necessarily mean that there needs to be some major epiphany or resolution.

    However:

    Some people feel that epiphanies are cheap. But those that work (for me) also make it clear that the epiphany is not the end of the matter — more life comes after. I’m thinking of Levin at the end of _Anna Karenina_ as one example of this.

    Or to put it another way: I think that the endings I like most are those where a character (or characters) reach a certain internal or external understanding/resolution/decision but where the narrative and the ending and the characterization is artful enough that I can feel like their life extends. That there is enduring yet to be done.

    But perhaps that’s just me projecting the way I work — that whole cycle of feeling the spirit and being motivated by it and then trying to live it and failing, but hopefully failing less, and then needing at some point to re-center myself (or having myself re-centered by being jarred by the harsh realities of a temporal, mortal life).

  32. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 4, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    Stephen, I hope I didn’t offend you with my example. It was just that, and you’re right, I find people watching me a lot. I’ve never lost it in front of anyone, except my husband, and that’s been rare, but I wanted that poor woman to know she had the right to be a little crazy at a time like this.

    Most of the time, I think people mean well with their comments and I try to give them that. Until you’ve experienced this kind of loss, you really don’t understand.

    annegb even if you had offended me, you’ve got a free pass. Seriously, there is no way not to lose it, it is impossible to avoid being a little crazy because you are. Intense grief is intense. It is just that so many people seem to just expect irrationality — but without the sympathy you extended.

    I think it is interesting that we are commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and not cheer them up, preach to them, call them to repentance or shun them.

    Sorry I don’t have the time to write longer, more coherent posts right now.

    If you get a chance, look at my post on silence and let me know what you think.

  33. Blake on May 4, 2005 at 9:23 pm

    Thanks Rosalyne and Rachel. It is rare to get a glimpse into the soul of another so raw and so honest. My heart aches in your pain, and my hope fades not for the meaning it may yet find.

  34. Gabrielle Turner on May 5, 2005 at 12:57 am

    This is Gabrielle, the other sister mentioned in Rosalynde’s essay.
    Rosalynde, this was a beautiful piece of writing and I felt honored to read it.
    This year I have cried more for Jacob’s death than I have in a long time. I think it is because I have twins, too, who are just the age Jacob was when he first got sick. I know that for the next year or so I will constantly be thinking about Jacob and seeing him in my boys. And for the rest of my boys’ lives, I will be watching them and seeing how Jacob’s life ought to have played out.
    I don’t think I can put into words the emotions I have felt.
    I still of course feel deeply the loss of my little brother. How much I would have loved to see him grow up and have him in my life now. I still vividly remember how desperately I wanted a miracle for my brother, and how solidly I believed we would get it until that night in January when our parents told us that Jacob would die. I remember more details about the weeks between that night and the night Jacob died than I do of perhaps any other period of my childhood. Every day I thought about the fact that Jacob was still with us, still alive, but knowing that soon he wouldn’t be and that I could never return to the moment I was in right then. I wanted to freeze time, or, barring that, memorize every day, every moment I spent with Jacob. I remember one afternoon going upstairs to lay on the bed next to Jacob. I traced his hand on a sheet of paper and I thought, Here is his hand, right here. But soon his hand will not be here anymore and all I will have is this paper tracing. I don’t know, I don’t think I’m explaining myself well, but it was I guess really awful to be aware of so much of this sort of thing at only 12 years old.
    I think that was the time when I became so acutely aware of time passing. I continue to have a difficult time with this. With my own children, I struggle daily with feelings of ambivalence– how grateful I am to have them and see them learn and grow, but at the same time how scared I am that another day gone is another day closer to when I might lose one of them.
    I also feel some form of survivor’s guilt, I think, because I do have 2 healthy twins who I will (God willing) see grow up together. But my mom had the special experience of raising twins ripped away from her. I feel the unfairness of it for her. The past few days I have watched and listened to my two little boys play with each other and interact and I can’t help but realize that *this* immeasurable pleasure is precisely what my mother lost and grieved.
    I have a lot of fear that I will lose one of my twins. I am quite obsessive about taking photos and videos and documenting the details of my boys’ lives for this reason. It also helps me to live more in the moment instead of in fear of what might happen in the future.
    I remember thinking when Jacob was sick and then when he was dying, that at least I *knew* what my big trial in life was going to be, and that after this my life would be smooth sailing. This was immature 12-year-old thinking, obviously, but the irony to me is that exactly the opposite has proven true in my life. Instead of being calmed by the notion that lightening doesn’t strike twice, I am instead more acutely aware that tragedy often strikes without warning and without memory.
    No matter how I continue to analyze the ripple-effect of Jacob’s life and death upon my own life, I know that I am a far different person than I otherwise would have been. And I will *never* stop wishing that things could have been different. I know that Jacob’s life and death have profoundly shaped my view of God and the role He plays in our lives. I am so glad to see that others here have come to some of the same conclusions that I have. Although I expect that my conclusions will probably continue to evolve. And I will probably always long for what, in my mind, should have been.

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