Picture of a painting my parents got for me. Artist Derek Hegsted
Note: This was written about ten years ago. And I have indeed felt wrapped in comfort from time to time during those years. I am grateful for that blessing in my life.
All my life I’ve been taught that death is not the end, that it is merely part of our progress towards salvation. I was comforted by this ideal when I lost my grandparents. I watched my grandfather die. I watched him sit up and open his arms, greeting someone, unseen by my mortal eyes, and then he was gone. When my sister-in-law lost her toddler, I watched her wrap that tiny body in a much-loved blanky, and I thought my heart would break as I saw her hug him close one last time before gently placing him back into the small casket. I mouthed words of what I hoped was comfort, reminding her of the doctrine Joseph Smith taught that we will have our children to raise during the millennium. When my father-in-law died and I watched his widow so gracefully and faithfully handling his loss, I didn’t understand the depth of her grief and pain, but I listened as she attested to her belief in eternal families. These losses, while great, paled, for me, in comparison to my experience of losing my husband, Kelly.
One of the most difficult challenges I faced was making all of the funeral arrangements, including choosing a casket. I first saw the casket as a small image on a computer screen – like everything else surrounding Kelly’s death, it didn’t feel real. Through the numbness I chose the plain pine box because Kelly had always said, “just bury me in a plain, pine box; don’t spend money on something fancy; it won’t matter to me.” So, following his wishes, I ordered the simplest casket available trying to be frugal, but then I ruined the effort by ordering an expensive silk lining, with a guitar embroidered on it. It was important to me to have that symbol of Kelly’s life be a part of his death. I didn’t actually see the casket until four days after he died. After a memorial service in Utah, a close friend did the driving, and we traveled five hours to Idaho, where we would hold the funeral, followed by the burial in a rural cemetery. Arriving at the funeral home at about nine o’clock in the evening, the night before the funeral, I encountered the casket. The wood was a highly polished pine, with shiny brass fittings, and a creamy-silk lining which framed Kelly’s still form. He looked as though he were asleep in a narrow, silk-lined — box. There was no escaping the fact that underneath the polish and shine, the soft pillows and silk, it was a box, barely long enough to hold his six-foot, one-inch frame.
They left me there, amidst soft carpets, luminous lights, and a heavy floral scent, to say my private good-byes. Kelly looked like he was sleeping, with life’s cares and worries, for once, dismissed. I rearranged his hair to a more familiar style; I felt his solid form, cool and unyielding, under my warm hand — what had I expected? For him to sit up in the box, open his eyes, and tell me it was all a horrible joke? I smoothed his brow, but was instantly repelled by the traces of make-up clinging to my hand. The lid of the box was divided in half, with the lower part closed. I opened it, and there the facade ended; the lining stopped short of the end of the box and exposed the raw wood; definitely no frills. I removed his slipper and sock – and rubbed his foot, until the flesh warmed in my hand. His foot, bathed in my tears, was natural looking, no make-up, no frills, just memories held in my hands. And standing there, clasping his foot in my hands, I said my goodbyes, telling him about the things I already missed, and whispering to him my feelings about my fears, my confusion, my loss, and my love.
In the weeks and months following Kelly’s death I found myself with an insatiable need to understand more completely the doctrines in regard to death and life after death. I needed to come to a firm understanding and testimony of these principles in order to accept and be at peace with his death, and to help me feel like I could move forward. I did not want to find myself, because of my grief, in the same hopeless state of bitterness and despair as a few other widows I knew of, who did not believe in life after death, found themselves.
I needed to know, not just believe, that life after death is real. My hunger led me to read all the NDE (near death experience) books I could find, to search the scriptures in depth, to review the Plan of Salvation, to read quotes from the prophets about eternal life, and ultimately, to beseech the Lord in prayer, to understand and accept the changed circumstances of my life. I needed to understand why Kelly died when he did; he was only forty-six years old. Why did the Lord need him now? Didn’t I need him here more? Didn’t my family need him here?
Some of my questions were answered almost immediately. In a priesthood blessing I received soon after returning home from the hospital the morning Kelly died, I was reminded that the Lord loves me, a reminder that has been a part of nearly every blessing I have ever received. This pronouncement was followed by the assurance that Kelly had completed his life’s mission, and that it was time for him to “come home,” and that he had done all that he could for his family in this realm, and that he needed to be where he is now in order to continue to help us. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I was promised continued comfort and guidance to help me traverse the uncharted path that stretched before me. As the blessing continued, I felt a spiritual blanket of comfort and warmth being wrapped around me; it stayed with me during those first few weeks, and from time to time, I ask, and receive, in my need, a renewal of its extra warmth as I face life without Kelly.
The Lord was merciful to me, in giving me nearly tangible assurances that Kelly is still a part of my life. Almost immediately, I began receiving witnesses of Kelly’s continued existence. After the memorial service, several people came to me and told me that they had seen Kelly standing next to Jason, playing his guitar too, as Jason performed a musical tribute to his father, and one of my daughters heard Kelly’s trademark “birdie whistling” during one of the songs performed at the funeral. The thought of Kelly’s whistling, which he reserved for what he termed “sickly sweet” music made me smile through my tears.
Later on, I came to recognize when Kelly was with me. The first time I felt him with me was when I was driving down the road. The window was down and a song that Kelly used to play on his guitar was blasting on the radio. Suddenly, I felt Kelly’s presence there, beside me. The feeling was so strong that I turned my head to look at him; I didn’t see him, but I knew he was there. I basked in simply feeling him near me, drawing strength from his presence. As the song ended, I felt him leave. Since that time, I have often felt a hand-shaped warmth, pressing on my right shoulder; it is almost a physical weight, but when I reach up to touch it, I feel only the warmth.
Despite the assurances I receive, there are some things that test and promote my personal growth. Going to church on my own is probably the most difficult thing I do on a regular basis. Kelly and I were brunette bookends for our brood of blonde children. I miss those days. When the children were a little older, and didn’t have to be physically contained to keep them on the bench, we started sitting next to each other. I loved holding hands with him or having his arm draped lightly across my shoulders, and I loved to hear his clear tenor voice singing the hymns.
Now, sitting by myself more often than not, my heart is pierced with longing as I watch couples sitting together, holding hands, whispering, heads bent close together, touching in that intimate, married way I was once so familiar with. Being alone and watching what was once my own experience is sometimes painful. However, despite the pangs I sometimes feel, I need the spiritual boost that I invariably receive through attending worship services. One Sunday, I woke up missing Kelly, the ache more intense than usual. At church, the words to the hymn being sung brought a lump to my throat and drew my feelings close to the surface, and the tears, which were pooling in my eyes, threatened to spill over, and in that moment, I heard Kelly singing, and my heart was comforted. During Sunday meetings, even though I tried to focus, my mind often wandered. I thought about how much my life had changed in just a few months. I was learning that I was a stronger person than I realized, and I realized, in retrospect, that the Lord had prepared me, and I think Kelly, for his death.
In October of 2004, I went to Las Vegas to spend some time with my daughter and her family. It was a much-needed break for me from the daily grind of work and family responsibilities. For years, I had been doing my best to survive one highly stressful situation after another. The current, Major Stress, was dealing with Kelly’s under-employment. He had been laid-off from his job over two years earlier, and despite his ongoing efforts, had not found permanent, full-time work. This made things financially and emotionally stressful for our family. When I left for Las Vegas, I was near a breaking point, and the respite was just what I needed. Before I left to come home, I asked my son-in-law if he would give me a blessing. I felt like I needed some spiritual guidance and strength to help me deal with the emotionally and physically demanding situations that were a part of my life. Subsequently, I was blessed with “strength and comfort.” At the time, I thought it was in regard to the challenges I would be returning to, but it was more than that. I was being blessed with the strength and comfort I would need to face Kelly’s death.
Looking back, I can see that Kelly being laid off from his job was a blessing for our family. The Lord watched out for us and made sure our needs were met. During those years he was able to spend a lot of time with the kids and me. He would work at a temporary job for several weeks or months, and then he would have several days or weeks off. Sometimes we would both be home for a few days at a time, and we were able to have uninterrupted time together, a commodity that had been a rare occurrence in our years together. I had the opportunity to work with him at the same company one summer. We were able to share our lunch hour, and the ride to and from work.
The last spring he was with us, my job as a substitute teacher had ended, and financially it made sense that I should get a full-time job for the summer, but every time I prayed for help to get a job I felt confused and anxious. The thought came to my mind that I needed to just stay home and be a full-time mom for the summer. I argued with the Lord, pointing out that we needed the money and I couldn’t see a good reason why I shouldn’t work, but again, more forcefully, the thought lodged in my brain, that I needed to be a stay-at-home mom for the summer. Finally I said, “Okay Father, I will,” and a busy, family bonding summer began.
In addition to working at a long-term temp job, and still looking for permanent full-time work, Kelly spent time with his kids. They worked on creating music together, and on their relationships. He also joined our four youngest children in doing summer-stock theater. Doing four back-to-back shows meant that we lived, ate, and breathed theater that summer. If Kelly had had a “regular” job, he wouldn’t have been able to spend so much time with his kids. The children came to know him as a person, and together they created a bond that remains unbroken. And I learned a lesson about following promptings –we were okay financially, and we spent a lot of time together, what a beautiful gift our family was given.
Kelly was given to being conservative when it came to spending money, especially on himself, but in the months before he died, he surprised me by taking me out to eat, not once but three or four times, at all of our favorite restaurants. We enjoyed a steak dinner, served with sides of all-you-can-eat shrimp, and later on he took me for some great Mexican cuisine at La Casita, and the week before he died, and one night about a week before he died, we took the whole family out to eat. We were all there but my oldest daughter, who kept in touch with us through emails and phone calls. Usually when she called, she would speak to Kelly briefly, and then she and I would have a lengthy conversation, but her last conversation with her dad was a reversal. I talked to her for just a few minutes, and then she and Kelly had a long conversation that ended with making plans for Thanksgiving, and Kelly’s traditional conversation ending, “sure love ya.”
Not only did Kelly end conversations with that phrase, but he ended notes and letters with it too. The Sunday, just a week and a day before he died, found us in our room. After a Sunday afternoon nap, I pulled out the mahogany box full of the cards and letters we’d written to each other through the years, and we spent several hours that evening going through them; reading them out loud to each other. The content of the letters ran the gamut from mundane reports of everyday life, to greeting cards with handwritten messages, to written apologies for poor behavior, to tender expressions of love for each other, his were typically signed with “all my love,” or “sure love ya, Kelly.” Yes, he surely loved me. Through personal revelation, I have been assured that Kelly is as connected and concerned as ever, with his family. We are still on the same team, and I know he is helping me all he can, and all I will allow. I know our lives do not end at mortal death. I know our souls are eternal entities. I know Kelly is waiting for me, and I am filled with gratitude to the Lord; for He has not left me comfortless.
“A question may be asked—“Will mothers have their children in eternity?” Yes! Yes! Mothers, you shall have your children; for they shall have eternal life, for their debt is paid. There is no damnation awaiting them for they are in the spirit. But as the child dies, so shall it rise from the dead, and be for ever living in the learning of God. It will never grow [in the grave]; it will still be the child, in the same precise form [when it rises] as it appeared before it died out of its mother’s arms, but possessing all the intelligence of a God.”(King Follett Sermon look up reference)
 An explanation of the my doctrinal beliefs, including the laying on of hands for blessings, and the belief in eternal life, marriage, and families can be found at mormon.org for those who may be interested.