"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
September 11, 2013
Facing Death
by Emily S. Jorgensen

When my oldest daughter was 5, we let her get a fish.

You know, one of those “Siamese fighting fish” they sell at Walmart in the tiny little plastic tubs.

She had loved animals ever since she was a baby — far preferring stuffed tigers and puppies to dolls or other toys.

We figured this was a good way to help teach her responsibility (the organization-and-follow-through gene seems to have skipped this particular child) and continue to encourage her love of animals, which we think is a positive thing.

In the back of our minds, we also knew we were inviting an inevitable lesson on mortality into our home. Because, of course, Walmart fish don’t live forever. But this was a secondary concern, put to the back of our minds for now.

About a year later, her beloved “Seemee,” as she had named her (don’t ask me why — she made it up) finally passed away.

Now, five years later, she still loves animals, she is still terribly unorganized, and what she remembers most about Seemee is that he died. She can’t remember exactly what color he was or how she came to choose his name. But she remembers the heartbreak of his death.

This is not what I expected to happen. Huh. Parenthood is full of surprises.

This past Labor Day our family spent some time helping my aunt who cares for her brother, my uncle. My uncle is dying.

We had told our children earlier in the summer when they saw him last that he was very sick and he would likely die within the next year. They took it in stride, and it didn’t seem to bother them at all. I was surprised. Ok, I thought, well, that was an easy conversation.

Maybe too easy.

This time, when we came home in the evening on Labor Day, we told our children this was likely the last time they would see him alive. I wanted them to remember who he was so when we went to his funeral they would understand what was happening.

I was again surprised.

This time, the reaction was considerably stronger. One child couldn’t get to sleep. Another woke up in the middle of the night worried. I fielded questions about death for the next few days.

What had changed?

Well, our children had experienced death firsthand this summer, that’s what.

Our dog, which we had before we even had any children, died suddenly and rather tragically this summer when I ran over her while all my children were in the car with me.

My son, who is five, came over to the back of the car to inspect the body with me after I pronounced her dead. He looked at Ebony’s still form, and simply said, “Yeah, she’s dead,” and wandered away.

I braced for the screaming (my oldest daughter was demonstrating this reaction quite well at the time.) But, it didn’t seem to phase him at all.

It was only later, several hours later, when he asked me, “Where’s Ebony?” and I looked at him in a way that was probably very strange, and answered, “Um, she’s dead, do you remember? We wrapped her in a sheet and we are going to bury her when daddy gets home.”

He got very concerned and asked, “Do you mean she is never coming back?” and when I nodded, he burst into inconsolable tears.

Death is something children have to experience to understand. All the Primary lessons in the world about the duality of the body and spirit, the resurrection, the veil, don’t really mean anything until they have felt that type of loss firsthand.

And thanks to Ebony, they had felt it. I didn’t really appreciate how permanently this had altered their understanding about death until our conversation about my uncle last week.

Their innocence had been lost about this one thing. They now know that death is permanent, that it is irrevocable, that it is BIG.

Of course, we have expressed our testimonies about the resurrection, reiterated our beliefs about heaven, and explained that Uncle Joe will actually be much, much happier when he is free from the body that essentially traps him now.

But, though they have a child’s faith, these things are still abstractions to them.

Death is concrete.

My aunt expressed to me that she knows my uncle’s mortal mission is done — that right now he is here only to teach the rest of us…something.

I suspect one of those things is to teach my children what death is, what it means, to show them how faithful Latter-Day Saints cope with it, and to help move these abstract ideas of heaven, the resurrection, and hope in eternal life into focus for them.

I love my Uncle Joe. He has always been generous to me and my children. Each of them has at least one toy in their room right now that was from him.

But, perhaps the greatest gift he will give my children is the knowledge that the people on the other side of the veil are real and that my children are part of a family much bigger and less tangible than they ever knew.

Perhaps this brush with death will make them pay attention a little more when the plan of salvation is discussed in Primary or Family Home Evening. Perhaps it will help them replace the abstraction of hope with the reality of faith.

I can’t think of a better gift to leave behind at the end of one’s life.


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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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