Featured artwork by artist Del Parson
By: Doug Partridge //
One of the stereotypes we often see of Mormons is that of smiling, happy people who are always well-adjusted and never sad. But it’s not quite realistic, and in fact might be unhealthy.
The “happy Mormon” stereotype makes sense to a point. I think any group, especially those wishing to help others understand them, would want to put its collective best-foot forward and show the world the better aspects of what makes them unique. But, I think as a negative consequence of this, we Mormons have in some ways lost our ability to be sad and mourn. Let me explain.
When Mormons get baptized, we believe we are making covenants or promises with God to do certain things. Part of what we believe to be a part of our baptismal covenants involves mourning. We read in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 18:9, “Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life.”
I feel like we as Latter-day Saints skip over that first part and jump straight to everything else. As such, I think we as a people can be really bad at mourning and mourning with those that mourn. When we ourselves go through a loss, we try to put on that happy, Mormon face, remind people about the gift and hope that the Gospel brings, and try to will ourselves out of sadness. When we see someone who has experienced a loss and is sad, we feel an almost compulsive need to shove the happy, hopeful parts of the Gospel down their throats to force them to stop being so sad and be happy.
Why do we do this? Why can’t we abide sadness, whether it be our own or someone else’s? It feels like we get the scripture wrong and try to “comfort those who mourn” instead of mourn with those who mourn.
I think our problem is that we sometimes call God’s plan for us, the Plan of Salvation, the “Plan of Happiness” and we thus think that our purpose in life is to always be happy because we have the Restored Gospel. I think we sometimes see happiness as some sort of external expression of our righteousness and strength of testimony. I also think that, in turn, our own inadequacies and personal doubts cause us to shun sadness (both in ourselves or others) out of a fear that sadness reflects a lack of righteousness or a weak testimony. And I think we err in acting this way.
(Before I go on, I feel a need to make sure everyone knows that I have a testimony of the Plan of Salvation, am eternally grateful for temples and the ordinances performed in them, and find happiness in the Restored Gospel.)
Happiness vs. Joy
We’re not saying happiness is a bad thing…just that joy lasts longer.
Our purpose in life according to the Book of Mormon is to have joy, not to be happy. Happiness and joy are not the same. After all, Christ was perfect in all things, so I can imagine He “rejoice[d] evermore” even though there were certainly moments when He mourned. Lehi tells us that we are “that [we] might have joy,” not that we might have happiness. I believe joy is something altogether more profound than happiness. Happiness is some fleeting, superficial feeling that comes and goes and depends more or less on our own whims and fancies. Joy is deeper and stronger. It is interwoven with our hope for salvation. “Joy means when you have lived such a life that you are ready to enter into the presence of the Lord.” If we were less concerned with being happy and more concerned with joy, I believe that we could more easily allow ourselves to mourn and mourn with those who mourn.
And we need to develop this ability because life is haaaaarrrrrrrd. When I was at BYU, I was fortunate enough to take a New Testament class from Stephen E. Robinson. Ever the colorful character, I recall once in class he went off on a tangent and said (and I am only slightly paraphrasing), “For crying out loud people, life’s a (bad word)! Let people cry every now and then before you try to remind them to have an eternal perspective or whatever it is we Mormons do!” President Hinckley shared a quote that says it a little more eloquently:
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to just be people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey…delays…sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling burst of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”
By being willing to mourn and be sad, we can actually live life. If we become acquainted with grief, through our own sadness or the sadness of our brothers and sisters, then can we truly comprehend and genuinely appreciate the good life has to offer (See 2 Nephi 2:15-25). If we are unwilling to allow ourselves or others to mourn, we are not only failing to live our covenants, we are shortchanging our mortal experience and limiting the impact that the positive moments of life can have on us.
How do we Mourn?
So, with that in mind, what do we do? How do we live our covenants and mourn with those who mourn? And how do we ourselves mourn?
I think this is best illustrated by a story from my mission — because, after all, every spiritually amazing thing happened on someone’s mission, right?
When I entered the Missionary Training Center to receiving training before heading to my mission in Chile, my maternal grandmother was very ill. We all knew she did not have much longer to live.
For me, my grandmother was incredibly important because I did and still do not have much of a relationship with most of my extended family. Being an Army Brat whose father was an Air Force brat means lots of moving and lots of family scattered all over the globe. But the one person we always seemed to see at least once or twice a year was my grandma. She was one of the most wonderful people who has ever graced this earth and I always felt very close to her. I always felt her love for me and, because I had pretty much no other strong connections to the rest of my extended family, she was incredibly special to me. I saw her the Christmas right before I left on my mission and a part of me knew that would be the last time I would see her in this life. But, I thought because I was going to be serving a mission and the Lord would bless me, she would somehow make it through until I got home and then we could say our goodbyes. So, I left her without saying a final goodbye or telling her how much she had meant to me.
Fast forward about three months. I was in my first area and in the thick of my first transfer. One day while the four of us who lived together were resting, we got a phone call from one of our fellow missionaries: the mission president (the now Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge of the 70; shameless name drop, I know) was on his way to our place. Well, you can guess how we reacted to that. We began to furiously clean our house, thinking this was some sort of surprise inspection. Just as we were finishing, he pulled up in his car and rang our doorbell.
He walked in and we could tell something was up because of the somber look on his face. He then asked for me and I stepped forward. The first thing he said to me was “Elder Partridge, your parents just contacted me about your grandmother.” That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. He then told me she had passed away and he wanted to tell me in person. It was the last thing I expected to hear that day. I didn’t think she would pass away during my mission, especially this soon into it.
He then stepped forward, gave me a big hug, and asked me if she and I were close. I told him yes and he expressed his condolences for my loss and assured me that if I needed anything, I could count on him. And that was it. He let me be sad. He listened to me as my tears soaked his shoulder. He didn’t try to teach me the Plan of Salvation or remind me to have an eternal perspective. He simply gave me the opportunity to grieve and extended to me his own grief for my pain and his willingness to help me in any way I saw fit. In short, he mourned with me.
His examples showed the other missionaries in my house and zone how to react, as they also mourned with me and gave me the space to grieve. That space allowed me to be sad and work through different issues and emotions that came up, such as being upset with God for allowing my grandmother to die while I was serving Him (that’s a story for another post). In my own time, as I worked through my sadness, I came to terms with my loss and was then (after I finished mourning) comforted by both the Lord and my fellow missionaries. I felt a peace and joy that I believe could not have been as profound and long-lasting if I had not first experienced such deep sorrow.
I think Elder Corbridge gave a good model on how we can mourn and mourn with those who mourn. We should let people grieve and let them work through their grief in their own way. We should show kind gestures, such as my mission president taking time out of his day to meet with me in person. We should most of all show others that we are grieving with them and are willing to mourn with them for their loss. When we ourselves are in mourning, we should be willing to actually be sad and experience the pain and emotions that come with that. As we do these things, we will truly feel the deep joy and peace that can only come after going through those experiences with grief and sorrow. After first mourning with those that mourn, and then helping them find comfort.