Tommie Farrell currently serves as 1st Counselor in the Abilene Texas Stake. He has served as ward mission leader, elders quorum president, and bishop. Favorite callings of his past have been primary teacher, temple ordinance worker in the Lubbock Texas Temple, and as a scoutmaster just prior to his current calling. He has been married to Karen Farrell for 28 years and they have four fantastic children at ages 26, 21, 18, and 14 with two sons serving on missions at this time. They especially enjoy being “Pops” and “Boo” for their 6 month old grandson. Tommie has been a physician for 22 years with 17 years of these dedicated completely to the field of Hospice and Palliative Medicine where he gets to care for patients and families with critical illness and end-of-life care.
There are some events in life that just can’t be explained easily.
In the same congregation two families could be told that their child has a deadly disease. Both pray, fast, and seek priesthood blessings. One receives the miracle of healing for their child; the other family witnesses the death of their child. There are wonderful Gospel teachings that explain this theologically, but the reality for the family is incredibly difficult.
In this article I do not attempt to explain the way to heal from loss in the face of faith. Rather, I want to help the leader be prepared to help the ones working through this process. We can’t judge what constitutes a great loss to a person. So, this advice is for helping anyone experiencing an unanswered prayer – whether that be the loss of a child, parent, spouse or even loss of health, expectations, or anything longed for prayerfully that is not realized.
First, an attempt to describe the perspective of the one who has experienced a great loss.
I share this humbly as I think so many have had greater difficulties in life than I have. I am part of this group of great loss. I now realize this group is much larger than most know. My wife and I had our second son die moments after his birth. We had time to prepare as he had a birth defect that was discovered about 14 weeks into the pregnancy. Despite our preparation the moment we handed David over to the nurse to take his body from our arms, our hearts broke and the wailing that came from my throat could not be contained.
Insights from Hamilton
A scene from the modern hit musical, Hamilton, attempts to describe what this type of loss is like when they lose their son. From the song “It’s Quiet Uptown”:
“There are moments that words don’t reach. There is a suffering too terrible to name. You hold your child as tight as you can, And push away the unimaginable…”
As the ensemble keeps watching Alexander and Eliza Hamilton work through this process they sing,
“They are trying to do the unimaginable.”
You see the couple work through this without any intervention other than their personal relationship and their reaching out to God and each other. In the end a crucial moment for Alexander Hamilton is when Eliza takes him by the hand in recognition of accepting the sincerity of his sorrow for the death of their son as well as his previous affair with another woman. In that moment the ensemble sings,
“Forgiveness. Can you imagine? Forgiveness. Can you imagine?”
But as the couple go down the street together it ends with this thought:
“Have pity, they are going through the unimaginable.”
The scene beautifully shows the difficult process of ongoing healing and how important relationships and faith play in that process. So, what principles can help a leader helping a person or family that has experienced a loss like this?
Pain Doesn’t Imply Lack of Faith
First, just appreciate that the process can be excruciating, expressing that pain does not represent any lack of faith on the part of the person or family. Examples in the scriptures of the righteous willing to express their sorrow at or longing in regards to unanswered prayers are significant and include faith-filled examples.
The Apostle Paul shared in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8,
“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-3,
“O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Ye, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppression, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them.”
The Savior Jesus Christ while in Gethsemane cried out in Matthew 27:46,
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”
Truly Being With Someone
The next advice is to recognize the importance of presence. Words and teaching and sentiment are not always required. Just being with someone when they are in pain, and showing that you are there because you care, has power in itself. This is also demonstrated in the scriptures. Consider how Job’s friends supported him through his lowest point:
“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place… for they had an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him. And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” 4 Job 2:11-13
Two similar examples come from the Savior’s life. When the Savior was entering into the unimaginable experience of the Atonement, He asked for one thing from those He loved:
“Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” Matthew 26:38
Later, when He was making the humiliating journey to the cross:
“And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.” Luke 23:27
There was nothing else for those who loved Him to do except to share in the sorrow of His journey.
Service – The Self-Healing Balm of Gilead
Testify of the Savior’s love and the power of serving others.
Ultimately the best way to heal is service. Service provides the deeper human connections that bring out our own compassion. Serving others is the best medicine for self-healing. It leads to emotional resilience. This makes it the important ingredient for happiness for all humans, but especially for those healing their own wounds. I don’t say this merely as an opinion. It is scientifically studied to be the key to happiness in life. One set of researchers, Stephen Trzeciak MD, and Anthony Mazzarelli, have compiled and completed many of these studies call it the “Wonder Drug without side effects.”
Our modern day teachers reveal the same principle as a Gospel truth:
“Your power will increase as you serve others.” President Russell M. Nelson
“Empathy during agony is a portion of divinity!” Elder Neal A. Maxwell
“Serving others is a source of strength, even when we ourselves feel weak… Service enlarges our soul, broadens our perspective and allows us to draw upon God’s power in more abundance.” President Bonnie H. Cordon
This great truth, as true as it is, has to be delivered at the right time and with the right relationship. As leaders, we often want to offer solutions very quickly to aid in hastening the process of healing. But, this truth has to be discovered and not pushed upon us.
So, how do you help a person discover this truth?
First, trust in the Lord and His timing. While waiting, keep being there with them and testify always of the Savior’s love. Build the relationship that is needed so when the time is right you can testify to the principle of service. Next, listen to the Spirit. Trust when He whispers and respond. That is the time to teach the principle of service.
A Special Testimony
The last principle for leaders in regard to those surviving great loss, especially in regards to those who have discovered some measure of peace through the Atonement, is to recognize the added power those who mourn possess.
In preparing this article I noticed something about a scripture I had not realized before. When Alma is teaching at the waters of Mormon he states:
“…and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; 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…” Mosiah 18:8-9
It is notable that he chooses to couple the power of being willing to mourn with and comfort others with being a witness of God in all times, things and places. Who better to witness of God in all circumstances than those who have survived unimaginable circumstances?
Those who have learned to wait upon the Lord in this special way are powerful witnesses, so allow them to use that special testimony. Even if they still seem a bit of a mess, trust them and give them a chance to serve in callings and assignments. You will notice most of these persons are already serving others and among the best of the ones who are “anxiously engaged in a good cause.” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27)