Latter-day Saint psychologist: How reframing tragedy can lead to joy


Recently, I had the blessed privilege to speak live and in person to the amazing women of the Prosper Texas Stake. When invited to teach such groups, my role is to impart positive, uplifting gospel truths to calm the hearts and fill the cups of those who attend. When I walked in the chapel that day, I had no idea that my emotional and spiritual cup would be filled as well. 

Angela Vach is a member of the Prosper Texas Stake. With her permission, I share a portion of her story. She and her husband Cavin are the parents of five adorable children. They moved to Prosper in the fall of 2019, having limited time to establish a network of friends before COVID-19 began. Working as a newborn intensive care nurse, Angela is no stranger to life-threatening emergencies; she is regularly called upon to resuscitate infants who have spent only a few hours in mortality. 

In March 2020, at the very outset of the pandemic, she was home with her entire family. Confusion and frustration ran high as she and her husband grappled with the rapid changes and restrictions that affected their home, employment, and social lives. One morning, she had a distinct impression to play with her 2-year-old son Luke. The Spirit told her, “You are going to miss this.” Angela reasoned that of course she would miss playing with her children when they were grown, but the Spirit persisted. She obeyed and played all of Luke’s favorite games with him for hours. She put him down for a nap and went to a medical appointment, while the rest of the family remained home. Angela returned from her appointment, and later went to check on sleeping Luke. She discovered he was not breathing.

She instinctively began to perform life-saving procedures while the paramedics rushed to her home. Yet despite her education, training, and excellent experience, Angela was unable to revive her precious son. As the ambulance raced to the hospital, she clearly heard her son’s voice speaking to her. “Mommy, I’m here. I’m okay.” She spun around believing that Luke had come back to life, but he had not. Lucas Wayne Vach died on March 19, 2020, having yet to celebrate his third birthday. 

Angela spoke of her experiences in the women’s conference I attended. She taught about deepening our connection with the Savior and finding joy regardless of our situation. She told of how the entire town of Prosper, most of whom were complete strangers, reached out in support. COVID-19 restrictions limited the funeral to ten guests, but the city authorized a “Light the Streets for Luke” campaign where the town’s landmarks were lit in blue, Luke’s favorite color. On a designated evening, law enforcement led a convoy of hundreds of cars filled with Prosper residents, all with lights flashing, in support of Luke. First responders stood at attention as the Vach family drove past the procession, weeping at the outpouring of love for their angel son. It was the truest manifestation of Alma’s invitation to “mourn with those who mourn” (Mosiah 18:9). 

It has now been over a year since Luke returned to his heavenly home. Angela and Cavin still have dark days, but the light of their testimonies ultimately breaks through the shadows and restores faith. In her excellent talk, Angela said, “We have to use our agency to choose to see the good. Some days I want to yell and say it’s not fair. But we agreed to this life, and our Heavenly Father will not give us less than a perfect ending to our stories. We had a beautiful opportunity to show Heavenly Father our faith.” 

Most of us cannot comprehend the tragedy of losing a child, but none of us are strangers to some sort of tragedy. Mortal life brings disappointment, difficulty, and disruption. Each of us will pass through our own personal valley of shadow and garden of Gethsemane. An unexpected death, a wayward child, a crippling illness; such experiences can bring us to our knees. We commonly describe these happenings as tragic. Yet I have found that the tragic nature of the event can be mitigated, depending upon the outcome. 

It can be challenging to view difficulties as potential blessings, especially when it feels like not everyone is touched equally by misfortune. While some individuals seem to live charmed and blessed lives, the challenges of others are chronic and unrelenting. But we must focus on the end result. Is losing a job a tragedy? Perhaps not, especially if it leads to a better one. Is being afflicted with anxiety a tragedy? Maybe not, particularly if it stimulates faith and increases spiritual strength. 

When attempting to reframe our misfortunes, this is much easier after the end result, especially if the end result is favorable. So how do we do this in the moment? How do we look forward, believing that disasters can someday become blessings? One could argue that, because we don’t know the end from the beginning, it is impossible to predict whether challenges will ever be beneficial. But the truth is we do know the end from the beginning, at least in the aggregate. While we may not know the particulars, we do know how things are going to ultimately resolve. Spoiler alert: the righteous win. The Savior redeems all who follow Him in faith and diligence. Jesus Christ’s mighty arm has the power to turn all tragedy into triumph. Elder Dale G. Renlund taught, “In unfair situations, one of our tasks is to trust that ‘all that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.’ Jesus Christ overcame the world and ‘absorbed’ all unfairness. Because of Him, we can have peace in this world and be of good cheer. If we let Him, Jesus Christ will consecrate the unfairness for our gain. He will not just console us and restore what was lost; He will use the unfairness for our benefit.” 

If all difficulties can eventually become blessings, then this raises the question of why God doesn’t just provide the blessing in the first place? Couldn’t we receive the blessing without the struggle? People legitimately ask, If God is loving and kind, then why does He allow good people to suffer? There are many answers to this question, and we’ll discuss only two. 

First, the purpose of life is to become like our Father in Heaven. That does not happen easily. We have to choose it. We have to endure the refining flames. Improving our spiritual capacities is very similar to improving our physical health. If you want to lose weight or become stronger, you have to work. There is sacrifice and diligence involved. There will be pain and discomfort. In the end, all of those things will work together to create a powerful, healthier version of yourself. You can apply that exact same strategy to your spiritual self. The struggle, grief, and agony that can be so distressing in the moment can be the very experiences that, if you let Jesus do His part, polish and refine you to the point of perfection. 

Second, our trials give us empathy to help others. We know the Savior suffered not only for our sins, but for our non-sinful sorrows and challenges (see Alma 7:11-12). He did this so He could not only redeem us from sin but know how to comfort us during times of distress. I believe this is one of the primary reasons good people are subjected to tragic suffering. 

As a newborn intensive care nurse, Angela Vach has likely witnessed the death of precious infants. She has played the role of comforter to grieving parents. Having passed through the unspeakable tragedy of her own son’s death, her newfound capacity to comfort others has blossomed. Instead of offering a professional, compassionate condolence to these poor parents, Angela can look them in the eyes, and with complete conviction and empathy say, “I know what you are going through.” Countless parents will be blessed by her increased kindness and authentic concern. We can have the same experience.

Whatever tragedy affects us, a similar sorrow will afflict the lives of others. Going through these challenges truly makes us partners with the Savior. On a very small scale, we are literally doing what He does as we provide comfort and consolation. If you have had someone look at you with tear-filled eyes because you are the first person they’ve met who truly understands what they are going through, you have been blessed. Whatever tragedy you had to pass through to become the light in that person’s life; whatever price you had to pay has truly become consecrated for your gain, and for that of others. As the scripture wisely states, “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). May our tragedies and challenges transform us all into that friend and confidant who can truly heal.  

Lead Image: Provided by the Vach family. 

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