Latter-day Saint Life

What Happens to Loved Ones Who Die and What Is the Purpose of Death: 5 Comforting Insights from President Nelson


In his book  The Gateway We Call Death, President Russell M. Nelson shares profound insights about understanding and coping with that inevitable event of passing from this life to the next. The following excerpts from his book tell precious truths and inspiring stories that may help us “no longer feel that death is always that foe to be feared” but instead a “potential friend to be understood.” [1] 

1. Mourning Fulfills Divine Purpose

Though we mourn today, tomorrow we will wish to bring comfort to others. Instead of being ministered unto, we will become the ministers of soothing "balm" in the "Gileads" of our own neighborhoods (see Jeremiah 8:22). Our experience with sorrow will make us more compassionate and capable in our desire to ease the suffering of another.

Teaching of eternal perspective will be an essential part of our aid. The Prophet Joseph Smith conveyed that point of view when he spoke at the funeral of a loved one. He offered this admonition: "When we lose a near and dear friend, upon whom we have set our hearts, it should be a caution unto us. . . . Our affections should be placed upon God and His work, more intensely than upon our fellow beings."[2]

Divine purpose is fulfilled in mourning and in receiving ministrations of those who proffer assistance. Moreover, any who provide comfort to those in mourning will receive their own reward. Recognition of this desire is one of the prerequisites for baptism and admission into the Church:

"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, 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—

"Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?" (Mosiah 18:8-10).

In that spirit, the converted Christian commits his or her life to help others and to lighten the load of those who mourn.

2. Reunion with Little Children

President Joseph F. Smith penned one of the most exalting and expansive statements on the condition of children who depart from mortality's veil of tears at an early age. He wrote:

"They will inherit their glory and their exaltation, and they will not be deprived of the blessings that belong to them; for, in the economy of heaven, and in the wisdom of the Father, who doeth all things well, those who are cut down as little children are without any responsibility for their taking off, they, themselves, not having the intelligence and wisdom to take care of themselves and to understand the laws of life; and, in the wisdom and mercy and economy of God our Heavenly Father, all that could have been obtained and enjoyed by them if they had been permitted to live in the flesh will be provided for them hereafter. They will lose nothing by being taken away from us in this way. . . .

"Joseph Smith, the prophet, was the promulgator under God of these principles. He was in touch with the heavens. God revealed himself unto him, and made known unto him the principles that lie before us, and which are comprised in the everlasting gospel. Joseph Smith declared that the mother who laid down her little child, being deprived of the privilege, the joy, and the satisfaction of bringing it up to manhood or womanhood in this world, would, after the resurrection, have all the joy, satisfaction and pleasure, and even more than it would have been possible to have had in mortality, in seeing her child grow to the full measure of the stature of its spirit. . . .

" . . . When the mother is deprived of the pleasure and joy of rearing her babe to manhood or to womanhood in this life, through the hand of death, that privilege will be renewed to her hereafter, and she will enjoy it to a fuller fruition than it would be possible for her to do here. When she does it there, it will be with the certain knowledge that the results will be without failure; whereas here, the results are unknown until after we have passed the test." [3]

Sweet and innocent children surely return to their loving Father in Heaven. Earthly parents understandably wonder what those children will be like in their subsequent reunions. While I cannot answer such questions fully, precious insights can be gained from another statement of President Joseph F. Smith:

"The spirits of our children are immortal before they come to us, and their spirits, after bodily death, are like they were before they came. They are as they would have appeared if they had lived in the flesh, to grow to maturity, or to develop their physical bodies to the full stature of their spirits. If you see one of your children that has passed away, it may appear to you in the form in which you would recognize it, the form of childhood; but if it came to you as a messenger bearing some important truth, it would perhaps come as the spirit of Bishop Edward Hunter's son (who died when a little child) came to him, in the stature of full-grown manhood, and revealed himself to his father, and said, 'I am your son.'" [4]

Parents who have surrendered the sweetest and smallest flowers from the family's garden need to remember our loving Heavenly Father. He has promised a special reward to those who now suffer in silence, who spend long days and longer nights through their trying times of bereavement. Our Creator has promised glory. He said, "For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand" (D&C 58:4).

That promised glory includes the blessing of reunion with each little child who has left the family circle early to help surviving members of the family to draw nearer to God. Those little children still live and are a heritage of the Lord.

3. Hope for Those Who Die Astray

The realities of agency and occasional choice to do wrong need to be reckoned with in the passing of some of our youth. Even though their bodies may be mature, their heads are strong and sometimes puerile. Their behavior may be furtive or unfortunate. When those deeds result in disobedience or demise, their parents and loved ones need special consoling.

That was the subject of Elder Orson F. Whitney's conference address in April 1929. He said, "The prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them, and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or in the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path, but if it leads them at last, like the penitent prodigal, to a loving and forgiving Father's heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.

"Who are these straying sheep—these wayward sons and daughters? They are children of the Covenant, heirs to the promise, and have received, if baptized, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which makes manifest the things of God." [5]

Our young sons and daughters—precious youth of the noble birthright—if called through the gateway by whatever cause, will yet participate in the glorious gifts provided by the atonement of Jesus Christ.

4. Turning Adversity into Opportunity

To the parents of a beloved young person who has passed through the gateway, death could loom as a span of sadness or it could become the gateway to other opportunity unforeseen. Parents meet that challenge in various ways. I know well a mother and father whose son was taken in a tragic automobile accident on the eve of his embarking on a full-time mission. The parents of nine children, they were of modest means and their resources were also being taxed by treatments for the mother, who was battling cancer. What did they do? They donated their son's entire missionary fund—more than five thousand dollars—to the general missionary fund of the Church. When I discussed this generous decision with them, they replied, "Our son had earned and saved this money for his mission. If he cannot go, his money can. We are donating it so that others can serve. His money will still go on a mission."

Now, more than a decade later, I observe that both parents are doing well. In addition to other important callings in the Church, the father has served a distinguished term as a stake president. The mother is living without evidence of recurrent cancer and is leading a normal, productive life. The eight surviving children are also blessed with material and spiritual sufficiency. All members of that family have been blessed by the great faith that prompted such an effective example of managing grief.

5. Lessons for the Living

While those so bereft of a loved one are unable to change facts as they really are, important lessons can be learned. Hopefully, we all do not need to endure such experiences personally to profit by those same lessons:

• The very laws that could not allow such a broken body to survive here are the same eternal laws the Lord will employ at the time of the resurrection, when that body "shall be restored to [its] proper and perfect frame." (Alma 40:23.) We can be greatly reassured knowing that the Lord who created us in the first place surely has power to do it again.

• Our routine assumption that there will always be a tomorrow is not always validated. Wise is the person who lives each day as if it were the last day on earth.

• Parents, partners, and families bid farewell in the morning with no guarantee that their next reunion will be according to their planned location and timetable. Should tragedy alter those plans, how nice it would be if words of courtesy and love were the last to have been exchanged.

• Delay of payment of debts may not have tomorrow's time to erase that bondage or blemish on one's reputation. (See D&C 19:35.) Sweet is the peace brought by freedom from debt.

• Procrastination of repentance carries great risk. The number of tomorrows is limited. The conquest of physical addiction, for example, must be done while it is still possible to exert spiritual supremacy over temptations of the flesh… (See Romans 8:6; 2 Nephi 9:39.)

. . . The disaster of sudden death or the ever-present possibility of catastrophe should impress upon our minds the importance of living each day to the very best of our ability. Should such tragedy strike, our soothing consolation can come from the Lord, whose atonement makes the resurrection a reality regardless of how or where one passes through the gateway to immortality and eternal life.

[1] Russell M. Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death.
[2] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City, 1938), p. 216.
[3] Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City, 1919), pp. 453-54.
[4] Gospel Doctrine, p. 455.
[5] Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1929, pp. 110-11.

Get more compelling insights from President Nelson in The Gateway We Call Death.

“Our ultimate and highest destiny is to return to our heavenly home. When that times comes, it can be as momentous as the time of birth. Birth is the gateway to mortal life; death is the gateway to immortality and eternal life,” writes President Russell M. Nelson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

InThe Gateway We Call Death, President Nelson, a surgeon by profession and now a special witness of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, approaches the subject of death from both a medical and a theological point of view to discuss such topics as these: the purpose of life and of death; the purpose of mourning; when death comes without warning; factors of choice, such as suicide, euthanasia, and use of mechanical means to extend life; and life after death.


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