Commentary: Even if I’m not a believing Mormon anymore, family will be forever

(Courtesy photo) Utah novelist Mette Harrison

Late in January, I was with my dad who was on hospice care. Two older Mormon men came by, bringing a tray of sacrament bread and water to share with those who couldn’t make it to regular church services. It was clear this was their calling and that they didn’t know my dad personally. They were making rounds at an assisted living facility, and there were a lot of people on their list. They were kind, told us that they could “feel his spirit,” and went on their way afterward.

I’ve been thinking about the experience since then, trying to process what it meant. I haven’t taken the sacrament since I stopped attending church over a year ago, but I hadn’t talked openly with either of my parents about my faith transition. That said, the moment when I had to decide whether to take the sacrament while my parents were watching was weird.

I could have said no. I could have insisted I’d already had it. But I decided not to, mostly because I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see what it felt like to take the sacrament after all this time. And it felt like — mostly nothing. There wasn’t a spiritual sense to the ritual on my side. I didn’t feel God calling me back to Mormonism. But I didn’t feel judgment from God, either. Or even a sense that God was there.

What I did feel was — peace over my decisions. I felt a sweetness that I was able to help my dad by placing the bread in his mouth and holding the little cup so that he could drink the water. The ritual had no meaning for me, but I felt that it did for him. The ritual was familiar, and it reminded me that this is one thing religion does well. It helps us feel in contact with our past selves, and sometimes I struggle with that as someone who has left the religion she followed for nearly 50 years.

Saying goodbye to my dad over weeks and months of time was an interesting experience. I realized that I want to die much the same way he died — slowly, with plenty of time to say goodbye and tell the people around me that I love them, that they are the best part of whatever legacy I leave behind. I want to do a better job of making sure they know how much they mean to me. There are many traits that my dad and I share, mostly ones I wish I could get rid of. The list-making, focus on results, need to control the universe and especially myself, the judgmentalism — but that’s what parents are for, right? To teach us how to make the world better for our children?

Two of my children came with me to say goodbye to their grandpa. I don’t know that they had the same experience that I did. I think that’s pretty normal. He was weak and sometimes not very coherent, but on the car ride down, I tried to talk to them about my death. I suppose this is another way I’m like my dad. He did everything he could to never die. And both of us will end up in the ground anyway, with the only thing left of us being our children.

My father died the morning of March 1, and his funeral was March 7. In some ways, it was lucky that it happened just before Utah began to shut down. My sister canceled her trip from Seattle because of the coronavirus, but almost all of the rest of us were there, including my dad’s oldest sister, his last surviving sibling. I elected not to speak at the funeral, though I’d helped my father compile his life history. I honestly didn’t think I would be able to do a eulogy well. I feared I’d end up clouding things up with the deep sense that I was never the daughter my father wanted, that I never fit into my very left-brain family as the artistic one.

The funeral was the first time I’d been back to a Mormon chapel since I stopped attending a year ago. I sang the hymns and found that I still felt power in them. I listened to talks about the importance of “the work” — work that I’ve long since given up.

I don’t believe that my father is waiting for us on the other side. I think he’s gone, irrevocably gone. But it’s also true that his grave is directly next to my husband’s grandmother and my stillborn daughter, Mercy, next to where I and my husband will be buried in time, where my mother will also be buried, and my in-laws. There was something deeply touching about that.

Late last year, as my father had accepted death was coming, he made some inquiries at different cemeteries and with the help of my oldest brother, went to visit them. My brother called me on the phone before he took my parents to the cemetery where Mercy is buried and asked if I was OK with them being buried next to us, because if I wasn’t, he’d just make sure they went to another part of the cemetery.

I was deeply touched by this kindness in asking. And I said that I didn’t mind — that it would be special, in a way. Family is family. And even if I’m not a believing Mormon anymore, family will be forever.

Editor’s noteThe views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.