A Sunday reflection from Vayle Isom, a Mormon wife and mother.
My eight-year-old daughter died in my arms the day she was diagnosed with cancer. Our fun, energetic Laurel, a third grader and budding gymnast, never missed an opportunity to make a new friend and was the picture of health until a few days before she left this life.
In November 2017, our family was passing a stomach virus around. Laurel seemed to be the slowest one to shake off the symptoms. She went to bed with a slight headache and got somewhat nauseous during the night. When morning came, she was unconscious. I couldn’t rouse her. Seizures led to an ambulance ride to Primary Children’s Hospital, and within hours, my husband and I were gathering family around our sweet girl’s hospital bed so she could feel of our love during her last moments on this side of the veil.
The doctors called it acute lymphoblastic leukemia — blood cancer — which to me is just a fancy name for something you can’t see coming and have no control over. Laurel’s leukemia was quite rare and aggressive. Her white blood cell count was so high doctors didn’t think she could have been sick for more than six or eight weeks.
Before Laurel died, I had imagined the horror and grief of losing a child, but it was nothing like I expected. I pictured myself shutting down, becoming a shell of a human and curling up in a corner somewhere where I wouldn’t be expected to function.
Reality was worse. Being able to shut down requires the luxury of privacy. Mothers don’t have privacy, and we don’t have the choice to stop functioning. Reality meant I wasn’t just a mother who lost a child. I was also a mother who needed to sit down with her other children and explain to them why their sister would not be coming home again.
Reality meant I needed to leave my daughter at the hospital and go home without her. Laurel shared a room with her little brother, and he snuck into bed with her every night. Now, at age three, he would be moving in with the other boys without understanding why.
Reality meant my husband and I needed to choose a mortuary so Laurel’s body could be picked up from the hospital. Reality meant we needed to prepare for family to continue arriving from out of town and we needed to choose which songs we’d like to sing at Laurel’s funeral. Reality is deciding which colors should be on your daughter’s casket and which flowers would have made her smile — that smile you’ll not get to see again in this lifetime.
Reality is the toothbrush left on the bathroom counter, the lost sock behind the dryer, the goldfish cracker under the pillow, and the bookmark in the book she won’t be reading anymore. Reality was watching your children’s faces change as they became aware they lived in a world where bad things can actually happen.
My brain quickly went into survival mode, allowing me to process only little bits of information at a time. I wasn’t able to focus on anything for longer than a few moments. But this amazing blessing protected me from collapsing under the weight of overwhelming grief.
After Laurel died, reading changed from my favorite pastime into an impossible chore. My brain could understand individual words but wouldn’t allow me to connect them into sentences or paragraphs. I would read and reread a few lines from my son’s first-grade homework without being able to understand what it was asking him to do. Filling out a simple permission slip for a field trip was all but impossible. This was so frustrating to me and to those depending on me to function like I’d always functioned.
While I’m grateful for my brain’s ability to ease my crushing grief, I found I couldn’t follow along during scripture study. This left me without the spiritual nourishment I desperately needed at this time in my life.
Throughout the general conference of October 2018, I was listening closely to the speakers for any messages that might apply to me. I was desperately looking for a spark of hope, and I got it from President Russell Nelson.
When President Nelson began speaking about mothers during the general women’s session Saturday night, I was deeply moved by his words and felt the Spirit touch my heart. At first, when he asked us to read the Book of Mormon before the end of the year, I thought the Lord couldn’t possibly expect me to take up a challenge like that. I mean, I couldn’t even read first-grade homework.
But then President Nelson continued. “As impossible as that may seem with all you are trying to manage in your life, if you will accept this invitation with full purpose of heart, the Lord will help you find a way to achieve it. And, as you prayerfully study, I promise the heavens will open for you. The Lord will bless you with increased inspiration and revelation.”
My heart nearly leapt from my chest! The Lord’s prophet had just promised me I could read again. It was difficult for me to stay in my chair until the end of the session.
I vividly remember running for my scriptures as soon as conference ended. We had been challenged to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, but the prophet had also promised me I would have increased inspiration and revelation. That promise prompted me to grab several of my study guides, pens, and highlighters. I didn’t want to miss out on anything to do with that promise.
The margins of my scriptures and the pages of my notebooks quickly began to fill with fresh insights. New understanding came from scriptures I had read many times before. As I basked in these new ideas, I asked my husband and parents for clarification and deeper insight as the promised inspiration and revelation washed over me.
I felt like I had a new appreciation for Lehi’s vision. I saw there were people who believed they needed to hold to the iron rod but didn’t have enough faith to hold on after the mocking that came from the great and spacious building. Others knew salvation came from holding to the iron rod, and they would not be deterred. I felt this second group had confirmed in their hearts they would follow God and His prophets long before they were actually asked to take hold of the rod.
I read stories of Laman and Lemuel seeing an angel or having the seas calmed, only to see them turn away from the Lord when things got rough. I could understand the temptation they must have faced as hard times came even when they’d been following the Lord’s commandments. My eyes were opened as I read anew the stories of those in the scriptures who turned toward the Lord, rather than away from Him, when trials came.
I feel blessed my gospel study had already provided answers to many of the problems and questions that could have thrown me off course when Laurel died. I found ways to take care of my family while managing my grief, for “I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). Even in my darkest moments after Laurel’s death, the reality was the Lord was there to comfort me, to guide me, and to be my beacon in the storm.
Through losing Laurel, I’ve also found her — and myself. I’ve found a new understanding of a loving Heavenly Father who didn’t take my daughter away from me out of spite or as some cruel punishment. I’ve found a new appreciation for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which brings its own promise for Laurel to live again and for us to be reunited as a forever family.
Our pain is still ever present. The loss of our sweet Laurel can’t be made up in this life. But the words of the prophets have allowed me to see things I haven’t seen or understood before. I’m now able to add my testimony to the prophet Nephi’s when he wrote “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7).
Isom is a stay-at-home mom living in North Salt Lake, UT. She and her husband have three wonderful boys and one gorgeous angel girl. Vayle enjoys spending time with her family, and she thinks she is way funnier than she actually is.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Great minds have purposes; others only have wishes. — Washington Irving
What a heartbreakingly lovely story.
Reminded me of something, and, inspired a sonnet. Hope you don’t mind.
My mate’s life was ebbing fast,
no use for tourniquets here,
and though he knew he wouldn’t last,
he didn’t show much fear.
Mortar frag tore too many holes;
we coudn’t stop the bleeding
and without those vital flows
a heart would soon quit beating.
While others stripped his web gear
(we needed his ammunition)
I looked into eyes yet clear,
and took on another mission.
Every day I fulfill the final plea,
“Brother, walk in the world for me.”
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I never mind your words.