Mental Illness After Death

Mental Illness After Death November 23, 2017

This article was previously published on  My grandmother was mentally ill. Nobody knew exactly what was wrong with her, just that she was very strange. Back then people didn’t talk about mental illness.


Recently my aunts have discussed Grandma, and they think she had schizophrenia. But there was never a real diagnosis. And her brother, my great uncle, spent a majority of his life in an institution after he tried to kill their whole family. I really wish they had both been blessed with our current understanding of mental illness. I wonder how it would have changed things for them.


I’ve been thinking about Grandma because my friend’s mom just died. She too struggled with mental illness. And as I have tried to help and comfort my friend, I remembered an amazing insight I got at my grandma’s funeral.  First I have to set the scene.


Before the funeral, all the adult ladies in my family gathered to help dress Grandma in her funeral clothes. I remember thinking she looked so peaceful. Her hand felt like a sandbag. That’s the best way to describe it because it wasn’t like a regular hand. Such a change had come over her in death. It really felt clear to me that she wasn’t there anymore.


I was choked up and turned away from the ladies gathered with Grandma’s body. I didn’t want to cry in front of them. When I looked across the room with watery eyes, I saw something amazing. I saw my grandma standing there, smiling at me. In life, she rarely smiled. But there she was truly smiling with real joy in her eyes. I could feel that she was glad to see us all there. I could feel that she loved me and that she was truly happy.


As I blinked many times, thinking I had lost my mind, I saw my grandma turn around and walk out of the room to join my grandpa in the hallway. I hadn’t noticed him before. He died before I was born. And the two of them left together.


It’s taken me awhile to process what I saw. My grandma didn’t look solid when I saw her, and all I can think is that I was seeing her soul, her spirit. But the most stunning part of this was that I saw a happy woman. That was so different from the woman I knew.


We used to joke that Grandma wasn’t satisfied ‘till you were crying. She would come visit and would tell these stories. She was so deeply somber, and she would sit next to you and hold your hands, and talk. And before the conversation, before the story was over you would be in tears. Every time.


In fairness, she survived the Great Depression and WW2. She had been divorced with three little children to raise on her own. So she had seen a lot of darkness and felt a lot of heartaches. And it had affected her deeply.


However, the woman I saw standing in that room before Grandma’s funeral that day was not heavy or somber. It was a revelation to me. In that experience, I learned something about death. We are born as blank slates and every experience we have in life affects us. It colors our world and shapes who we are. And when we “get to know” someone, we are also getting to know the sum total of their experiences.


Then there is the biological component. You see, most of my life my grandma had Alzheimer’s. She lived in a facility for over a dozen years, and eventually died of colon cancer. The last time I saw her, she had no idea who I was. She thought I was a nice nurse. And in that final interaction, I saw her smile for the first time in my life. She looked free and happy and died a few days later.


My theory is that when Grandma died, and she left this body behind, she also left behind all the sickness, both physical and mental. Sounds logical, right? But consider this for a minute. Illness affects us. It can affect your mood, your abilities, and your point of view. With that filter removed, we see clearly. My grandma had been surrounded by sorrow all her life. But in death, she was able to let that sorrow go. It was lifted off her.


woman-570883_640Now I need to be clear. I am NOT advocating suicide or encouraging death as an avenue to freedom. I am simply sharing what I learned that we are different people when all the heartache and illness is removed. I think this can be done through the power of the Atonement of the Savior anytime we are able to accept it. Personally, I am working to remove the darkness and heartache from my own soul while I am alive, with the help of my Savior and a talented therapist.


I wish Grandma could have had joy in this life. But I am comforted to know that she has found it in the next life. I pray that all those who had a grandma like mine can find peace knowing that when they meet again, it will be a happy time. And that their loved one will be much different than they remembered.

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  • What a beautiful, hope-filled experience!!! Thanks for sharing!

  • Kenngo1969

    Seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) relates not only to how we see others, see their experiences, see life … So often, it also relates to how we see ourselves. (Not that I have any [Ahem!] personal experience with that or anything! ;-D) Thank God that how others see us, and how He sees us, is not how we see ourselves. Thank God that what they see is different than what we see in the mirror. Thank God that the distorted picture your grandmother saw, the distorted lens through which she saw so much of life and of the world, was overcome through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

    Thank God that even given how mortality’s innumerable vagaries and vicissitudes so often distort how we see life, see others, see ourselves, there will come a time, thanks to the Atonement, when we will see “Things as they really are, and things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13), just as your grandmother did. A little less than three years ago amidst some somewhat trying personal circumstances and at a time when I was questioning, somewhat, my worth in God’s eyes and His plan for me, out of the clear, blue sky, I received a letter from a young lady in my previous ward thanking me for the positive impact my example had on her and her family.

    I …
    Had …
    No …

    I had not even a hint of a wisp of a clue that I had had such a positive impact on her and on her family. I regret to say that, often, try as I might, often, I don’t see that guy when I look in the mirror. But thank God what others see when they look at us is far different than what we see when we look in the mirror. I’m more than casual friends with Elder Richard Norby, the most senior and most seriously injured of the missionaries who were hurt in the terrorist bombing of the Brussels Airport. He taught me for two of my four years in Seminary. Longer ago now than I care to admit, my teenage, misfit, angst-ridden self (along with more than a few of his other students) paid occasional visits to his office seeking reassurance. While I doubt he would want any of the credit, I did, indeed, leave his office reassured. I don’t recall the substance, the details, of those conversations, but the jist, and Elder Norby’s bottom-line advice was, “Ken, the only thing that matters is who you are in God’s eyes.”

    All of us could use being reminded of that on a regular basis … Constantly, even.