In April 1993 our water heater pilot light came into contact with gasoline fumes and exploded into flames. Our two-year-old son, Thomas, was in the middle of it. The fire department put out the fire with minimum damage to our home or possessions, but our son was severely burned. Though I longed for him to live, I could see he probably wouldn’t. Within six hours of the accident, he died.
Pain and Grieving
How can I describe the horror of losing our son in this way? I have never felt greater pain; it was actually physical—my whole body ached. And at 33 years of age, after 13 years of marriage and six children, I suddenly felt vulnerable. My mind was numb and life seemed fuzzy. I functioned, but only because I had to. I missed my boy and wished I could trade places with him.
Losing my child in this way put my body and mind into total and complete shock—not only because of the horror of the accident but also because up to this point life had been pleasant with only a few difficult twists and turns. As children, my sister, my brother, and I had all survived serious illnesses. Growing up we had all been eyewitnesses to the power of the priesthood. My expectation was that everything would be fixed. Sins could be repented of, sicknesses would be overcome, and injuries would be healed.
However, with the death of our son, I learned that some things are final—at least as far as this life is concerned. I could not go back and change anything. I could not ask the Lord to give this son another chance.
Insight and Agency
During the first few days following the accident, all I could feel was acute pain, though now I realize that the Spirit of the Lord was constantly with me. Through the Spirit it became clear to me that how I acted was my choice. I couldn’t change the facts. I couldn’t stop the pain and the hurt, but I could choose my reactions. I looked to the scriptures for everything I could find about death and the Lord’s healing balm. I couldn’t sleep at night, so I searched my mind for any hymns or scriptures that I could call to my memory to find even a moment of relief.
I knew I had to accept my son’s death and work through my grief. Though Thomas was gone, I knew I had the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope of the Resurrection to help me. The strength of my testimony was of vital importance. I did a lot of soul-searching and determined that everything I had professed to believe throughout my life was indeed true.
I began to find comfort in small, simple things, such as the weather on the day of the funeral. Normally the weather in Atlanta in April is warm and beautiful, but on the day of the funeral it was unusually cold and rainy, matching the feelings in my heart. We traveled in a procession toward the cemetery, which happens to be near the Atlanta Georgia Temple. Just as we neared the temple, the sun began to shine and lifted my spirits as I was reminded that we are an eternal family. Coincidentally, about 20 smiling Primary children were standing outside the temple gates. My heart was touched.
Once at the cemetery, however, the rain began again and continued throughout the ceremony until the dedicatory prayer was finished, adding solemnity to the occasion. Then, once again, the sun came out and warmed us; I felt hope in the future.
After the funeral, I began to allow the Spirit into my heart and to feel of the love of my Savior. I consciously began to let go of some of the pain. Slowly I began to look at things in a different light. Some of the most important blessings came from the faith and prayers of our family and ward members. We actually felt physically sustained by these prayers that surrounded us. Most of our family lived 2,000 miles away, so the interaction with them was limited. But our ward family more than made up for this lack. My two wonderful visiting teachers came faithfully, stayed long, and listened to me talk. Friends took me to lunch, called, and also listened. One of our friends put the names of each of our family members on the prayer roll at the temple. We were not left alone. The Spirit of the Lord was very strong, and I had no doubts that the Lord loved me and was aware of my pain and struggling.
As I turned to the scriptures, I read in 2 Nephi 9:20 [2 Ne. 9:20] that God knows “all things, and there is not anything save he knows it.” If the Lord knew beforehand what would happen to our son, then the word accident takes on a greater meaning. Yes, it was an accident, but the fact that the Lord knew that such a thing could happen in mortality made it easier for me to accept and bear. I felt trust and faith in Him. I knew I could cast my burdens on the Lord and He would sustain me (see Ps. 55:22). I realized that simply because God knows all things does not imply that He is responsible for what happens. I am grateful for the Atonement that can compensate for whatever happens and can heal all my wounds.
I don’t think I could ever have coped without the hope given us throughout the scriptures and the writings of the prophets. I love and accept the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings on the innocence of children and their right to inherit the celestial kingdom (see D&C 137:7). These truths are also profoundly expressed in Mosiah 3 and in Moroni 8 [Moro. 8]. We find peace in the knowledge that we shall have our son again.
I have learned that time helps, but even after eight years I seem to think about my son every day. Sometimes I still feel a pang of hurt in my heart, but with the memory of my son I also remember the sweetness that was ours for two short years. Our family ties are meant to be strong and binding. We “live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die” (D&C 42:45). I could never forget the joy and love I felt during the two years I spent with this choice child of Heavenly Father.
My family learned firsthand the truth of the scripture, “For after much tribulation come the blessings” (D&C 58:4). Perhaps the greatest blessing that took place in each of our lives was the personal growth. My understanding of the promises of the Lord is greater, and I look forward with faith to the fulfillment of all His promises. I am still grateful when my family receives life-saving blessings, but now I understand that even when things do not turn out the way I want, blessings are manifest as we humbly submit our lives to the will of our Heavenly Father.
Learning from Suffering
“Suffering is universal; how we react to suffering is individual. Suffering can take us one of two ways. It can be a strengthening and purifying experience combined with faith, or it can be a destructive force in our lives if we do not have the faith in the Lord’s atoning sacrifice. The purpose of suffering, however, is to build and strengthen us. We learn obedience by the things we suffer.” Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Your Sorrow Shall Be Turned to Joy,” Ensign, Nov. 1983, 66.
More on this topic: Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Finding a Safe Harbor,”Ensign, May 2000, 59–61; Neal A. Maxwell,