Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Is This Thing That Men Call Death by President Gordon B. Hinckley

What Is This Thing That Men Call Death

What is this thing that men call death,
This quiet passing in the night?
'Tis not the end, but genesis
Of better worlds and greater light.

O God, touch thou my aching heart,
And calm my troubled, haunting fears.
Let hope and faith, transcendent, pure,
Give strength and peace beyond my tears.

There is no death, but only change,
With recompense for vict'ry won.
The gift of him who loved all men,
The Son of God, the Holy One.
--President Gordon B. Hinckley

This poem was written by President Hinckley, and arranged as a song that was sung at his funeral. It's a beautiful statement of faith by a man whose example strengthened the faith of all who knew him.

"Well this is turning out to be a lousy week. Elizabeth, after several days of almost no napping (read no break for Mama), has developed a cold and is thoroughly miserable again with a runny nose and cough. I got a call last night that one of my friends from my Riverside Mental Health support group died when she drove her car into a train. Now Peter just called and told me he's been laid off. I'm running on empty right now. I don't know what to think or feel or do."
I wrote that paragraph more than a week ago on June 3rd. I've finally got time to put my thoughts in order and write about how I really feel.

I'll tackle the easiest first. Elizabeth's cold lasted just two days, and she's much better now thank you. Peter and I seem to be getting the same thing, but it's really just a runny nose that lasts a few days. Her sleeping habits are getting better -- I'm reading Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child, and while I think he has a horrible writing style for a book aimed at frazzled and sleep deprived new mothers, I think he has some good points backed up by solid scientific research. I didn't realize just how much sleep Elizabeth would like to get, and how things I did (like trying to rock her to sleep before laying her down) actually kept her from falling asleep and getting the rest she (and I) needed.

Peter's job situation is not as dire as it sounds, but it is complicated and evolving, so I think I'll put it off for another post.

That leaves Traci. I met Traci a couple of years ago when I was driving to Riverside once a week to visit Miriam and her boys, and get out of my own apartment and my own head. Miriam invited me to go with her to a meeting of their Ward's Mental Health Support Group (a small group Enrichment activity). There were about five of us in the group with mental health issues from Bipolar Disorder, to OCD, to Addictive Personalities, to Major Depression and Anxiety. All the children were taken care of by the group husbands, so we could be totally open and honest about what we were thinking and feeling.

When I say totally honest, I mean TOTALLY HONEST. With mental health issues, people often have thoughts and feelings that are not the sort of thing you'd normally choose to have, and definitely not the sort of thing you want to share with people who don't understand. Take, for instance, my blog post from a few weeks ago talking about my anxiety and how it makes me imagine scary things at night. This symptom has been with me in varying degrees of severity since I was a small child. The images my brain presents me with are very real and upsetting, but I can usually dismiss them like you'd dismiss minor joint pain if you suffer from arthritis. It's an indicator of my general state of mind however, when I can't just dismiss them, and that lets me know it's time to focus on finding ways to reduce my stress level. When I mentioned it on my blog, therefore, I was just trying to show how my general stress level made it more important to make sure I had a good birthday. Many of my friends and family however, were very alarmed, and I had to have several conversations where I assured well meaning loved ones that I wasn't going crazy (if you were one of these loved ones, don't feel bad -- it's nice to know that you care). But if mentioning a minor symptom worries people, who are you gonna talk to when real problems come up? A paid Therapist is helpful, but sometimes it's nice to have real friends who know the real you, and not just the part you show the world so you don't scare them off. That's what this group of women meant to me.

Traci was a member of this group, and since she'd spent so much time with various therapists and group therapy settings, she was often a leader in the conversations -- making sure everybody got a chance to be heard and acknowledged, and that the tone stayed positive. She was a wonderful sounding board for what's normal human emotion, what's a normal symptom of this illness, and what's a serious problem that needs a solution NOW.

Outside the group, she was also a good friend. She lived just a block over from Miriam in Student Family Housing, so they often went to each other for emotional support on a bad day, emergency babysitting, or just a way to get out of their own houses. There were a few times when I simply could not deal with being alone in Anaheim or LA, and would just get in the car and drive and cry for 2 hours till I got to Riverside. Sometimes when I arrived, Miriam wasn't at home. At those times, I knew I could go over to Traci's house and have a caring shoulder to cry on, and a fun friend to make me laugh again.

Traci loved to laugh. She had it rough with Bipolar Disorder and two little girls to care for. Her medications had powerful side effects that ravaged her mentally and physically. She gained a LOT of weight from one of the medicines, and when she could manage to lose it, it threw all the careful balances off and the drugs wouldn't work right anymore. But even with all this, she found it easier to laugh at her troubles, making jokes and trying to find a positive spin.

She loved her two little girls. Autumn had all the Disney Princess and almost always had one (or two) of them on. She wasn't always easy to deal with (what two or three year old is?), but when she was frustrated, Traci would have Autumn or Sarah come over and give her a big kiss to remind them (and herself) that she loved them.

When Miriam moved to the Bay Area, and I moved to Torrance, I lost touch with my Riverside friends. I tried a few times to call Traci, but the messages I left weren't returned. I know she moved in with family for a while to have more help with the girls, and that she occasionally went into the hospital when her Bipolar Disorder got too tough to handle. When I heard that she had died, I (like almost everyone else who heard) assumed that she had finally lost her battle with her illness and committed suicide in a very dramatic way.

Miriam called me on Monday night, June 2, and told me that she had died when she drove her rental car at 50 mph into the side of a moving train. Here is a news story with the details. There's also a video out there with pictures of the mangled remains of the car. The train was only minimally damaged.

I'm not one of those that subscribes to the belief that committing suicide automatically condemns you to hell. I think that such a belief grows logically out of the Catholic notion that you must have a priest perform the last rites and absolve you before you die. It comes from the same sort of thinking that requires babies to be baptized and tells mothers that if their innocent child dies without this ordinance, they're damned for eternity. Modern revelation has firmly put down the second notion, and talks and articles by general authorities like this one address the first. Basically they say that there will probably be some consequence, even serious consequences, for taking one's own life, but for mere mortals to judge, and assign an eternal kingdom to people when we do not know the thoughts and intents of their heart is to deny the atoning power of Christ. I believe that Traci accepted Christ as her personal savior and had hope of a better life in the world to come where she would be free of the constraints of the diseases in her physical body. I know that she was a good person who did her best to follow the commandments and love her family and keep her baptismal covenants by "mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort." I believe that God will judge her, and be merciful, as he will to all of us who trust in Christ, and that more than that we just don't know.

As time went on, more evidence came to light that seems to allow some doubt about whether it was intentional or not. According to this article, she had been feeling happy and making progress with a good outlook for the immediate future. That day she had been late for a doctor's appointment, one of the girls had spilled milk all over the floor, and there wasn't time to clean it up. Flustered, Traci had left home without her wallet. From the direction she was going, it looks like she realized this halfway to the doctor's office, and turned around to go home and get it. It's easy to imagine that she was distracted and just didn't notice the flashing lights in the glare of the sun. On the other hand, I can also easily imagine that she did see the train, and her brain presented her with a flash of an image of the accident that would occur if she just ran into it. This sort of thought is very common among people with mental illness, and if it hit her at just the right moment, she could have simply accepted it without thinking about it. Whatever the circumstances, I don't think it's inappropriate to think of her as being killed by her disease, just like someone can be killed by a sudden heart attack or after a long battle with cancer.

I talked about many of these thoughts with Miriam this week. She came down for the funeral, and to visit with old friends. It was good to be able to have someone to grieve with, and share my feelings about lots of different things in my life. I also enjoyed hearing about her life and offering my own ideas for solutions or just acknowledging that "Yep, that's hard, and it's normal to feel sad about it." In that vein, I offer the following scriptures: Eccl 3:1-8, Mosiah 18:9, 2 Ne 2:11 & 23 (and the song from My Turn on Earth that goes with it). I really miss being close to Miriam. I hope that if we do move somewhere new when Peter finds a new job, that we can be closer to family.

To sum up, I'm sad that my friend died. I'm sad that her little girls will probably not remember much about their mother as they grow up. I'm sad that her death made so many other people sad too. Yet I can find comfort in the plan of salvation that our merciful Father in Heaven provided for his children.


  1. Dear Karen,

    Thank you for sharing everything. I am so thankful that we have a Heavenly Father who is merciful to his children. I know that he understands Traci and what happened to her. I'm very sad for her family and friends who are left behind and in shock, but somehow I know that Traci herself is going to be just fine. It may have been a shock to her as well, and it may very well take her awhile to adjust to everything that has happened. I can't even begin to understand such things. I do know that she is being taken care of and is not alone.

    Love, Kathey

  2. Hey Karen, Thanks for this post! Thanks for making the whole experience easier! Hope you're doing okay today with everything.

  3. Traci's obituary

    Traci Lynn McKnight, 27, a Riverside resident, passed away on June 2, 2008, as a result of an automobile accident. She is survived by her husband Mitch, her daughters Autumn, 4, and Sarah, 2,; her parents, Stanley and Carol Kendall; her sisters, Michelle Ramirez and Valerie Kendall; her brother, David Kendall; and her grandfather, Andrew Cangemi. Traci was born in Montclair, CA, attended elementary school in Rancho Cucamonga and graduated in Ontario from Chaffey High School in 1998. She was an honor student and was head of the cheerleading squad in her senior year. Traci got her undergraduate degree at Cal State San Bernardino, with a major in Education. A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Traci was active in the University Heights Ward in Riverside. She was devoted to her husband, Mitch, and daughters Autumn and Sarah. Her love of life and sense of humor will be greatly missed by her countless friends and loving family. Services will be held at 10:00 AM on Monday, June 9, 2008 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 181 W. Blaine St., Riverside, CA 92507. A 3:00 PM burial service will be held at Bellevue Memorial Park, 1240 W. G Street, Ontario, CA 91762. Contributions can be made to the Traci McKnight Memorial Fund in care of the Kendall family. For more information, send an email to: