When I talk to people about Joy and her dying, the first thing most people ask, without even really thinking about it is:

How did it happen?

I don’t know if it’s just human nature or an involuntary reflex, but that is what people say. And, at first, I was so unprepared for that question because I don’t want to talk about how it happened. Ever. Not really. I mean, is it that important? To know how it happened? Isn’t it just enough to know that it happened?

I know the how makes a huge difference in how a family grieves–but I am not sure that people realize when they ask, it’s like a stab in the heart, because the question inevitably jerks my entire consciousness to the night she died, and I relive it every time someone asks.

I have learned the best way to respond is to say it quickly, like when you rip off a Band-aid. You know it’s going to hurt either way, and the quicker the better. I always think:

Maybe if I do it fast enough I won’t cry this time.

When I meet people who have experienced loss like this, I never ask how. I wait–and I listen and I am ready to listen to how if they are willing to share it with me. If not, I am just grateful to be able to help comfort them or carry their load without knowing the details.

Does knowing how someone died bring some measure of comfort to people? Does knowing how merely satisfy curiosity?

I like to think that people ask the question because it helps them to know how to help better–or mourn better.

I wish it got easier with time. It is still just as hard as it was when everything was fresh and the grass hadn’t grown over her grave yet.

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Daddy Carrying Joy at Badger Creek

It still makes my heart stop beating. It still makes me catch my breath and swallow hard. It still threatens stinging tears in my eyes that I try to hold back because I don’t want to make other people uncomfortable.

I am not shy about sharing our story, though. I have found that it is important to share my feelings when I feel inspired to do it. I have found it can bless others and I am not afraid to answer the question

How did it happen?

The words tumble out and I have gotten it down to one sentence, which I think is pretty incredible.

The most terrible, darkest, spirit filled night of my life in less than 140 characters. It’s easier that way.

Lately, I have gotten some very kind emails from people who were thoughtful enough not to just ask, “How did it happen?” but to sincerely express their desire to know more about our story and the circumstances of Joy’s death, because they care.

I think the thoughtful, sweet kindness expressed in these emails gave me courage to do what I am about to do–to share what happened to our family on July 5, 2008.

Lightning in the Valley, Leland Howard

The 4th was unusual, because we just stayed home. Being in the valley, it was easy to watch fireworks from the backyard, and there was lightning, too. It never rained. Just lightning. And lightning in the valley is better than fireworks. I remember we baked chocolate chip cookies that night and stayed up too late with the kids. And I sat on the back porch feeling melancholy. Weeks, even months before, I had been feeling a sense of dread.

I had been having dreams.

And I have dreams a lot. I think it’s because I have Native American blood coursing through my veins. Even though I am as white as a sheet, I am a good 25% Indian, and Native Americans have dreams.

Dreams that foretell things. Dreams that mean things.

And, so, I had been having warning dreams about an impending death.

Two days before, we had been driving home from a day trip and I was holding Joy in my arms. Everything seemed normal, but I got this overwhelming urge to beg God that if He took one of us, He would have to take all of us, because I could not conceive that we could get through this life losing any one of us.

No. It simply could not happen. As I held her fiercely close to me, I prayed that we could all die together.

Please don’t take just one of us. We would rather all die.

A few months before, both of our dogs were hit by cars. Both times, I felt it was in preparation for something. I felt that God was helping us learn about death. In both cases, I felt that they were going before someone in our family.

And I prayed again that He would just take all of us. Because we were close. Very close.

And I held my breath those last few months, always panicking a little when someone was missing for 2 seconds, which toddlers and children are wont to do.

My kids thought I was going crazy because I would sometimes almost cry in relief when everyone was okay.

My husband was traveling then. Every time he got on a plane, I thought it might be him. And I held my breath throughout his whole flight until he pulled into the driveway and we were together again.

Finally, that 4th of July, I had accepted that something was coming. I prayed fervently that if there was any way God could keep it from being mortally permanent, that He would. And then, I went to bed.

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Joy

The next day, we played and got some clothes in the mail from Land’s End, and I got mad at Joy for breaking something, and we played some more and we went in the pool, and it wasn’t really warm enough, and Joy started climbing into a pillowcase stark naked as she was changing from swimming to get warm because I was folding the laundry.

I made the most disgusting brown fried rice I’ve ever made for dinner.

She threw a fit before she went to bed, and I was getting ready for a date, so John took her downstairs to bed.

That’s the last time I saw her alive.

She and John had a sweet time saying goodnight, and we left to go on a date.

We had a great date, and we came home and read scriptures.

Esther, our daughter, had fallen asleep in our bed. She shared a room with Joy and John took her downstairs to put her to bed.

Then, that’s when I heard him scream.

It was the worst sound I will ever hear. There is nothing that could ever be worse in time and eternity.

And then my dreams all fit together, and God showed me what was happening, and I knew she was gone.

Joy With Her Brothers and Sisters On Her Second Birthday

Joy With Her Brothers and Sisters On Her Second Birthday

And immediately, there was adrenaline and my body went into overdrive, but God Himself was there, and my heart was in a place of absolute peace and calm.

I called 911. I knew they would be late. She was already gone. John needed time with her, to feel he could help her in his own way. I watched the ambulance pass by our road as I sat on the phone with the 911 operator.

She asked me:

Is there anyone I can call for you–your bishop? Your home teacher?

The 911 operator was asking me Mormon questions. Things only a Mormon would know. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to have her ask if she could call my bishop.

Our best friends were not home. They lived across from us. As I looked at their empty house and looked up at the star filled, moonless night, I heard a voice,

You will be alone for awhile. But I am with you.

And I called our friends at Badger Creek, a ranch not far from us. Josh and Roxanne rushed over.

Roxanne had cried at church one day during sacrament meeting, and Joy, only 2 1/2, had gotten up out of her seat, and walked back to where Roxanne was and climbed on her lap and put her arms around her.

Josh and Roxanne were angels. They would be there that night and for many, many nights to come–and they are still a strength to me after all these years. And still angels.

Joy had gotten caught in her bed railing and suffocated to death.

And she was gone.

And there was this ending, but not the one that would have been a fabulous Ensign story where everything feels like it worked out alright.

Sometimes, the miracle is that there is no miracle.

And this was one of those times.

I told Roxanne I felt like I had to do something. She suggested I say a prayer. I remember praying for what God would have me say and the words were simply that we would be able to get through this time and that if Joy needed to be with God, we would find a way to accept it.

Josh and Roxanne stayed with the children as we rode the ambulance to the hospital.

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Teton Valley Hospital

The same road we had just driven with Joy to the grocery store to get honey sticks.

The same road that took us to fun memories and now it was just so long and dark.

It was so dark.

At the hospital, we sat in the waiting room and I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t breathe.

God asked me if I would take her even if she couldn’t walk or talk or function. I didn’t know it, but God was asking my husband this question at the same time.

YES!

I screamed at Him. Just give her back! But, there was this calm feeling that I had answered rightly, but it was not required.

Even then, He was testing me, trying me in any way He could to help forge my character and show me the kind of person I was and what I would be willing to do for my children.

For a moment, I felt guilty. I mean, shouldn’t I be fighting for her to live? But, no. I knew. I had known for awhile. I had been prepared and I knew I needed to submit and be a strength for my family.

My best friends and neighbors came into the hospital. To this day, I don’t know how they got there in time–they were out camping somewhere. I don’t even know how they knew. I am just eternally grateful they were there. My bishop (somwhat like a pastor), was there. There were others from church–I don’t really remember.

Then I said, “I need something to help me feel more calm. I can’t catch my breath.”

The nurse thought I meant medication. She had no idea that I was not the sort of person to frequent hospitals and my idea of medicine most of the time is good food and lots of water.

We’ll have to find a doctor to see if he can prescribe something.

I remember thinking, “Why would I want to block my feelings right now? It’s the only way I am feeling God.” but I just shook my head and said,

No, no, no. I just need a glass of water.

And I took a gulp of water.

And then the doctor was there. He looked awful. I often wonder if he might have felt better if he had known that I already knew. He looked at us. My friends were behind him.

He sat down.

It was a really small waiting room. It felt really, really small and warm.

And then it got cold as he told us that they had done everything they could, but there was nothing more to do.

And my husband, he sobbed. And then it got one degree colder. And then another. And another. Until it seemed very cold. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like eternity went by, as in our minds, every moment we had ever looked forward to with Joy was ripped from us.

Every laugh we knew would have come. Every tear. Every smile. Every milestone. Every quarrel. Every heartache.

Gone.

And John just wanted to see her. And the kids were on there way to the hospital. And I was sitting there.

And three seconds later, the doctor said

I hate to ask, but how do you feel about her being an organ donor?

And I didn’t hesitate, because I had already thought about this before, because I know people who are alive now because of organ donation, and I don’t care if you are against it because you think the government is going to kill you to harvest your kidneys, I said

Of course.

The doctor looked startled, and tears welled up in his eyes.

I wish more people could be like you.

He said.

And then I was with my friends, and John was with Joy. I was not ready to see her, yet. I just needed a blessing.

In our faith, if you are going through something hard, or if you are sick, or if you need comfort, you can ask for a blessing from your husband or pastor or someone who is worthy and an active member in our church. We actually believe that a blessing is a gift straight from God, given through someone who holds the power of God to administer this, which in this case, was my bishop.

My bishop’s words were prophetic. He blessed me to be able to stand. He had no idea how I would rely on those words throughout the next part of my life.

And then, the kids were there.

Frightened, scared, worried. They sat down in the waiting room. My friends were behind me. The nurses were in there. The paramedics.

And I said,

Do you all remember how I have always told you that we will have house in heaven? And how our dogs are there? And how it’s going to be beautiful with flowers and places to run and streams? And it’s going to be lovely?

My two eldest children began to cry. They knew. The littler ones just looked at me with complete faith that my words would make it better.

“Well,” I said, “Joy is going to be there first to get it all ready for us. You know how she loves wildflowers? She is going to make sure we have gardens filled with butterflies and she is going to keep our dogs company, and she is going to make sure it is perfect for us when we get there.”

Joy Meeting Her Baby Sister

I remember my friends crying. I remember looking at the nurses sobbing. I remember seeing paramedics, big tough men, with tears streaming down there faces.

At that moment, it wasn’t a waiting room. It was a temple.

And then, I remembered.

I remembered when my little sister April passed away at the age of 10 months. One moment, my eight year old self was awakened to paramedics doing CPR on my baby sister on the kitchen table. I remember my dad’s face. And the next day, she was gone. And I never saw her again. And it always bothered me that the last time I saw my sister was on our kitchen table surrounded by strangers.

So, I told the nurses that we all needed to go where Joy was.

The nurse told me the kids wouldn’t be able to handle it.

She clearly did not understand my kids.

We walked into the trauma room. Thousands of dollars of equipment that couldn’t save Joy.

We saw John. He was still crying, but more softly now.

I walked to Joy. We all stood by her.

The kids were crying softly.

I was trying to be brave.

I think I was brave.

I said, “You know, I think we should sing a song. Let’s sing Joy’s favorite.”

Again, the nurses. The doctor. The paramedics. Somehow, they needed this. I felt it.

And then we all sang, “Love One Another,” Joy’s favorite song. And Heaven was in that room and fire and there was a cleansing in the tears. It was so bitterly beautiful.

And then, I hugged my children fiercely, and they went home with Josh and Roxanne.

And then, we had to go home.

The worst part had come. We had to leave without her.

Our friends gave us a ride home in the truck we had just been laughing in a few days before on a double date.

I called my mother-in-law. The worst part was hearing her sobbings. It hurt me so much, because for her, there is no life after death. There is just dark. And I hated having to tell her.

I couldn’t do that again, so I didn’t call anyone else that night. We just went home.

And the kids slept in our room–everyone all together. And John and I sat on the black couch, the black couch that weeks ago Joy had smeared and covered with Desitin, and we cried.

And we held each other. And we got through the dark night. And we promised each other we would get through this together.

Sunday Came

Sunday Came

And then Sunday came, and the sun rose. And she wasn’t with us.

And Josh and Roxanne came and stayed with us and took care of the kids and helped protect us from some of the well-meaning people who may not have understood how painful some of the things they said could be.

Most people were wonderful.

John retreated into a space alone. He was gone most of the next two weeks in his room.

I was in the living room, answering the door. Taking flowers. Crying at the generosity of people who hardly knew us. At a case of oranges left on my doorstep from the lady who ran the market where we shopped.

At the vase of flowers from an old cowboy that he picked himself.

Crying when the funeral home director told our friends from Utah that they couldn’t pay for the funeral, because someone already had paid for the entire thing.

Crying when the bishop gave us a place to bury our daughter.

Where Joy Is Buried

Crying when it hit me just how influential we as human beings are to others.

How the short, almost three year life and death of a little girl touched an entire community.

And how prayers can be tangibly felt.

How they lift and carry and soothe.

I will never be the same. My family will never be the same. There are just some things in this mortality that we don’t get over. We just get through it and we wait patiently on Christ, having faith that someday, we will be healed. Because of Him, I know we will be.

Christ

Until then, I have found comfort in many things, most especially, these words from Joseph Smith:

We have again the warning voice sounded in our midst, which shows the uncertainty of human life; and in my leisure moments I have meditated upon the subject, and asked the question, why it is that infants, innocent children, are taken away from us, especially those that seem to be the most intelligent and interesting. The strongest reasons that present themselves to my mind are these: This world is a very wicked world; and it … grows more wicked and corrupt. … The Lord takes many away, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again. …
“… The only difference between the old and young dying is, one lives longer in heaven and eternal light and glory than the other, and is freed a little sooner from this miserable, wicked world. Notwithstanding all this glory, we for a moment lose sight of it, and mourn the loss, but we do not mourn as those without hope.”

Yes, there is always hope.

Joy

Joy

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.