I share with you a true story that my friend and former neighbor Ken McCarty shared with me. Ken has been an associate at Brigham Young University and in church callings, and I write this with permission from him and his wife, Debbie.
Their daughter Sarah died in 1997, after a lengthy and difficult struggle with cystic fibrosis. She was just 13. She had, though, lived an extraordinarily full life in that short time.
In 1993, when she was roughly 9, Ken and Debbie took her on a cruise along the Volga River in Russia. Just before they left, Sarah's friend Kerie Waters came to visit and to bring Sarah several balloons.
Kerie, 32, wore a headband to conceal the aftereffects of chemotherapy. She had been diagnosed only a few months before with terminal melanoma, a skin cancer, and their fatal illnesses had forged a special bond between her and the McCartys' daughter. It was, as Debbie and Ken recalled, a tender goodbye.
One night, about two weeks into the trip, Sarah burst into her parents' cabin, sobbing uncontrollably.
"I held her little shaking body," Ken remembers, "and asked her what was the matter. When she finally caught her breath, she said, 'Dad, Kerie has died.'" Ken was shocked — they had had little if any contact with home in those essentially pre-Internet days — and asked Sarah what had happened.
"I was kneeling by my bed, saying my prayers," Sarah replied. "Suddenly I felt someone standing behind me. Then I realized it was Kerie. Kerie was in my room."
"What did Kerie say?"
Sarah responded that Kerie hadn't talked out loud, explaining that, in her heart, she could hear Kerie say that she had come to tell Sarah not to be afraid to die, that dying wasn't scary, it was beautiful.
"Kerie didn't want me to worry about her; she wanted me to know that she was very happy in heaven."
Shortly after returning home, says Ken, he called Kerie's father, Wes Waters, and found out that Kerie had indeed died — around 30 minutes before Sarah's experience in Russia.
But that's not the end of this story.
On the April morning when Sarah herself passed away, her parents decided to wait until around 8:30 a.m. before they began the mournful task of calling to notify family and friends. But at approximately 8 a.m., their telephone rang. The caller was a family friend named Don Wood, a BYU employee who also had cystic fibrosis.
In fact, at 42 years of age, he was one of the oldest surviving victims of the disease in the United States. Ken and Debbie hadn't been in touch with Don for several years.
Don inquired how they were doing. Ken answered that he wasn't doing too well.
"It's Sarah, isn't it?" Don asked.
"How did you know?" Ken responded.
Don replied that he assumed she had passed away at roughly 6:30 that morning.
Shocked, Ken confirmed that she had died at 6:17 a.m. How, he wondered, had Don Wood heard the news?
"I was lying in my bed struggling to breathe," Don said. "I've been on oxygen for some time now, and I wasn't sure if I would last through the night. At around 6:30 I felt a presence in my room, and, when I looked up, I saw Sarah standing in the air at the foot of my bed. I thought she was coming to take me to the other side, but I was surprised to see her because I didn't know she had passed away. She was all aglow, and it looked as if light was emanating from her, not just from around her; her entire being was glowing. Her hair was long and curled and she looked beautiful and mature. She didn't talk out loud, but she communicated with me in a clear voice in my mind. She simply said, 'I came to tell you, Don, don't be afraid to die. It's not scary. I came to tell you that heaven is beautiful.'"
Sarah looked happy and beautiful, Don said, and healthier than he had ever seen her.
Eight months after Sarah died, Don Wood, too, passed away.
"For some people," Ken McCarty summarizes, "life after death is a hope, something to have faith in. For me, because of our little Sarah, it's a fact. And, most important of all, it's beautiful."
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com