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Death is part of life, ex-surgeon says

It’s important in God’s plan, Elder Nelson says

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Elder Russell M. Nelson

Elder Russell M. Nelson

When interviewing patients whose bodies died for a time while he worked feverishly to bring them back to life, Elder Russell M. Nelson gained an uncommon perspective on what it means to die.

A renowned heart surgeon before leaving his profession in 1984 to become a full-time leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the man who church members believe is one of Christ's living apostles has learned much about life and death in a variety of settings — one of them contemplating what he thought at the time would be his own impending demise.

In most of the Christian world, such topics come to a pinnacle this weekend with prayerful reflection over what the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means for believers as they celebrate another Easter season.

Latter-day Saints who have heard Elder Nelson's sermons will recall the analogy of the glove — which only comes to life when a person's hand fits snugly inside, much like he describes a distinct body and spirit. He has seen the result on a gurney when the "hand" withdraws, leaving the "glove" a limp shell without soul or life force.

Those whose bodies have died have often described to the surgeon how they saw him "struggling over their body trying to bring them back, watching as though they were a third party. Nearly all of them speak of their surroundings while having this experience as a glorious environment; not an unpleasant thing at all," he said.

Yet mortals have historically feared death, if not for the unknown that lies beyond, then the separation from all that is familiar and dear.

Those who have lived to tell the tale about a brush with violent death often recount the horror of knowing they were about to die, as did a woman on a small plane with Elder Nelson several years ago. One of the engines blew up and the plane caught fire, sending it into a steep dive as they were en route from Salt Lake City to St. George.

In the few seconds that passed before the pilot was able to shut off the fuel line and extinguish the flames, Elder Nelson recalls that his entire life passed through his mind, amid the hysterical screams from the woman in the next seat. "I thought of the academic regalia, the tuxedos and awards banquets," and how insignificant it all seemed, he said, adding that an overwhelming feeling of calm came over him.

What mattered in that moment were his life choices, he said — temple ordinances he had participated in, including marriage to his wife, and the deep assurance that though she would become a widow, she would be taken care of financially and they would be reunited after death.

As it turned out, the plane made a safe, emergency landing and he would live to see his wife, Dantzel White Nelson, die first, in February 2005. At age 80, he became a widower, after having previously lost one of his daughters to death as well. On April 6, at 81, he was remarried in the Salt Lake Temple to Wendy Watson, a Brigham Young University professor.

Yet for all death's sting and the ensuing loneliness, Elder Nelson said it is Christ's death and subsequent resurrection that are the key to his knowledge of life beyond the grave and the belief that it is progress in the eternal scheme of things.

As a physician, he's troubled by extraordinary efforts to prolong life "that are unreasonable," like those that make headlines. He anticipates the question of what is reasonable. "Part of the reasoning is to understand that death is a necessary part of life," he says, quoting the Book of Mormon passage about the necessity of death as a vital part of "the great plan of happiness" God put in place from the beginning.

"That means to me that you better understand death is a friend. You better understand that you cannot participate fully in God's great plan of happiness without enduring the experience we call death."

Those who mourn fulfill God's command, he said, to love each other sufficiently that "they shall weep for those who die.

"If we can lift our sights to see not from our mortal perspective, but from an eternal perspective of what death is — it's life on the other side of the veil." There is great truth in the cliche that you live to die, he said, but the part often not discussed is that "you have died to live eternally."

He has observed both patients and family members who have experienced what can only be described as visitations from deceased relatives shortly before their own deaths, and said he is absolutely certain his first wife not only lives in another realm, but she is often close by. There is no diminishing such experiences as mere imagining or wishful thinking, he said.

"I have felt her presence beside me on very sacred and special occasions. I don't have to hear a voice or see a face to know that someone is there." He described it much like the experience of having her sit beside him while they traveled, sometimes in comfortable silence, or of knowing intuitively before he looked over to see her eyes closed that she had fallen asleep.

"That same feeling comes to a man when his wife is spiritually with him," he said. "There is no voice or no picture, but you know that she is there. Is the veil thin (between life and death)? Absolutely. They are not far away from us."

Just as death is — from a medical perspective — a physiological reality, for Elder Nelson the scientist, Christ's resurrection is every bit as much a biological and physical reality, he said. "I have a lot of friends who wonder how you can believe in a resurrection. For me, that's not difficult.

"Much more difficult for me would be to believe that I could be created in the first place. I've got a DNA that's specifically mine, a blood type that's specifically mine. Those formulas are written in every cell of my body. No doubt those are on file in that great, heavenly filing cabinet. It's much easier for me to believe that the same individual can be created again with those formulas and elements available. It's a lot easier to believe in that than to believe I was created in the first place. Now that's really a mystery."

Belief in a resurrection, even from a purely secular standpoint, is relatively easy, he said. "Think of all the eyewitness accounts of those who saw the resurrected Lord. It's one of the most well-documented events of all human history."

As certain as he is that death will be sweet, and that life continues beyond the grave, Easter marks the season of reaffirming such values, but that isn't unique to a time of year for Elder Nelson. He lives daily with the assurance that comes through Christ's atonement, which gives his life its underlying meaning and purpose.

He said he's "in no hurry to leave ... I don't have to have turkey to enjoy Thanksgiving. Every day is Thanksgiving to me."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com