'Still together'

Grieving parents found solace in plan of salvation

Jan Anderson was a self-described "lazy agnostic" — not having done much analysis of whether there is a God — and her husband, Bob, had not been active in the Church for 31 years. That was before the sudden and tragic death of their 10-year-old daughter, Ashley, in 2000 turned their world upside down.

Looking back, the Escondido, Calif., couple identifies incidents that might have indicated premonitions on Ashley's part. She had befriended a classmate at school, a member of the Church. From that association, she began to have serious thoughts about religious matters and had even asked if she could attend Church meetings with her friend. Inexplicably, she peppered her father with questions about death and kept pestering him to buy her a telescope. She wanted to look at the night sky to see if she could spot heaven.

Then came that horrible October day. Ashley had been to karate class with her kindergarten-age brother Wesley. She was ironing creases out of her newly acquired uniform when she stopped, said, "I think I just got shocked," and then collapsed. It would later be determined that a microscopic crack in the iron handle and a small bare spot in the double padding under the carpet where Ashley had been standing made for a deadly combination.

At the hospital where the ambulance took Ashley, the Andersons were met at the door by a social worker — not a good sign. Within a half-hour, efforts of medical staff to save Ashley's life failed.

"All of a sudden, it was not OK to be an agnostic anymore," Sister Anderson recalled. "I wanted to know one way or the other."

Two men from the Church were at the hospital. One was Don Marler, patriarch of the Escondido California South Stake. Jan remembers desperately asking him to bless her daughter. His reply: "She doesn't need a blessing, but I can give you a blessing." (About a year later, Brother Marler would perform the Andersons' temple sealing.)

Members of the two Escondido stakes and the Andersons' Escondido Hills Ward rallied around them for the funeral and to see them through their grieving period.

The day after the tragedy, Brother Anderson, sitting on the side of the bed, exclaimed, "The jig is up."

"What do you mean?" his wife asked.

"I've got to start going back to Church if I'm ever going to see her again."

He contacted his uncle, a stake patriarch in Oklahoma, to seek advice and was told he should start going to meetings, take the sacrament and accept a calling.

So the Andersons began attending sacrament meeting and accepting visits from the full-time missionaries.

Jan, withdrawn and nearly non-functional from stress and grief, sought answers to her questions from books. A home-health nurse with a background in biology and chemistry, she thought intellectual sources would provide the answers she needed.

Along the way, she was blessed with spiritual experiences. On one occasion, walking to her car in a parking lot, she sensed the words form in her mind: "Do my work." Telling her husband of the experience, all she could make of it was that it meant do God's work. Brother Anderson merely smiled, knowing what his wife would soon come to recognize: that in "Mormondom" such a phrase implies performing ordinances in the temple for the dead. Jan came to feel that her daughter was asking that she help provide that blessing to her.

In January of 2001, Sister Anderson's search took her to an Internet message board devoted to vigorous, often adversarial, debate about Latter-day Saint beliefs. It appealed to her intellectual sensitivity, because participants included such prominent defenders of the faith as Daniel C. Peterson and John Tvedtness, scholars associated with what is now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at BYU.

About a month later, Spencer Macdonald, a law student at BYU and now a Provo, Utah, attorney, started a conversation thread wherein he pointed out that the majority of the human race throughout history has been non-Christian and asked what is to happen to them in the hereafter.

After many pages of discussion, Jan entered the thread with this message: "Here is a real (not hypothetical) question which might help crystallize doctrinal distinctions (and/or speculations) being discussed. Our 10-year-old daughter was killed last fall. Is she 'saved'?"

The ensuing responses helped her contrast the beliefs of other faith traditions with the precepts of the gospel as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith regarding salvation for the dead.

In March, she responded to a challenge from a missionary (one she didn't take to at first because he seemed so pushy) to read the Book of Mormon in earnest and pray about it. That night, as the three family members were lying on a bed, she encountered a feeling that began at her head and moved down to her torso. "It was the most indescribable, personal feeling," she said. "It was the Spirit of Christ. He knew who I was. He was visiting me. And it was joyful."

As the feeling got to her toes, she felt the presence of her daughter. "I reached across Wes and put my arm on Bob, and I said, 'We're all together again; we're all still together."

Jan was baptized on April 11, 2001. On Oct. 5, one day prior to a year from her death, Ashley Anderson was baptized vicariously in the San Diego California Temple, her mother serving as proxy and her father performing the baptism.

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