Sheri Dew: How losing my mother taught me that grieving is a kind of enhanced gratitude

I lost my mother, JoAnn Petersen Dew, this summer. For all of this crazy year’s upheaval, Mother’s passing has been by far the most difficult and life-changing for me. One friend said it well: “There is never a good time to lose a mother.”

Gratefully, my siblings and I have the glorious assurance that we have not lost her. But the reality remains that we can’t call Mother on the phone or tease her about her quirks or empathize with her as she bemoans the fact that “they won’t let me drive anymore” (knowing full well the “they” was us).

I’m coming to realize that grieving is a kind of enhanced gratitude. Surely it is yet another dimension of the spirit of Elijah — hearts of the children turning to their fathers … and mothers. Memories have paraded across my mind like a home movie marathon. Hilarious moments, experiences both sweet and somber, times she defended me when I didn’t deserve it, and even her reprimands — all have come back in waves. Along with the reality that when Mother stepped across the veil, the one person who has believed in me from the day I was born is no longer here. No one can take her place.  

It was an afternoon in June when my siblings and I received word that her condition had suddenly changed, and we hurried to her side. She’d been pretty spunky two nights before, when I’d last seen her, so it was shocking to find her completely unresponsive. We all surrounded Mother’s bed as my brother gave her a final priesthood blessing.  

We expected her to pass that night, but she didn’t. All that night and the next day she hung on. We wondered what she was waiting for.

I volunteered to take the next night shift. Mother’s nurses told us to talk to her because she could likely hear us. So after everyone else had left, and it was just the two of us, I told Mother again how much I loved her. Then, through tears, I thanked her for one unselfish act after another that she’d done for us. About then I sensed for the first time that my father was there. And with that, I found myself saying something I hadn’t expected.

“Mother,” I said, “you have given your life to us. You have put our needs ahead of your own again and again. But your body is worn out. There isn’t anything else you can do for your family here. But on the other side of the veil, with Dad, you’ll be able to help us in countless ways. Mom, I think it’s time for you to go.”

Within literally moments, Mother’s breathing changed. When a nurse walked in the room a few minutes later, I asked her if what I was hearing was the “death rattle.” She nodded, and that night I held Mother’s hand as  she made her final, labored attempts to breathe. She passed away early the next morning.

I’ll never forget that sequence of events. I don’t know if we have any control over when we depart this life. But I cannot deny the timing of what happened. It felt to me then, and has even more in retrospect, that when Mother heard me say she could help her family more on the other side of the veil, she let go. One final time, she put us ahead of herself.

My mother never saw herself as anything but the most ordinary woman, but there was nothing ordinary about her goodness or her faithfulness or her absolute devotion to her children. 

We saw Mother’s greatness honored in an unexpected way as we prepared to lay her to rest. After a small, COVID-appropriate memorial for her in our Kansas hometown, we emerged from the chapel to find a policeman waiting to escort the funeral cortege to the cemetery.

Ours is a small hometown, and we didn’t need help maneuvering through traffic. But that act of respect is typical of the simple decency you always find in the people there. As we proceeded to the cemetery, every oncoming vehicle pulled off the road to pay their respects. But the sweetest moment came when we saw a woman who had gotten out of her pickup and was standing with her head bowed as we passed.

I have no idea who that woman was, and I’m sure she didn’t know whom she was honoring. But I will never forget the reverence I felt as an unknown passer-by paid tribute to my mother, a woman whose sheer goodness gave her a kind of quiet but profound influence that can only be fully measured by the Lord.     

— Sheri Dew is executive vice president of Deseret Management Corporation and the CEO of Deseret Book Company.  She served in the Relief Society general presidency from 1997-2002.