It still seems unreal to me. I look at the snapshot taken on Thursday, March 10, and try to convince my brain that within hours of taking that photo, Lenae Smith was gone. I fail. She was my up-the-street neighbor when I lived in St, George, so it has been several years since I’ve had the privilege of sitting next to her in Relief Society or exchanging witty remarks in line for the buffet at a ward party. She was one of the reasons St. George was very hard to say goodbye to, and having said goodbye to St. George, I had already experienced some grief over the Lenae-sized hole in my day-to-day life.
So I haven’t yet been able to convince myself that I won’t see her the next time I go south for Spring Break or randomly run into her when she comes up to Utah County (as she did the last time I remember seeing her). Grief is funny that way. It pulls the covers over its head and refuses to come out for as long as it can. But grief is also a community affair, and the community I shared with Lenae was a community of faith: a Mormon ward.
I found out about the accident that claimed her life when another St. George friend called me, and over the next 24 hours, I received several other messages from ward members who knew I’d want to know. You can leave the day-to-day of a community and still be a part of it. It’s easy to underestimate the communal component of grief, because it’s almost an automatic response. It’s why people post messages and memories on the Facebook pages of people who have died. It may be a comforting thing to directly address the person who died, but the posts are really for the community of mourners, a sort of online wake you can access according to which of the stages of grief you are in.
The Sunday after Lenae died, many former ward members returned to the ward for Sacrament Meeting. It wasn’t a memorial service. The talks were on a previously assigned topic, but somehow just coming together as a group to worship, to pray, to cry through all of the hymns was comforting. In our grief, sometimes our greatest need is to just be together; we need tangible proof that we are not alone.
I was unable to attend the funeral. The Provo City Center Temple Celebration’s 14-hour rehearsal and performance day for my child on the Autism spectrum meant that I couldn’t make the drive and still ensure that she would have a good experience. I knew I could send my condolences to her husband, Derek, in another way. I knew I could comfort our mutual friends somewhat from afar. I knew there were many ways to honor Lenae’s life.
My heartbreak at not being able to go was mostly selfish. I wanted my grief to be in the community. There is power and healing in a room full of broken hearts. We lean on each other and strengthen communal ties of love. When we assure Derek and the children that they are part of a large, loving community, we also assure ourselves. Most of the little things we do when tragedy strikes have that at the core: The cards, the dinners, the phone calls are all, at least in some way, reminders that none of us is alone.
Grief makes us doubt that. We try, and fail, to convince ourselves that we will ever come out from under this crushing pain. It is in the strength of community that we pull through, and knowing the depth and breadth of the community around the Smith Family, I know that they will be sustained in their grief when we are present in our grief.
On the spur of the moment, I made a quick trip down to St. George on the Thursday before the funeral. The trip was prompted by an invitation to attend a Relief Society meeting/activity in our old ward. Again, it was a meeting that had been planned for some time and wasn’t canceled in light of recent events because somehow they knew we would all want to be together.
I jumped at the chance to do something, anything, to bring my grief to the community. It was a simple evening: dinner (because this is Relief Society, after all) and a discussion with a grief counselor. There weren’t as many tears as I had thought there would be (I cried more on the drive there and back), but there was something lovely about being in the group where I had met and grown to love Lenae. We talked about her life. We talked about our grief. We talked about the shock of finding out. It wasn’t just a nice reunion. It was community support.
When sister after sister told of reactions that mirrored my own, I came to embrace this stage of grief, this unreal feeling, the waves of sorrow that are cushioned by the feeling that I will walk around the corner and see that thousand-watt smile.
This grieving community is my community. It will always be a strength to me, no matter where I am. The same is true, I am sure, for Lenae.
Donations for the Smith Family can be made at the Lenae Smith Fund on GoFundMe.com.