How Losing My Sister Changed My Faith

I’m a fervent believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I sometimes post on controversial issues (on Facebook or otherwise), and because of this people often question my beliefs.  It’s a fair question, if you only interact with me in the virtual world.  But I have a deep religious faith.  Because I want you to understand the sincerity of my beliefs, I’ll share a story that, while difficult for me to recount, helped define my life and testimony.

In 2006, I went to serve as a missionary for the LDS Church in Arequipa, Peru.  I entered the Arequipa mission with all the optimism and joy of a newly called missionary.  The mission was a prosperous one, as far as gaining converts was concerned.  My companions and I had no shortage of people to speak to, and we taught several missionary lessons daily.  Seeing large numbers of inactive members, we visited them often, and soon our small branches started to grow.  After six months, I had gained enough experience to become a senior companion.

Tacna, Peru, 2006.
Tacna, Peru, 2006.

The brightness of these early days soon dimmed, however, with alarming news from home.  In October 2006, my mom wrote that my sister, Jennifer, was experiencing some severe pain in her hip.  Soon, the doctors came back with a terrifying diagnosis.  Jen had soft tissue sarcoma.  I cried when I heard, and immediately started fasting for her.

It wasn’t long before my sister and mom had scheduled a barrage of tests and arranged a treatment plan for Jennifer.  Surprisingly, I was able to still focus on proselyting and find joy in the work.  I remember sincerely feeling that, if I worked hard, God would bless my family and maybe, just maybe, Jen’s cancer would go into remission.

Jennifer had surgery to remove her tumor in December 2006—but the cancer had invaded the bone too deeply, and the doctors also had to remove her leg.  When I spoke with her on Christmas Day 2006, she seemed well, although I’ve since learned from my family the time after her surgery was immensely painful for her.

Then, on February 14, 2007, I received a brief phone call, summoning me see to the Mission President in Arequipa.  I was in Puno, high in the Andean mountains.  My companion and I took the six-hour bus ride to Arequipa and I was ushered into the President’s office.  He quietly told me my parents had called with bad news about my sister; then he left me alone to call them.  Moments later, I listened to my mom say, in a trembling voice, that Jennifer’s cancer was terminal.  She had little time left, a month at most.  I started to cry, and I’m crying writing this now.

Later I learned Jennifer had asked my parents to hide from me the seriousness of her cancer.  Up to that point, I had hoped that she would still beat the disease somehow, that I would be able to see her when I got home from my mission.  I just remember my mom kept repeating, “It’s all right, it’s all right, she’s suffering so much anyway, I’d prefer she go.”

I immediately asked my parents when I could come home to see her.  Their response shocked me—“Don’t come home.”  Jen wanted me to stay in the mission, they explained, and I had to stay in the mission I’d been called to.  I still don’t think any of them knew what they were asking of me.

After hanging up, I called Jen.  She was medicated and couldn’t speak much. I mostly remember telling her, over and over, that I loved her.

Of course, I started fasting for Jen the next day.  After a lot of prayer, I asked the President if I could visit Jen, before she passed. I had also made a very difficult decision—if Pres. Galli’s answer was “no”, then I would stay in the mission God had called me to.  I knew I was supposed to be there, helping some very unique individuals to come to Christ.  President Galli’s response was direct:  if I visited home, I would have to stay there, and I may or may not be reassigned to a stateside mission.  It was exactly the answer I didn’t want.  But I had received a confirmation from God that I was to stay in Peru and finish my mission there. 

Pres. Galli also gave me permission to call Jennifer and my parents when I wished; but every time I called Jen after February 15, our conversations were always short.  She became progressively less coherent over time.

That period was so difficult.  Although I didn’t waver in my decision, I frequently worried about my sister and family.  Saying this, I do know that as many times as I felt grief, I also felt spiritually quieted.  Constant prayer and a priesthood blessing brought me moments of peace and consolation.  The Spirit reconfirmed my decision to stay in the mission more than once, and although I could not feel true joy, I found solace in my work as a missionary.

On March 10, 2007, Jennifer died.  Both her husband and my mother were by her side.  It hurt all of us, so much.  But it was a small comfort to know she was no longer in pain.  Because she had served in the military in Iraq, many of her fellow soldiers attended her funeral—”a sea of green” in the crowd, my parents later told me with pride.

I had some hard times after Jen’s death.  But I, and my companions, continued to teach, and some of these people were baptized.  I grieved, but I also felt a strong desire to focus on my mission. I think I wanted to make our sacrifices (both Jen’s and mine) count.  Many times, I reflected on the Plan of Salvation.  I was so grateful for my firm belief in the Plan, and its core principle—that families can be united forever in heaven.  What an amazing doctrine!  When Jennifer died, I knelt down and thanked God for this Plan, and that we could be together again.

While I don’t know why these struggles came to us,  I do know this experience profoundly shaped my belief in an all-knowing Heavenly Father.  During this time, I came to know and love Him as He comforted me time and again. His guidance helped me develop a deep and abiding faith in His Gospel, the Plan of Salvation, and personal revelation.  By the end of my mission, I had changed into someone who held these beliefs close to my heart. They’re an indivisible part of me—knowledge I’ve bought with pain, and loss, and sacrifice.

Jennifer Ball Cooper, my sister
Jennifer Ball Cooper, my sister.
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