Life is obviously, horribly unfair. Unless…
I’m crying as I write this now, 40 years afterward. I barely knew Kyle Hess, yet he changed my life from both sides of the veil of death. This is what happened and why it matters to all of us.
The Death of Kyle Hess
When I was growing up, a new youth leader named Kyle Hess showed up one evening and joined our informal basketball game. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember his sincere enthusiasm. We knew he cared. Kyle loved active things including scuba diving, and he instantly won our hearts.
Not long afterward, before I got to know him well, I left California for college. 18 months later, I received a shocking letter from home: Kyle Hess was dead.
He’d gone to a Church youth conference at Catalina Island and was scuba diving with the young men. Suddenly, while underwater, he simply died. The boys who were with him tried to rescue him, but he couldn’t be revived.
Everyone was stunned, grieving. Just like that, Kyle was gone. How is that fair? He left a young widow and several children behind. What would become of them? How could something like this happen on a Church youth trip? Should the conference be canceled? The youth and leaders decided to carry on with the conference as Kyle would have wanted. At a tear-filled testimony meeting, many felt far more than grief. Lives were changed for good that day.
The Infinite Unfairness of Life
The tragedy of Kyle Hess’ death is a tiny drop in the infinite bucket of humanity’s shattered hopes, lost lives, and disappointments. Life is that way! A good friend and faithful Church member once confided that it really, really bothered him that so many were killed in WW I and II. Where was God in all that?
Good question. I had to agree with him—it was horribly unfair. Millions were killed in world wars they didn’t start. Far more died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. In fact, it’s very, very, very rare for anyone to experience life without huge unfairness and massive disappointment. It’s not the least bit fair or reasonable.
It’s all horribly unfair unless someone holds the seemingly infinite power to make it all right in the end, and unless they are actually going to do it.
And happily, it turns out—speaking from actual, personal experience and first-hand knowledge—someone does have all that power and can be counted on to actually make it all right.
On a Mission in Australia
Not long after Kyle Hess passed away I left on a mission to Australia. The work was hard, mostly knocking on doors, offering people the Book of Mormon, asking if we could talk with them about the purpose and plan of life. Around this time I ran into a LOT of ministers from other faiths, and they started saying the same thing: “I’ll bet you’ve never even read the Bible.”
I’d read, studied, and loved the New Testament. But I couldn’t honestly say that I’d read the Old Testament from front to back even though I’d studied it. So, I started getting up an hour early every morning to read it. By March of 1980, I’d made significant progress. I don’t think I’d thought at all about Kyle since I arrived in Australia 7 months earlier.
A Sacred Dream or Vision
As I slept late one night, I became aware of myself dreaming, then I started to feel like I was surrounded by water. The dream changed drastically in its feeling and clarity, unlike any ordinary dream. Bubbles started to rise around me, and one of them grew larger and larger until I burst inside it and found myself in a different place. It was a nondescript room, and a man was standing in front of me dressed in white robes. I immediately recognized the shorter stature and broader build of Kyle Hess. It was definitely him.
He looked at me very earnestly. His face showed no sorrow, no levity—just focus and sobriety. I’ve since learned that this is typical of angelic ministrations.
Then he spoke.
“I want you to tell my wife and daughters* that I’m all right.”
I felt stunned, but immediately I felt led to ask a question in humble surprise. “Why are you asking me to deliver this message?”
“Because you are more fully grounded in the scriptures. You will find further light and knowledge in the Book of Isaiah.”
I then awoke to a powerful feeling of peace, comfort, and intelligence that I know as “the witness of the Spirit” that something is true and important.
Immediately, I got out of bed and started searching Isaiah. As I did so I experienced—for the first time in my life—a very subtle kind of revelation I’ve come to call “warmer, colder.” Like the children’s game, as I moved in one direction I’d feel less comfortable (“colder”) on one page or verse, so I’d move to another which felt more comfortable (“warmer”). Eventually, I settled on the following verse, which felt “right” like it was part but not all of the promised “further light and knowledge:”
He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 25:8.)
I am still crying as I write this, but now these are tears of joy. God showed a 19-year-old young man—me—clearly and unmistakably, that life continues after the grave. Showed me that revelation is real. That the ministering of angels is real! That families matter in the next phase of life. Teaching me personally that studying the scriptures is important for receiving further direct knowledge from God.
Writing to Karen Hess
The witness did not end there. I recorded the dream and sent note home to “Sister Hess” since I didn’t know her first name. I described the experience and quoted the scripture with trepidation, not knowing how it would be received and not wanting to be preachy when consolation is needed. Then I went about my business.
Other than that, I kept the experience to myself for a decade or more. I’d been promised things like this in a priesthood blessing from my father, before my mission. But I’d been cautioned about sharing them openly. If we’re not prepared for sacred things, we treat them lightly or feel uncomfortable with them.
About 45 days later, Karen Hess wrote back. She thanked me and said, as near as I can recall:
“Your letter arrived around the one year anniversary of Kyle’s passing. It was one of about a dozen similar experiences we received from young people all around the world around the same time.“
The myriad witnesses left no room for doubt—life continues beyond the grave, families matter there, the ministering of angels is real.
Karen and many others have since been interviewed about Kyle’s passing. Just now I stumbled on this YouTube video interview where she mentions these experiences:
The Greater Purpose of Such Experiences
None of these experiences are really about Kyle or me. Their purpose is to point our attention to something greater.
Sometimes God does prevent or wipe away our tears in this life, as He did with the Hess family and many of those who knew Kyle. That can happen through feelings of peace and assurance, through miraculous healings, through mighty changes of heart, through divine protection, through heavenly restitution. I’ve seen all of these things happen, first-hand, in crystal-clear experiences that transcended the boundaries of three-dimensional space, linear time, and current earthly knowledge. And I’ve discovered that if we’re willing to pay the price, any of us can have such experiences.
But there is a greater purpose behind it all.
Like Kyle, Jesus Christ also died. But Christ’s willing death was something infinitely greater. It was for us, and it allowed an infinite atonement that unlocked all doors of all opportunity for all humanity through all generations of time and eternity. As Christ then rose from the dead, he received “all power … in heaven and in earth.” (Matt 28:18.)
Whenever the Lord wipes our tears away now, it’s a quiet reminder that He has that power—power to resolve all things in the end, even if they aren’t resolved now. And it reminds us that He cares. Armed with that assurance we can press ahead undaunted by life’s setbacks and questions of fairness.
The Real Purposes of Life
All things can’t be resolved or prevented here and now! We’re here to learn from actual experience what couldn’t be learned any other way. That learning is the very point of our lives!
To eliminate all the pain and unfairness now would destroy the very purposes of life and prevent us from learning crucial lessons through our own experience: the importance of being wise and careful; the consequences of exercising our collective agency unwisely; the difference between temporary pleasure, lasting happiness, and permanent joy. Especially we come to realize that we are absolutely dependent on Him even after all our best efforts. We’re just not powerful enough on our own. We need to learn all those things or we can’t rise to the full stature of our permanent, eternal potential. And we can’t really learn and know and understand fully unless we experience.
My own father passed away a year ago. it was sudden and unexpected, and I grieved deeply. But some tears were wiped away at the time through experiences I shared at his funeral. That was enough for now. I’ll see him again. He’s OK too. Life is eternal.
However, I agree that it’s not obvious that life is eternal. It’s deliberately kept hidden. At first.
Why? Because life is not just a school—it’s also a test.
What will we do with what we’re given? How much are we willing to search for, dig for, and sacrifice for when credible people tell us that those things exist? Our efforts are the measure of what we really want. And we’re required to work for what we want so we’ll appreciate what we receive, so those things will help us instead of hurting us, just as children benefit when they work for money instead of having it handed to them.
The Best Question Isn’t “Why?”
So, when you face your own tears, concerns, anger, and hurt, the best question isn’t “why?”
Since credible witnesses say that divine help is available, the best question is, “what do I need to do about it?”
“Am I willing to humble myself, listen, and learn?”
“Am I willing to try to obey commandments, even when it’s hard?”
“Am I willing to pray and persevere in prayer?”
“Am I willing to put myself in more places and situations where inspiration and answers can come?”
“Am I willing to get up early—even shorting my sleep—to dive more deeply into the scriptures?”
“Am I willing to talk with others who apparently have received answers and ask: ‘what do you recommend?’ ”
And when all of that doesn’t produce immediate results—as I experienced myself for months or years—am I willing to approach God and ask: “what do I yet lack?”
Brighter and Brighter
I’ve learned that the more effort and energy we’re willing to expend, the more we persevere and pray and ask and try to obey—especially when it’s hard—the faster the answers come. Power is energy over time.
Some of those answers will wipe away tears and turn sorrows into joy. They will turn our hearts even more towards Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father. We will trust and feel more assured of Christ’s caring and infinite power, which will help us obey the commandments even better. That will put us in a position to receive further light and knowledge from Him through the power and ministering of the Holy Spirit. And “that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (DC 50:24.)
And that’s what eventually makes everything in life infinitely fair and perfectly reasonable.
Every Good Thing Blog
Kevin Crenshaw is a Mormon who has served as a teacher and leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than 40 years. Although he makes every effort to be a careful student of LDS theology and history, the opinions expressed are his own. He is not authorized to speak officially on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
*The curious wording of the experience proved to be precise and significant. However, I still don’t know the reason for the word “daughters.” Kyle apparently had a son, not just daughters. Why mention just his daughters to me? Was someone else asked to reassure his son? Would Kyle assure him personally? The wording about “further light and knowledge in Isaiah” had two fulfillments, as so many revelations do. The second one came years later, as I finally faced my struggles with the Book of Isaiah and began to study it seriously as directed. I was led to a book called “The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation, With Interpretive Keys from the Book of Mormon.” The interpretive keys in the forward changed and opened my understanding of all scriptures in a profound way and opened the doors for more heavenly light and knowledge, as promised.
P.S. These events are written from memory without checking my journal, so I apologize in advance for any error in detail. In the event of any discrepancies, my missionary journal is the most accurate record.