Heather Christensen Funeral, American Fork Tabernacle
Elder Bruce C. Hafen, October 16, 2009
Heather’s family, brothers and sisters, and Heather’s other special family, the “band
family,” I bring you the love and the deepest sympathy of President Thomas S. Monson,
his counselors, and the other General Authorities. They have asked me to represent them
here. Sister Hafen and I have two granddaughters who are members of the band. One of
them was sitting across the aisle from Heather last week when that bus rolled off the
road. With all of you, we ache and we mourn that we have lost Heather, whose young life
was still so full of promise. She had given so much, and still had so very much to give.
But we also rejoice that her life—the way she lived it and the way she gave it--will
always stand as a shining example of how the rest of us should live and give our own
Last Tuesday night as the band performed at the BYU stadium the tears came again as we
watched the dancing white angel offers that memorable tribute to Heather: “Greater love
hath no man than [to] lay down his life for his friends.” (Matt 15:13) We looked around
the stadium and saw how many people have been moved by this whole, incredible
experience—the tragic part about losing Heather, and the heroic part, that her actions
protected many precious young men and women from terrible injuries and even death.
I suspect there are some in Heather’s family and in the band family who wonder why this
has become such a public event. How can all of these people have any idea about the
trauma and grief that only those who knew Heather personally or were directly involved
in the accident can really understand? It’s true that the rest of us CAN’T know fully what
it was like to be there, how it feels to be adjusting back to daily life now. Some of you
were probably so relieved to see the sun come up again last Sunday morning, that
familiar light once more breaking the darkness to reassure you that somehow life will go
on. But many of us have had similar experiences. So we know that time and the Lord’s
Spirit will heal your wounds and things will return to normal, but in many ways you’ll
never be quite the same—and that’s a good thing, because you’ve been learning some
truly unforgettable lessons about life.
Years ago in a great discourse he called “Tragedy or Destiny,” President Spencer W.
Kimball mentioned several fatal accidents. Then he said that humans naturally try to
prevent all pain, but that is not the Lord’s way. The Lord has good reasons for wanting
us, like Christ, to learn and grow from the things that we suffer. Some things can be
learned in no other way. President Kimball said that if his own priesthood power were
unlimited, he would have tried to protect Abinadi from the flames and Joseph Smith from
the mob. He would have tried to rescue Christ from his suffering in Gethsemane and the
cross. But, he said, “I might have saved him from suffering and death, and lost to the
world his atoning sacrifice.”
He continued, “If we looked at mortality as the whole of existence, then pain, sorrow,
failure, and short life would be calamity. But if we look upon life as an eternal thing,
stretching far into the premortal past and on into the eternal post-death future, then all
happenings may be put in proper perspective.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said that sometimes the best people have the worst
experiences, because they are the most willing to learn. Look at some of the life lessons
we can learn from Heather and from this past week:
Remember Joan of Arc, the teen-aged French girl who led an entire army and was burned
at the stake because she would not renounce her beliefs? The playwright Maxwell
Anderson has Joan say in the last moments of her life: “Every person gives his life for
what he or she believes. Some people believe in little or nothing, and yet they give their
lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living
it and then it is gone. But to surrender what you are and live without belief is more
terrible than dying, even more terrible than dying young.”
So Heather’s lesson number one is, don’t waste your life on trivial, vain, worldly things.
Give your life, even a day at a time, for what really matters—like your relationships with
God and your family, and caring more about others than about yourself. Many of you
have already felt that message. As one member of the band wrote in her journal, “It will
never be the same. I’m going to live for others. I’ll stop worrying about my own grief and
start worrying about the grief others feel.”
Lesson two, learn from Heather to steer your bus clear of all the terrible, dangerous
places your bus of life could hit. We must develop discipline and righteous habits, so that
when panic or temptation suddenly hits us, we can be like Heather and react immediately
from pure instinct to solve the problem, with the courage to act, even if no one else is
acting. When such moments come, you simply don’t have time to sit there worrying
about yourself. So we make our choices BEFORE the split second of decision hits. We
have already decided: when that moment comes, here’s how I MUST act.
What Heather did in her final moments was completely in character for her, reflecting the
way she had lived for years. She wrote her master’s thesis on, “How to help kids with
disabilities learn music.” Her whole life was never all about Heather. It was about helping
other people. What does her story tell you about the difference one person can make?
Never doubt that what you do—or don’t do—really matters. Be the one who makes the
Lesson three, be like a shepherd and not like a hired person. Heather literally gave her life
to save her friends. All of us whose loved ones were on that bus will feel an everlasting
debt of gratitude to her. This really does help us visualize what it means that Christ
actually gave his life for us.
Jesus taught us that when someone is just “hired” to watch his sheep, when the wolf
comes, the hireling runs away—“because his own the sheep are not.” Then he said, but I
am the Good shepherd; I give my life for the sheep. In our marriages, our family life, and
living our other covenants, let us not run away when the wolves come. Let us remain
committed to our sheep—those we love the most—no matter how fierce the wolves who
threaten us. In this sense, let us give each other what one of the “band dads” said Heather
had given to his children: it is as if she has given these kids a second chance at life—a
kind of rebirth.
Lesson four, let us learn to be meek and gentle and unselfish, like Heather. One of her
friends said of her, she was “the kind of person we take for granted, knowing she will
always be there to serve us. The person you never notice until you see the gaping hole she
leaves behind.” This quality let Heather find joy in the success of others—her students.
What a gift, what a lesson, for those of us who only think of our own success. When
someone else succeeds, some of us are more likely to feel jealousy than to feel joy. Being
able to take satisfaction in the good things that other people experience is what brings joy
to good parents, to teachers, and to the Lord himself. How great is His joy when he sees
our joy. Developing that quality of empathy will be a mark of our own true maturity.
This quality let Heather teach the way she did to one student: She said, “I’m not saying
you’re fat or stupid. I’m just saying you’re off your dot.” Any good band member knows
those are the dots on the chart that marks the movements of their marching routine. So in
all the movements of our lives, Heather would tell us, stay “on your dot” –I’m counting
on you. She also would not want the band kids to stay sad after today. She would say,
focus on the future. Know that I’m ok—and if you’ll stay on your dot, then just connect
those dots and follow them, and I’ll meet you here where the music is truly heavenly.
Some of you wonderful young men and women are feeling for the first time the chill and
bitter wind of death’s door opening in your faces. I know that feeling. I know the
questions you are asking, the pangs of hurt and bewilderment in your hearts. When I was
your age, I lost an older brother in a terrible car accident – a fire engine came out of
nowhere and broadsided the car he was driving. Until that time in my life, death and
funerals were something for old people. But something about that experience affected me
deeply, teaching me a new seriousness about life.
After that funeral, one of my father’s friends told him, “I would give anything in the
world to have a boy like that waiting for me.” Heather’s family, you have a girl like that
waiting for you. I have two older brothers like that waiting for me. I long for them.
Teenagers seldom have to deal with death. They feel invincible, taking risks, living fast,
and loving life. Someone I know once described a bunch of kids getting into the back of
an old pickup at the top of American Fork Canyon. Their driver would coast down the
canyon with ever increasing speed, trying to see how fast they could go without rolling
over. In this joyriding dance toward death, the kids pounded the truck’s cab, yelling
In those days, Utah high school kids used the phrase “like there’s no tomorrow” to
describe any awesome performance -- that halfback runs like there’s no tomorrow, that
girl sings like there’s no tomorrow. I remember a song from that era. “There’s no
tomorrow when love is new, there’s no tomorrow for lovers true. So kiss me and hold me
tight. There’s no tomorrow, there’s just tonight.” I know the carefree, limitless feeling of
thinking there’s no tomorrow. But an experience with death, at any age, confronts us with
a stark reality—there IS tomorrow. And because we have the gospel, our reaction to that
stunning truth is – of COURSE there is tomorrow. Thank heaven there is tomorrow. “So
kiss me and hold me tight” in a way that lets our love last forever. Because there is
tomorrow, all our yesterdays have meaning, and all of our todays have a purpose.
For Heather, tomorrow came a little early, but she was ready. And there she is now,
waiting for you, cheering for you—the way she coached and cheered her students on. For
the rest of your lives, the other side of the veil will always feel closer to you. You will
find yourself thinking, “Heather, I won’t let you down. Wait for me. I want to be with
you. Save me a seat, Heather, will you?”
In this mellow mood, may you listen to the whisperings of the Spirit. You are as the
armies of Helaman. You have been taught in your youth. You must be the Lord’s
missionaries, to bring the world His truth – the truth for which Heather’s own life and
testimony stand. As you do that, Heather will know you “got it”—you understood her
last, majestic message -- there IS “tomorrow” – and she will save that seat for you. Like
Heather, you can have eternal life if you want it, so long as you don’t want anything else
Finally, there’s a good reason why our hearts are so heavy today. Heather is gone, but she
will be fine. Yet we feel grief like a great hole within us. We are discovering the pain and
the power of what the Lord called living together in love. Part of what makes love so
precious is the fear that, through death or sin, we could one day lose it. Even when love
wounds us, that is because love matters so much. The deep hurt is the mirror image of the
deep joy that still waits for us.
So our ache today wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so good. It reminds us how much we
mean to each other. It reminds us that we want to live so that we will not be shut out from
the place where love lasts forever, and homesickness is no more. Today’s ache fills us
with longing, and that longing will pull us Home. And on some bright future day we will
resume our lively conversations with Heather.
I testify that Christ lives. The gospel is true. There is tomorrow, and if we choose the
things Heather did, tomorrow will be filled with joy. When we arrive where she is, oh the
songs we will sing, and the dances we will dance! And when that day comes for those of
us in this room, it won’t surprise me at all to learn that Heather helped choreograph the
singing and dancing.
May the Lord bless Heather’s family, the students in the band and their families, and
everyone else affected by this great loss. . . .
I invoke a blessing on Heather's family, the band family, and all those who love Heather.
I bless you with peace and comfort. I bless you with purpose in your decisions. I bless
you to be able to live life in care of others, and I bless you that your grief be replaced
with joy and hope. I bless you with a vision of the Lord waiting for you--for at that time,
there will be music and a glorious dance. And it wouldn't surprise me if Heather was
there to choreograph the whole thing.