Nielson had seen the extensive scarring on her body and on her husband’s face, but she couldn’t bear the thought of looking at herself in the mirror. And she especially couldn’t bear the thought of her children seeing their mother so disfigured (she had only spoken to them on the phone).
It was only after persistent prodding from doctors and family that she finally found the courage to look in the mirror, five weeks after waking from her coma. It was worse than she imagined.
“I felt like a monster,” Nielson says. But the hardest part was yet to come—seeing her children for the first time since the crash. “They came in expecting to see Mom, but I looked completely different. My youngest son, Nicholas, who was only two, didn’t remember me. He didn’t want anything to do with me. It ripped my heart out. Jane turned white as a ghost and wouldn’t look at me.”
Only Oliver seemed comfortable with his mother, happily pushing a toy car around her hospital bed. Claire remained in the hallway, refusing to see her mother after Jane warned her, “Don’t go in there.”
“It was awful,” Nielson says.
Gradually the children adjusted to their mother’s new face. Nielson has also come to accept her appearance, but she admits it is still hard at times.
“I still struggle with my scars,” she says. “I think I will for a while—forever, maybe. But I remember how grateful I am that I still have a face or a nose or things that I almost didn’t have. Then I look at my family and friends and think, ‘This is all worth it.’ I am a wife and a mother. The accident couldn’t take that away from me.”
She continues, “God gave us physical beauty, but what matters most is that we are a beautiful person on the inside. If we are, then our outside beauty will shine. I like to think that’s how my transformation is taking place—by making sure my heart is where it needs to be.”
Nielson says there are still bad days, but the love of her family makes her feel less self-conscious. “I’m not as worried about my appearance because I’ve got this beautiful family around me, and that’s what matters most. They don’t see me as someone who looks different or can’t do the things I used to. My husband sees me as the wife that he married, and my children just see me as Mom. I feel beautiful because I have a beautiful life.”
Nielson’s beautiful life is filled with purpose: to fulfill her roles as wife and mother and to share the hope of the gospel with the world—a mission she says she agreed to while still in her coma.
“I was with my grandmother, and I was given a choice,” she says. “I was told, ‘This is what’s going to happen if you stay here—you can do lots of missionary work with your grandmother and others who have passed before you, and there won’t be any suffering. Or you can go back to earth where you will have your husband and children but will probably be in constant pain.’”
She continues, “It was a hard choice—I don’t remember making it right away. But ultimately, I wanted to come back and finish my mortal life with my husband and children. I knew what an honor it is to have a body on this earth, and I wanted to finish what I started.” Before she returned, Nielson asked how she could make her life easier. She was told, “Share your hope.”
“This is my mission,” she explains. “I promised I would share the gospel with everybody who needed it. Through this accident, this is what I am supposed to do.”
Since the plane crash, Nielson has appeared on Oprah, 20/20, Today, Anderson Cooper, and given interviews to many other media outlets so she can share her story and her faith. She prays about each opportunity before she accepts. “If I don’t feel good about it, then I don’t do it,” she says. “But this is my calling, and I’m going to do it to fulfill my promise.”
But she admits that so much media attention can be draining. “It’s a little stressful to talk about things over and over again,” she says. “I want to sound hopeful and faithful, but I can’t even begin to explain how painful and difficult it was for me. I was in the depths of the worst place I could possibly be, but feeling God’s love and easing back into the things that I loved is how I got to where I am now. One of my favorite parts of my story is being able to be a missionary. Through my words and my story, people will see that there is a God.”
Another way Nielson shares the gospel is through her blog, which has about 30 million readers each month. She writes about the joys of being a wife, mother, and Mormon, and she offers to send a free copy of The Book of Mormon to anyone who requests one.
“I know of about 12 baptisms that have happened from giving away copies,” she says. “People send me their baptismal pictures. I get lots of emails from all over the world from people who have read The Book of Mormon. Some don’t necessarily want to be baptized but are grateful they know more about my faith. There are little seeds being planted, and I’m honored to be the one to introduce them to the gospel.”