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When Missionaries Can't Come "Home": How to Support Them When Family Life Changes While They Are Serving

by | Jul. 25, 2018

It was 10:30 on a Sunday night. Missionary Jensen Parrish was in her 13th month of serving an American Sign Language mission in the Vancouver, Washington, area when there was a knock on the door. “There stood the last two people we would have expected: our mission president and his dear wife, each wearing a grim expression,” she recalls. When the pair gave her a hug, she knew something was very, very wrong.

“With tears in his eyes and a shaky voice, my mission president told me the unthinkable. An accident had happened at my home back in Idaho. During the previous night, carbon monoxide had filled the house, killing my mom, dad, and my two youngest brothers, Keegan and Liam,” Jensen says.

The only other member of her family spared was another brother, Ian, who was serving in the South Dakota Rapid City Mission. She continues: “The next week, I flew to Salt Lake City and met Ian. It had been 18 months since we had seen each other, and I was so happy to see him. We flew walked off the plane with our arms around each other, greeting tearful members of our extended family. That is how our family saw us—as a united front intent on sticking together and leaning on each other for support.”

Sometime after the funeral and following a prompting received at general conference, Ian returned to the mission field. Jensen felt impressed to stay home and start writing a blog, sharing her experience and her testimony: “I’ve come to better love, appreciate, and understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I know that I will never fully understand it during this probationary stage of Heavenly Father’s eternal plan, but I do have a firm testimony of it. I’ve come to realize that the Atonement is not only given so that we can repent. The Atonement was given so that we can repent and be with our earthly families and our heavenly family forever. And for that, I am eternally grateful.”

While Jensen’s story is singular in scope, she is not alone in experiencing a drastic change in family life while away serving the Lord. Many missionaries return home to find circumstances irrevocably changed, leaving them feeling stranded and sometimes unable to “come home” to the life they knew before.

When Families Split

Jason*, 24, who served in the Dominican Republic, now has something in common with a man he’s never met—Kevin*, 31, who served in Thailand. Both experienced a massive upheaval of their family structure while they were on their missions: their parents divorced and remarried.

“I found out that my parents were getting a divorce just by checking my email,” Kevin shares. “I first saw an email from my mom that started with, ‘If you haven’t read the email from your dad, do that first.’ I stopped reading and checked the message from my dad. Together, both emails explained that my dad was divorcing my mom. He was also facing disciplinary action from the Church.”

Both missionaries describe feelings of shock and devastation—how had so much changed so suddenly? “I could not wrap my head around the idea of something so drastic happening back at home,” Kevin says.

“The most difficult thing was in the divisive messages from my family,” Jason explains. “I had some family members share that they wanted me to cut off contact with my dad because of all the pain he had caused our family. Others showed by example that our dad was still an important and loved part of our family.”

Upon returning “home,” neither one found solace. “I was quite worried when I came home, to be frank,” says Jason. “I had a new stepfather living in my old home as they tried to sell it, and my father was living in a city almost two hours away. Many people say college should be a missionary’s goal after returning home, but I had to frantically find work and a place to live as my world was being spun around. The confusion and difficulty in returning is hard enough without needing to add in how to provide for oneself that rapidly.”

Jason’s family “pretty much just pretended like nothing was different,” even though to Jason it felt like so much had changed. “It became kind of an uncomfortable elephant in the room that I wish we could have talked about, but that conversation just never happened.”

Despite the poor communication, the difficult circumstances, and the changes at home, both men share one more commonality in their experiences: perspective. Kevin says, “Dad was not a ‘bad guy’ to be cast out. He was someone who was hurting, even if he could be blamed for hurting everyone else.”

In considering his experience, Jason shares, “One of the things I learned about both divorce and life in general is that everyone has their own perceived truth, and only God knows the full story.” 

When Health Fails

Marco*, 23, learned that the face of a family can change on a dime. While serving in Argentina, he says, “My father’s mental state degraded very rapidly, caused by Alzheimer’s and dementia.” 

While he learned of the diagnosis via email about six months into his mission, he was unaware of the speed at which his father’s health was deteriorating.

“The most difficult part was watching my dad’s emails to me get shorter and shorter until they just vanished, then a few months later [to] start getting updates from my mom’s perspective.”

He continues: “Some say that the mission is the hardest part of our lives. For me, that might have been true, until I got home.” While his father remembered his name, Marco says, “It took some convincing that I was his son. He didn’t think I had come home from my mission ‘so soon.’”

As a returned missionary, Marco says he assumed the role of peacekeeper and caretaker of the family. “It was extremely stressful, even agonizing. Emotionally I was drained, and physically I was exhausted.” Compared to missionary service, he says, “It was a lot easier for me to help other families find happiness than it was to try and help restore my own family’s happiness. Eventually, I gave up on trying to return my family to what it was, and things got better from there.”

Now, looking back, he says, “I’ve been able to see God’s timing in all of it. I would wish that it wasn’t so bad when I got home, that I could have moved my life forward instead of delaying it as much as I did. But I gained valuable experience and I would have missed a lot if that had happened.”

When the Money Runs Out

Vickie, now 58, served her mission in Arequipa, Peru. While she was in the field, her father lost his job, leading to a circumstance where she literally couldn’t return to her physical home. “My parents lost their house, and they ended up moving into a rental property,” she says. “As it was, my expenses were paid for by some families in my ward.” When Vickie returned home, everything was different. The home was smaller, she ended up sharing a room with her youngest sister, and the move resulted in the family attending a new ward. All these changes were accompanied by feelings of guilt.

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“I should have been home helping out,” she lamented—a common feeling for missionaries whose families undergo drastic changes of any kind, but which especially hit home with Vickie as the eldest child. 

As she reviewed recorded experiences and blessings relating to her mission, however, she was able to recognize that she had made the right decision and that “those at home also have lessons they need to learn. And their journey is not necessarily the same as yours.”

When Family Leaves the Church

“My brother returned from his mission with honor and completely apostatized from the Church within one month of being home,” says Clint*, 21. “When I also returned home, he tried to convince me to follow him and wanted my parents to do the same. I began to question my faith and beliefs in ways I had never considered before.” In this emotionally charged time of transition, he felt awful. “I had no job, a lost family, and no friends. I was left alone to confront these doubts and worries on my own.”

So, too, was Tony*. He found out via email that his parents were leaving the Church during a bitter divorce. “What was most difficult for me about my circumstances was having no support or communication, both in the field and once I returned home,” he recalls.

Despite the changes in their families, both men have kept the faith. For Tony, though, it’s still a struggle. “I’m basically the outcast of my family; they’ve all left the Church, and they want nothing to do with me.”

Since the initial shock, Clint says his feelings “turned into greater love for [his brother], greater faith in God, and more compassion for all who have abandoned their faith.”

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