How to Help
While each family’s circumstance is unique, when it comes to change and loss while a missionary is still in the field, there are pitfalls to avoid and best practices to put in place.
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1. Keep in Contact
It may be tempting to think that not telling a missionary about something difficult will be better for them. While we should certainly pray for guidance in our individual circumstances, know that by withholding information, we may be hurting our missionaries more than we realize.
Kayla, 27, was serving in Thailand when her dad entered rehab for alcoholism. “I wish that I would have been more fully informed of what was happening more quickly,” she says. “The information I got from home was scattered, spotty, and delayed. I knew that no one wanted to give me all of the information because they didn’t want it to affect my mission, but if I’d had all the information I could have spent less time worrying and wondering and thinking the worst and more time learning to cope with the changes and focusing on the work I was doing.”
Keep in mind that missionaries often communicate with many people from home. It is best if they hear about the changes directly from the people affected and not second- or third-hand from friends, ward members, or others. Additionally, increasing the time between the event and telling a missionary may create a sense of betrayal when they do find out what happened, so it’s generally best to tell your missionary as soon as you are able.
Many missionaries, whether partially or fully informed, express frustration and a feeling of helplessness when difficult changes occur at home. You can make their feeling of distance smaller by telling your missionary how they can help from where they are. Ask your missionary for their prayers. Have them write down their insights about the situation and send them to you or other family members in need. Even the smallest thing can help your missionary feel like a part of the solution and like they are supporting your family during this time of change.
2. Ease the Homecoming Stress
Life has happened. The family situation has changed. Hopefully, your missionary is aware of some details about the change, but there’s more to be done.
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Irene*, 22, whose parents divorced and mother remarried while she was in the field, shares, “I had an anxiety attack the night before I left my mission. I was completely terrified to go home because so much had changed and so [many] of the changes were a complete mystery to me. The night I got home, I went to the stake center to get released, and I broke down in tears in front of my stake president because I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep that night. All of my things had been packed up and moved to a storage room to make room for my new stepsister. It was like [I had been] ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
LDS family therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW, and owner of Wasatch Family Therapy explains what it’s often like for missionaries returning to changed homes: “There is a wide range of feelings a missionary might have when coming home to a different family situation. These emotions can range from shock [to] sadness, anger, numbness, or grief.” She says it’s also important for the missionary and their family to “remember that the missionary will have their own time frame for dealing with the family change.
Often, the missionary in the field has been isolated from the details, severity, or process of the family change that has occurred. As a result, the missionary may be in a different phase of the grieving process than the rest of the family.”
So how can family members help returned missionaries come to terms with what has happened? “Listen to the missionary and validate his or her feelings about the situation,” she advises. “Let the missionary ask questions and get caught up on the information that other family members already have. Even if the situation is in the past (the divorce is final, the financial ruin is on the upswing, the funeral is over), the emotions the missionary has are not in the past. Don’t expect the missionary to immediately accept the change. He or she will need to process their feelings about it just like everyone else has had the opportunity to do.”
Dr. de Azevedo Hanks shares one final note, which was echoed by many missionaries experiencing familial life transitions: “If a family member or if the entire family is having difficulty moving beyond a tragedy or life transition, reach out for some professional counseling.”
Dr. Jonathan Decker, a licensed family therapist, offers this faith-filled perspective: “Missionaries who come back to a home that is radically different from the one they left will find that their missions prepared them for this. As missionaries, they experienced the pain of falling in love with a place, only to leave it when transferred. They know the heartbreak of growing deeply attached to people, then having to say goodbye. Change is part of adulthood, and for many of them adulthood started when they left home to serve a mission.”
He continues, “While the feelings may be intensified because of family ties and nostalgia, elders and sisters who draw upon their experience serving the Lord will find that the same things will help them through this transition: faith in Jesus Christ, service to others, living a purposeful life, chasing goals, connection, and the earned hardiness that helped them survive all those months away.”
3. Learn from Those Who Have Been There
Returned missionaries who have experienced drastic changes in their families echo experts’ advice and offer some tips of their own:
“Turn to Jesus Christ. He knows your pain and He knows how to comfort you. Be patient with yourself; it is okay to feel the emotions you do.”
—Jerilynn, 22, who was serving in Charlotte, North Carolina, when there was a death in her immediate family
“Give yourself a minute to process, but in that process turn toward the Lord. Use the Atonement. Also, remember that the pain and grief aren’t forever.”
—Larissa, 20, who was serving in Rostov-na-Donu, Russia, when her grandfather, grandmother, and a childhood pet passed away
“Rely on the Lord. Trust His plan. Read your scriptures every second you have. Continue to be close to your Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ. Use your experience to strengthen your testimony. We are able to support and have compassion for others by our experiences. If you need down time, it’s okay. You’re human and just had a huge life change. The Lord is mindful of you. From my mom dying, I had experiences that will never let me drift away from the true gospel. The day my mother died, I felt the comfort of the Holy Ghost. It was the most ultimate feeling of comfort and peace I have ever felt. I cannot deny that ever. Look for the blessings like that to remember forever to keep you grounded in the Church.”
—Jessica*, 36, who was serving in the Spain Málaga Mission when her mother passed away from cancer
Home Is Where the Heart Is
My family knows firsthand how hard family transitions can be while sacrificing for missionary service. My parents divorced and both found new spouses while my two brothers were in the mission field. It was a struggle when my brothers “came home” to find our family so changed.
Lucky for us, while change may seem to be the only constant in our lives, we can find comfort in scriptures like Mormon 9:9, which states: “Do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?” The things that are most important will not change.
The home that matters most—our heavenly home—will always be the same yesterday, today, and forever, unchanged and waiting for us to return.
* Name has been changed
Lead image from Shutterstock
This article was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of LDS Living magazine.