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.”
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 FamilyTherapy 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 adifferent 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 theJuly/August 2018 issue of LDS Living magazine.