Unconditional love, acceptance and empathy were the overarching themes offered by speakers presenting on some of the struggles early return LDS missionaries face.
Every year thousands of women come to the BYU campus for a two-day session specifically catered to women both young and old. Those who attend are able to pick from a number of different classes offered all across the campus.
One of the May 3 sessions was centered on ways families can love and support their missionaries who return from their service early. Speakers included LDS family therapist Linda Wilson, mother of an early return missionary Becky Poulter and former mission president Paul W. Salisbury.
“A mission is full of surprises and the unexpected,” Wilson said, launching into one story a missionary once told her involving a dead dog, a suitcase and a thief, “but the one thing missionaries don’t expect is an early return.”
Wilson went on to share her perspective as a LDS family therapist regarding the challenges an early return missionary faces. She also offered some ways the family can gracefully and empathetically help their child navigate those difficulties.
“We don’t need to focus on being sorry that they are back. Just tell them ‘welcome home’ and mean it,” Wilson said.
Normalizing, neutralizing and navigating are three words Wilson said families should use to guide their actions both immediately after the child returns and even years down the road.
“First of all we need to normalize the anxiety they feel where they feel they are facing the world,” Wilson said.
According to Wilson those feelings are real and valid. Therapy and other mental health treatment may be a good option for the young adult. A little known fact is every return missionary qualifies for six sessions of free therapy if they contact LDS family services within the first sixty days, according to Wilson.
Early return missionaries often struggle with feelings of guilt and shame as they face the world, the family and themselves, Wilson said. A big reason for this is they feel alone, which is why she said she encourages these individuals to meet with other young adults going through the same thing.
“Another thing we can do is thank our dear RM’s for their service they have given regardless of how long it was and treat them as a return missionary,” Wilson said.
Ultimately it is instrumental to remember that early return missionaries are not failures. The family can be instrumental in helping their loved one remember this, Wilson said, “We just need to be sensitive of where they are.”
“We need to create a climate of acceptance, healing and hope.” Wilson finished.
Becky Poulter said before her son left for his mission he jokingly told his family the only way he would home early would be in a casket.
Out in the field four months later he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety. The challenges Poulter said her son faced compounded and he was eventually sent home, which he described as the hardest thing he had ever done.
“My mission which was supposed to be the best two years became the most soul jarring and destructive event of my life,” Poulter’s son said.
Poulter said she struggled watching her son suffer. All she wanted to do was to help and fix all of his problems, but she said she learned to give him time to heal and make his own decisions.
“We needed to love him where he was at,” Poulter said. “That’s what Christ did for us.”
According to Poulter, parents and family members are the ones in it for the long hall. Healing and recovery take time, as they should, and the family should be the ones offering their return missionary the unconditional support everyone deserves.
God’s kindness and his love for their son became a recurring theme for the two years after he returned, Poulter said, “I had to let go of previous expectations.”
Poulter called the women in attendance the nurturers and keepers of the heart.
“In this role I learned that hugs can be better than words. There were a lot of times where I wouldn’t know what to say so I would just find my son and hug him,” she said.
Poulter encouraged the mothers to trust in the atonement so they can trust in their child. Give them the freedom to fail and fall. Mostly though she said it is important that through all of these challenges they can create spaces for joy.
“As a mother we are creating spaces. A space for healing. A space where our children can be angry or sad. A space of love,” Poulter finished.