Getting Life: Called to leave: How to parent missionaries

Published: Saturday, March 12 2011 6:00 a.m. MST

My grandmother, mother and I all served missions, so I was delighted when my firstborn announced her intent to serve, submitted her papers and received her call.

Little did I know.

Nobody told me about that wrenching scene at the Missionary Training Center where they cheerfully announce, “Parents and families go this way; missionaries go that way.” As if we were going to two different Disneyland rides instead of two different lives. (This send-off has since changed.)

Or the millennial wait for the first letter from the field assuring me my child is not, in fact, dying of starvation, stuck with Cruella de Vil for a companion or the victim of a terrorist plot.

Or the nightmares — how can they just skip over the nightmares? — about her getting dengue fever or disappearing like they do in the opening scenes of "Without a Trace."

OK, so I’m a little paranoid. But really, whose idea was this anyway?

I guess I should confess that all three of my children returned safely from their missions, and I was not hospitalized for reverse-homesickness. I know it doesn’t always go that way, but it did for me, and more often than not it does for others. The mortality rate is lower for missionaries than for comparable groups of young adults not on missions, and that holds true even when those comparable groups are not living on a remote island with no medical attention or sweating in the jungles of Ghana — or Boise.

So, you ask, how did I survive this unnatural assault on my every maternal instinct?

I survived the way my mother survived when I left on a mission, and her mother and her mother before her. I worried and prayed. I wrote letters and sent packages. I talked to others who had also said goodbye for a long time to the people they loved most in all the world. Then I simply lived long enough to see them come home and when they did I was grateful beyond words.

A few things I’ve learned from my experience and that of others:

1. It is just as hard with the third one as it was with the first. Sorry.

2. Don’t be surprised if there is a blowup in the weeks before she goes. It is very common for families to find some way to have a big fight just before a beloved child leaves for college or a mission — perhaps it is a way to loosen the ties a bit and avoid more tender feelings. If it happens, don’t panic. Do apologize and make things right.

3. Some of them will come home early, come home broken or come home on the way out the doors of the LDS Church. In many cases these challenges would have caught up with them anyway. In other cases there is still something to be learned or gained from the experience, even if it takes a long time. And in those cases when the loss seems irreparably soul-shattering, even life-ending, surely there is some special medal of valor in the eternities for those who lost their lives, physically or otherwise, in the service of the Lord. And for those who loved them and let them go.

4. Trust them. I wasn't perfectly prepared to launch into adulthood and I survived. Chances are good they will as well. If they can figure out the new cell phone faster than I can, maybe they can figure out the rest of the world without me, too.

5. Trust yourself. The home teacher speaking at a missionary farewell in my ward said, “I know the Plilers have honorably fulfilled their stewardship for their son.” I’m quite sure that’s true. But Plilers are probably the last to know it.

6. And finally, trust the Lord. Those rude associates, lackluster companions and stressed church leaders are also his children, as precious to him as this precious child of yours. He knows how to save us all. This is the message we send to the world on the smiles and hopes of our sons and daughters.

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., M.B.A., psychologist, author, and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."

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