Many Mormon missionaries who return home early feel some failure
LDS missionaries developing strategies to cope with stress
Ulrich said church members often don't know what to say because they don't know the circumstances. Too many assume the missionary did something wrong, though the UVU study found that only 12 percent came home because of an unresolved transgression that if confessed would have kept them from mission service in the first place, and just 11 percent were sent home for disobedience to mission rules.
Many find it easier to avoid the situation. She suggested saying: "I'm so glad to see you. I'm sorry things didn't work out the way you expected."
"It's really, really helpful to kids that people will talk to them," she said. "When a member of the military who was wounded or ill comes home, we treat them with a hero's welcome. Sometimes a missionary comes home and we don't treat them as well, even though they served well for the time they served, sometimes at great personal cost."
Missionaries who return early can take responsibility for their reception, too. She suggested they stand up in Relief Society or elders quorum and say: "For whatever reason, the mission didn't work out the way I intended. I'm home now. I love the Lord and I'm looking forward to what I'm doing next."
"That allows people to move forward," she said.
Ulrich also said early returning missionaries should seek therapy and find a mentor, someone not a parent, to meet with weekly about their plans and goals.
"I was ill on my mission and came home several weeks early," Ulrich said. "If I have one regret for myself, it's that I let myself get bogged down with this too long, thinking that it somehow was my fault that I got sick. That's easy for people with a bit of a perfectionist streak."
UVU's Doty, the professor who led the study, said parents struggle with guilt, grief and loss when a missionary son or daughter returns early.
"I can tell you how true that is," she said. "I am the mother of early returning missionaries. I can tell you of emotions and the struggle we feel, and you wonder, 'What did I do, what did I not do?' It had nothing to do with anything that I said or did. It was just circumstances.
"If I could turn back the clock or say or do anything differently with my early returning missionaries, I would pretty much give up my retirement for that, because I pretty much said some things that were kinda stupid. I did some things that were kinda stupid, all in the effort to get them back out (on their mission again), not really listening to what they needed."
Ulrich said Doty's experience is normal.
"This can be as hard on parents," she said, "and they feel a sense of failure. They assume that once their child is on a mission, everything will go right in their lives. It's hard for parents as well to get the encouragement and support they need. They don't want their kids to feel their parents are disappointed in them."
Sandberg said parents of early returning missionaries should get help. Then they need to push forward.
Doty said parents should start by making sure their child gets a full needs assessment done by a professional, one who listens to the returned missionary's needs and desires.
"We have to get past our own issues with this, because it's not about us, it's about our sons and our daughters. We've got to get past this 'It's all about me' phase and move on to 'What do they need, what can we do to help them and how can we help make their adjustment more comfortable?'
"We can do a lot to model for our children learning from a situation and not getting stuck in self-recrimination," she said. "God gives us the grace and power we need to overcome challenges and get on with our lives."
Bullock slipped into the room near the end of a family party one Thursday in October after presenting the findings of the UVU study, but the dark gray suitcase wasn't at the foot of his boyhood bed.
Five years after leaving it there, he finally was ready to open it.
Still, he was embarrassed — a successful graduate student on track to complete his studies in April, a man with a wife and two young children — to ask his mother where the luggage was.
In storage, she said, in the basement.
He had trouble finding it on a waist-high shelf until, finally, he saw the tag: "Italia."
He pulled the suitcase down and set it in the middle of the basement floor. He unzipped it. He opened the lid. He stared inside for what seemed like minutes.
"It was kind of overwhelming," he said. "I was kind of speechless. In that moment I realized I can move on from this. It doesn't have to be a bad memory."
He started to remove his things and place them on the floor around him. His favorite scriptures he'd had his whole life. The glasses he hadn't been able to find for years. Four hundred photos. His passport. Suits. Ties. Shoes.
Exhausted by two children under age 2, his wife, Teresa, was ready to go home until she found her husband on the floor in the basement, saw how excited he was.
"I figured that needed to be taken care of first," she said.
"I opened the suitcase," he said, "and it became one of the best days of my life, getting my scriptures back and reading my journal about all the great experiences I'd tried to bury."
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