I'm not a parent yet. I can't fully sympathize with members of the Church whose children leave the fold. I can recognize, however, that in a church that places so much emphasis on eternal families, such a situation can be devastating.
Over the weekend I heard an interesting episode of "This American Life," a radio show on NPR. The second segment of the program was called "Letter Day Saint." It told the story of a LDS family struggling with this issue:
Rebecca was 16 years old when her mother Elizabeth died of cancer. But before she died, she wrote letters to Rebecca, to be given to her on her birthday each year for thirteen years. At first the letters were comforting, but as time went on, they had much more complicated effects. David Segal tells the story. David is a reporter for The New York Times.1The mother's letters often and repeatedly encouraged the daughter to marry in the temple and stay active in the Church. As the daughter drifted away, the father could learn and grow with the daughter, but the mother's perspective was frozen in time. The segment is only 14 minutes long, a free download is available here. It raises fascinating questions about the nature of family relationships in time and eternity.
I can think of at least two ways members of the Church help create strained relationships with family members who decide to leave the fold.2 First, is what Jeff Lindsay creatively labeled "honor chilling":
...cold treatment due to religious differences. Parents chilling their children, husbands chilling their wives, former best friends chilling each other--all because they are angry that someone has changed their religious views...Many Christians have struggled when a loved one becomes an atheist or joins a different religion, and folks from many other religions have had similar problems.3I don't have a creative label for the second phenomenon, but it occurs when well-meaning family members try to pressure a "lost sheep" back into the fold with constant reminders, expressions of disappointment, hints, etc. The more optimistic parents would likely be comforted and encouraged by this quote from Apostle Orson F. Whitney:
You parents of the willful and the wayward! Don't give them up. Don't cast them off. They are not utterly lost....Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return....Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God...4More recently (and perhaps more sympathetically towards the lost sheep), Elder Dallin H. Oaks urged Latter-day Saints to “never give up hope and loving associations with family members and friends whose fine qualities evidence their progress toward what a loving Father would have them become….We should never give up on loved ones who now seem to be making many wrong choices.”5
This encouragement might be taken to mean parents should repeatedly and specifically address a child's decision to become inactive...for years. Some "lost sheep" might bleat: "I leave the Church and they won't leave me alone!" I believe it's important to find ways to be supportive of and loving towards family members and friends without making that love and support conditional upon whether a person remains active in the Church.
Check out the podcast to see how one LDS mother tried to keep it together, even after death. Parents seeking practical advice can also check out Vickey Taylor's "The Sariah Dilemma: Finding Increased Faith When Our Children Misplace Their Own" from the 2009 FAIR Conference. Spencer W. Kimball's struggles with his own son, Spencer, who left the Church are recounted in Edward L. Kimball's Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball.
Episode 401, "Parent Trap," This American Life, 19 February 2010. The image is Sam Brown, "there is a possibility," Exploding Dog Comics, 16 November 2009.
I also recognize that those who leave the Church are not always blame-free in terms of family difficulties, etc. I believe members of the Church often hold the higher cards in the poker game that is the family, though.
Jeff Lindsay, "A Barbaric Practice: Honor Chillings," mormanity.blogspot.com, 19 October 2009.
Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report (April 1929): 110.
Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 32–34.