LDS kids aren’t taught that families will be together forever; they’re taught families can be together forever. This actually means families might be together forever. In Mormon doctrine, eternal relationships are dependent on whether family members qualify for the celestial kingdom. Members of the church must “prove” themselves worthy or they’ll be cut off not only from God but from those they love.
Henry B. Eyring explains, “The great test of life is to see whether we will hearken to and obey God’s commands…And the tragedy of life is to fail in that test and so fail to qualify to return in glory to our heavenly home.” He further insists it won’t be easy but will require “unshakable faith.” Can you imagine being a kid and hearing messages like this?
Some children don’t spend time thinking about whether their family will be eternal, but others have reasons to worry. These children believe that eternal separation from someone they love is either likely or inevitable. For them, the idea that “families can be together forever” leads to pain, anxiety, and even despair.
The “families can be together forever” doctrine has been adding trauma to children, particularly those who have been abused, who are gay, or who have a non-traditional “Mormon” family.
The following are excerpts of some of the stories that have been shared with me. I will let these stories speak for themselves.
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I was molested as a child. I never really received the therapy I should have gotten. I often played out my trauma with dolls. From a very young age, I believed I was a bad kid. I tried repenting for my mistakes but still felt like it didn’t help. I was excited when I was baptized to have a clean slate and try to not do bad things so I could now be a good kid and get to be with my family forever. But that didn’t last very long. I remember when I was 13 and I accidentally discovered that my body could orgasm…I believed I was doomed to fail and would never be with my family forever. I was a rotten egg. I got interested in boys and was doing things my parents wouldn’t approve of, and definitely, God wouldn’t approve of. I knew I was letting him down.
“I was molested as a child…I believed I was doomed to fail and would never be with my family forever…I used to believe the plan of salvation was a beautiful thing, but it’s caused more guilt, depression, and enxiety than almost any other belief.”
I was so depressed and suicidal. The lessons in young women’s were the worst. We always talked about chastity, how morality issues are almost as bad as committing murder. That I was chewed gum. Who would want me?… Somehow I managed to find a man who took me through the temple. I didn’t feel worthy, even though at the time I was able to answer all the temple questions truthfully. I still felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. You can’t un-chew gum…I felt so worthless. My whole life feeling like I had an impossible standard to meet so I could be with my family and not let them down. But honestly, it’s the hardest now. I don’t believe it anymore…there’s still a part of me that worries about what happens if I’m wrong. I used to believe the plan of salvation was a beautiful thing, but it’s caused me more guilt, depression, and anxiety than almost any other belief.
I was molested by two siblings until I was 11 years old. I never felt clean, perfect or worthy. I was terrified of leaving the church or not having enough faith because I felt I had done something to deserve being hurt, and that my faithfulness would keep my siblings from the fires of hell…I tried to “pray the pain away” but still felt so inadequate, unworthy, and damaged. Bishops who asked me what I did to bring this on, or wondered why I became sexually promiscuous as a teen but did nothing when I reported the abuse only contributed to my feelings of not wanting to be sealed to my abusers forever. I mean, think about it just for a moment: Can you imagine the horror of a 7-year-old child thinking they’re going to endure this abuse or at the least have to be with this person forever?
I was 13 years old when my brother died from a ruptured brain aneurysm on his mission. Of all my 5 brothers he was the one that I was closest to. Standing over his grave my mother said, “Our job now is to live our lives in such a way that we’ll be worthy to live with [him] again”. I was devastated because I knew I’d not ever see my brother again because I wasn’t worthy already. I had been sexually assaulted by another brother when I was 9 years old. I thought that it must have been my fault because I had already been baptized and should have known better somehow. It affected my sense of self-worth for years and compounded the trauma I experienced because of the assault.
For most of my childhood and teenage life, I was very scared that in the pre-earth life I was un-righteous because I had severe depression. A lot of that depression was brought on by the weight, responsibility, and even extortion of the false doctrine that eternal families require certain behaviors/requirements to be eternal…[One of my brothers] was in severe trouble from a young age…I would watch the movie “Saturday’s Warrior” and cry at the loss of our families. “Jimmy” (the rebellious teen hurting his family by making bad choices) reminded me of my brother and I could only think of him this one way because of that doctrine…to me he was damned…
“…my suffering of abuse was worth it to my dad…he was sharing the gospel of eternal families with his side of the family.”
[Besides this, my] father felt responsible to cater to his abusive extended family. [Although the] abuse from my father’s family persisted within the walls of our own home…during every visit…my suffering of abuse was worth it to my dad if he could just continue to pretend that he was sharing the gospel of eternal families with his side of the family. At one point after my protests towards being involved with his family, my father even made the declaration “I am the priesthood holder, I make the decisions.” He made it very clear he felt responsible to give them many chances to receive salvation. That weight on his shoulders ruined my childhood and [my] relationship with [my dad.]
I was barely 3 years old when I was sexually abused by a pair of American missionaries of the Mormon church. They had come over for dinner. My father worked abroad and my mother was either neglectful and didn’t notice the tell-tale signs of abuse or ignored it. At around 9 or 10 years old, while still in primary, the girls started getting lessons about chastity, saving yourself for marriage, staying pure for your husband and God. It was taught that if you are unchaste then no man would marry you.
“This meant I’d not get into the Celestial Kingdom…I was reminded of this every single Sunday in some way or another.”
This is when I started putting two and two together. I realized that what had happened to me meant that I was un-pure. I was not a virgin therefore undesirable. I’d never get married and I’d certainly not be sealed in the temple as I’d not be allowed in there! This meant I’d not get into the Celestial Kingdom…I was reminded of this every single Sunday in some way or another. I started losing faith. I started losing the will to live. Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was who my family was, it was at the core of everything we did and I was failing the church and my family. I became secretive and rebellious. My mental health plummeted. I self-harmed and tried to take my life.
By around age 12, I realized I’m gay. I remember thinking, If what they teach at church is all true then I’m going to end up in a different reality than my family. I don’t think I ever fully believed the doctrine, but I was consistently scared it might be true. I started having sexual experiences from a really young age and it was all really confusing for me. I started distancing myself from my family. There’s not a space for homosexuality in the Mormon plan. If you seek official answers about homosexuality in the church, you’ll hear we love and accept everybody, but you really have two options: celibacy or finding a way to make a heterosexual relationship “work for you”. Neither of those ever felt like a real option to me. I just knew I couldn’t do it.
“Most 14-year-olds don’t constantly worry about their eternal state of being…but I did…Mormonism left me with no way to win. It still feels like spiritual abandonment.”
That meant I was the black sheep of the family. That’s largely what drove my teenage depression. I just felt so different and eternally hopeless. Most 14-year-olds don’t constantly worry about their eternal state of being…but I did. I’d go back and forth between trying things the Mormon way and then giving up and acting out—which led to shame. The shame led to depression and thoughts of suicide for weeks at a time. Then, for weeks, I’d go crazy by stealing stuff and having sex with strangers—just to be radically different. It felt empowering—like a double fuck-you to my parents. Mormonism left me with no way to win. It still feels like spiritual abandonment.
[My story is about the impact of this doctrine on my daughter.] My sweet daughter sobbed in the car and asked me why I wouldn’t stop drinking so that I could come back to church. A handful of beers on the weekend an alcoholic does make (in Mormon eyes) and her active LDS family made sure she knew what I supposedly was. I tried in vain to explain my lack of church activity to her. I refused to rip my child in half by directly telling her that the Mormon Church’s rhetoric on church activity was what was actually hurting our family. I tried to tell her that one person’s truth isn’t everyone else’s truth. But she didn’t understand and I couldn’t blame her.
“If you don’t come to church you won’t be in heaven with daddy, the boys, and me when we die! Why can’t you just come to church?! PLEASE!”
The church’s stance was so easily black and white. I existed in a world of grey that she was just not yet old enough see. She turned to me, tears shimmering in her eyes, almost indignant in her tone, “If you don’t come to church you won’t be in heaven with daddy, the boys, and me when we die! Why can’t you just come to church?! PLEASE!” I’ll never forget that moment. It was so filled with fear, heartbreak, and desperation for us both…[I told her] “Baby, I’m sorry this hurts you so much…I’m happy for you to attend church with daddy, but it’s not a place I can be anymore.” She curled up in the seat and turned her back to me. My hurting baby quietly let her tears fall and wanted no comfort from the woman who had just so decidedly broken her heart.
This story is mainly about my dad, who has since passed on. His mom was a faithful member who died of cancer, 2 days before his 15th birthday. My dad…carried so much guilt throughout his life. As a grown man in his 60’s, he’d still feel bad about masturbating as a teenager and how it prevented him from passing the sacrament…His whole life was lived in constant anxiety that if he screwed up, he’d not only not be with his family, but never see his mom again.
When I was a kid my parents didn’t attend church and weren’t LDS so I would attend church with friends from the neighborhood. It was very painful when we would sing “Families Can Be Together Forever” because I knew my family didn’t qualify for that. It hurt me throughout my life until I married in the temple. Then I figured I would at least have my husband and children with me. Now I’m a mother of 3 children and my oldest is gay, and I was once again worrying about not having my son forever. Luckily, after having gone through a faith crisis because of this, I now believe differently.
I was always scared and sad in Primary because my Mormon mom had a “secret” booze and cigarette problem. Teaching that kind of separation is child abuse.
My three older sisters left the church when I was young. I was constantly fed messages from church and my parents about how great my concern and fear should be for their eternal souls. I would sometimes lie awake at night absolutely terrified for them and their unsure destiny. I remember crying to friends and leaders about [how] worried I was about them and was usually fed with “well God will work it out” or more commonly “Just keeping being a good example to them.” There was definitely a very specific type of stress associated with being the sister who is still “active” and feeling the responsibility to “set a good example”, even make (inappropriate) calls to repentance while simultaneously fearing for their eternal souls…It has taken years for me to mend the relationship with my sisters—we were so divided by this doctrine.
When I was 7 I was adopted into the foster family I stayed with on and off through my life to that point. I was taken from my birth parents due to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. I was taught by my foster family all the beliefs of their church (LDS) and I lived in fear of my past “sins” the expectation of perfection from someone who came from such a traumatic childhood seemed impossible to me. I always tried so so hard but never could I was always falling into behaviors that were considered sinful by the LDS church.
“I think even kids without past trauma are confused and terrified by the “families can be together forever” doctrine.”
My adoptive parents had me baptized and sealed to them the minute the adoption finalized and it was incredibly traumatic for me because I knew from that point on everything I did would get me a check mark or an X on God’s list…I think even kids without past trauma are confused and terrified by the “families can be together forever” doctrine…[As an adult] I have completely severed the cords of that belief and it no longer causes me pain. I will never forget though all those years that it did.
My parents were never sealed. I wasn’t “born in the covenant” though they were active members. When I was in young women’s the leaders put together this big special event. They told us that we had died and were now exploring what happens after death. The first room was completely pitch black and silent. We weren’t allowed to make a sound or stand near anyone else. We were told it was outer darkness. We visited the telestial world which was dirty and dark and someone was yelling at us and saying mean things. We then visited the terrestrial world, which was filled with “worldly” things. Then we went into the chapel. Every single one of the other girls’ parents was there, dressed in white, happily waiting for their daughter to join them…except mine. My parents didn’t show up. I don’t remember why they didn’t come that night, but I remember sitting in a pew alone, bawling my eyes out. The bishop saw I was emotional, and instead of comforting me or leaving me alone, he asked me to stand and bear my testimony over the pulpit. I sobbed through the whole thing…and I hated my parents for not being there and not being sealed.
Any real anxiety I had about whether we would be together as a family existed because of the doctrine of degrees of glory. I have always been taught that I can visit people in lower kingdoms but not in higher kingdoms. To me, that felt like multiple degrees of hell, not heaven. This means if I didn’t make it, I would see my family members when they felt like coming to visit. Therefore, the only way to be together as a family forever is for everyone to receive the same degree of glory. The anxiety I felt as a child about who in my family would make it to the celestial kingdom was one side of a terrible coin.
The other side of the coin was the anxiety I felt about what is required for ME to make it to the celestial kingdom. At a minimum, this metaphorical coin led to a lifetime of severe depression. When I was getting close to turning eight, I would lie in bed at night thinking, “Where is the line between the Celestial and the Terrestrial Kingdoms? What is the one sin that would keep someone out? And how bad would it totally suck for that person who was the most righteous person in the Terrestrial Kingdom? They missed out on Celestial eternity by a thaaaaaat much!”
“Lessons in seminary or talks in General Conference about how being “off course” by only a small percentage would lead to damnation…such messages were truly paralyzing for me. I often agonized over every little choice I made [and] lived my entire church life in a constant state of low-grade anxiety.”
Sure, the Doctrine and Covenants has a few sentences on the matter, but that was utterly useless to me without an extensive and detailed checklist. I mean, if I died at that moment, was it even possible to know whether I would make it? The standard response to that question that I got from parents and church leaders was that I needed to obey God and to have faith in Jesus. Lessons in seminary or talks in General Conference about how being “off course” by only a small percentage would lead to damnation…such messages were truly paralyzing for me. I often agonized over every little choice I made. Ultimately, I lived my entire church life in a constant state of low-grade anxiety.
As a child, my father was excommunicated. It was tremendously confusing for me to wonder who I would be within the eternities. He eventually made his way back to the church, but my mom was sealed to another man. But was I still sealed to my dad? But I lived with my mom and her husband? It was confusing and trying to untangle the web of who is going to be with which [parent] forever is deeply disturbing, and there are no good answers for kids who have non-traditional families. Seeing my dad go through that process is so ridiculous to me now, it’s frustrating, and our relationship suffered for years.
I have been going through a crisis of faith at BYUI, and I left two siblings behind in an abusive household hoping they would be okay because I wasn’t there. My family has blamed me for the abuse ever since I could remember and all I wanted was to help my brother and sister. Recently my little sister broke down and asked my parents, “if God is merciful, then why can’t [our sister] live with us when we die? Why does following her heart make her any less worthy than you?” Her questions were met with violence and brutality from the “worthy priesthood holder” of our family. The thought of being sealed eternally to a man who has traumatized me and my siblings, to a woman who let him… I can’t describe the agonizing fear and absolute terror I feel when I think about this family being eternal…
The “Families Can Be Together Forever” Doctrine Harms Kids
I’m going to be blunt. When Latter-day Saints teach kids families can be sealed together forever they are simultaneously teaching kids that families can be eternally torn apart.
Even if the LDS Church is God’s true church…
Even if Latter-day Saints have the sole authority to create eternal relationships…
Even if each person must prove their worthiness to receive celestial glory…
Teaching this doctrine to children is harmful.
Many Mormons agree with Boyd K. Packer when he says “some things that are true are not very useful.” I would suggest this is the time to prioritize the impacts of the doctrine over whether or not it’s “true.” There are many things that are “true” that aren’t developmentally appropriate to teach children. If you are a believing Mormon, I urge you to take the mental and emotional health of children into consideration as you consider the eternal families doctrine.
I believe the following:
- Children should never feel that their family relationship are dependent on their “worthiness”.
- Children should never worry that they might be eternally separated from an inactive or non-believing parent.
- Children should not be facing anxiety, depression, or trauma because of what they’re taught at church.
- Children should never feel trapped or spiritually abandoned because of what they’re taught at church.
- Children shouldn’t lie awake in their bed at night worrying about who will “make it”.
- Children who’ve suffered abuse of any kind of abuse shouldn’t face additional trauma at church.
- Children have the right to feel safe and secure no matter how they behave.
I maintain that it’s unethical for any organization—including the LDS church—to teach children that their family ties are dependent on staying loyal to that organization. Even if it’s true, this teaching isn’t merely NOT useful—it’s abusive.
Share Your Story!
Do you have a story you’d like to share regarding how the “families can be together forever” doctrine impacted you as a child?
[All names will remain anonymous, but your story or excerpts of your story may be published at a future time.]