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November 7, 2013
The Real Issue
We All Know about My Wayward Nephew
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My nephew, whom we all love, is currently living a lifestyle that has led him away from the Church. Although the majority of the family is aware of his situation, it is not a topic of general discussion at family gatherings. 

My sister doesn't seem to know that the majority of the family is informed on this subject, and acts like anything relating to him is a personal secret. Would it be best to inform her that we know the situation, or should we just play along? 


There is a funny idea in the world today that personal problems should be thrown wide open, exposed, acknowledged, and discussed. That keeping personal problems private amounts to “sweeping things under the rug,” and “pretending things are perfect when they aren’t,” which is equated with lying.

There is another funny idea that people who prefer privacy to disclosure should be badgered into publishing their troubles. That “keeping it inside” is bad and “letting it out” is good.

These attitudes are a mistake. Discretion and privacy are not the same as deceit and hypocrisy. Putting a good face on things, expressing optimism or hope, or simply deflecting nosy questions are social virtues.

If a person does not wish to discuss something, he doesn’t have to. It is rude to pester a person to share his troubles with you if he does not wish to. Further, it is presumptuous to assume a person is “not dealing with” a difficult situation simply because he has not discussed it with you.

In your case, you sister is acting as if her son’s behavior is a secret, when it is not. The most likely explanation for this is that she does not wish to discuss his behavior with the family at this time. She might even suspect that you already know about it.

Your first priority should be kindness and gentleness for her and her feelings, not pursuing full disclosure.

You should consider how painful this probably is for her, and follow her lead on what is and is not discussed and acknowledged about her son. Don’t think of it as a charade. Think of it as respecting her privacy. Again, she is not necessarily hiding from the truth just because she is not discussing it with you.

(It is also possible that your sister does not know what your nephew is up to. She might think Wild Turkey and Grey Goose are exotic lunch meats. This is only a remote possibility, but you should consider it.)

I recommend two things.

First, follow your sister’s lead. If she doesn’t want to discuss her son’s choices or behavior or Church activity, let it be. It is not your place to insist that she do so. Just because you would feel more comfortable if the information were out there, it does not mean that she would feel more comfortable. And as this is more her business than yours, her preference trumps.

Of course, when a family member leaves the Church, or stops being active in the Church, it isn’t long before everybody knows about it. Innocent questions like, “How do you like your ward?” or “What calling do you have right now?” or “What are you up to these days?” tend to lead to conversations in which it becomes clear that the person no longer attends church. The person’s absence becomes noted at temple sealings or other ordinances. Often, behavior inconsistent with Church activity becomes apparent.

So within about a year, your nephew’s situation will probably be common knowledge in the family, revealed not by nosiness, but by ordinary interactions Mormons have with one another. Even then, you should follow your sister’s lead in the degree to which his behavior is discussed. Again, her feelings are more important than yours.

The obvious exception to this is that when you are talking to your nephew himself, you can discuss anything he wishes to discuss.

Second, keep in touch with your nephew. Call him. Text him. Invite him to events with your family. Celebrate his achievements. Show him that you love him, that he is important to you. As you do this, you will strengthen family bonds, and it will become apparent to your sister that you are fully aware of his situation, and that you love him without condition.

Finally, I could be completely wrong about your sister. It is possible she is dying to confide in someone, but can’t bring herself to approach you about her problem. If you suspect this is the case, you can go to her privately and say something like, “Catherine, I just want you to know how much I love Casey. He has always been so special to me. I know he’s going through a rough spot right now, and I want you to know that I’m here for you, if there is anything I can do to help or be supportive.”

If your sister has truly been wishing for someone to share her burden, this will be music to her ears. She will respond with relief and gratitude. She will appreciate that you were straightforward but not nosy, and that you spoke on your own behalf, and not as a representative of the whole family (which would have made her feel like everyone was talking about her behind her back).

She will also appreciate that you did not treat the situation like a horrible tragedy, which would have required her, the person more closely affected by the difficult situation, to comfort you, the person more removed from the situation.

However, if your sister does not wish to discuss the matter, she will probably say something like, “Oh. Thanks.” She might even explode at you: “Rough spot? Rough spot! What do you know about anything? Why can’t people in this family just mind their own business!” In either case, you should respect her wishes and drop the subject.

And if you ever had to describe this conversation to another family member you would simply say, “She didn’t want to talk about it.”

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