Episode 31: Finding increased joy, healing and protection through family history, with Church News reporter Sydney Walker

Prophets and Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have promised specific “healing” blessings for those who participate in family history and temple work. During his April 2018 general conference talk “Family History and Temple Work: Sealing and Healing,” Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles promised that through discovering, gathering and connecting one’s family, “you will find healing for that which needs healing.”

Church News reporter Sydney Walker wrote a series on the healing blessings of family history, specifically focusing on how family history has helped individuals deal with feelings of anxiety and depression, address pornography addictions and work through traumatic family events. In this Church News podcast, she shares the stories of many Latter-day Saints who have experienced the healing power of family history. 

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Transcription

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”

One afternoon, Camaron Perkins received a phone call she will never forget. Her father had died by suicide after a psychological reaction from ending a medication. In that moment, her world shattered. A few weeks later, as reality sank in and she continued to process her feelings, Perkins said she had a distinct impression: “Don’t let this one moment in time define your father. That’s not who he is. That’s not who he was. You’ve got to find a way to define his life and celebrate his life.” A thought came to her that she should start adding memories in her father’s profile in the FamilySearch Family Tree App. She added picture after picture, story after story. She described the process as “healing” — little by little, day by day.

Prophets and Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have promised specific healing blessings for those who participate in family history and temple work. Church News reporter and editor, Sydney Walker, wrote a series for the Church News, sharing the stories of many Latter-day Saints who have experienced these healing blessings. Camaron’s story was one of them. Today, we welcome Sydney to the Church News podcast. Thank you so much for making time for us.

Sydney Walker: Thank you. I’m excited to be here and to talk about something I’m so passionate about.

2:04

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, can we start today and have you give us some background on the series and why you wrote it and what you were hoping to accomplish?

2:11  

Sydney Walker: Yes. So when I started as a Church News reporter about a year and a half ago, one of my assignments was to cover family history. And initially, I thought, “Oh, no, what am I going to do to cover family history?” I didn’t have much interest in family history, I didn’t have much experience. Quite frankly, I thought it was a little bit of a boring topic, something that my grandma did. But early on, I went to a pitch meeting with a FamilySearch media relations manager, and one of the many ideas he suggested was to look into how family history can help those dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression. I thought, “Oh, wow, that would be really interesting. That would be something that’s relevant to readers.” So I decided to start looking more into that idea, and I came across a talk by Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on these healing blessings of family history. And one thing that he mentioned was a blessing to “mend broken, anxious or troubled hearts,” and so that kind of started this series.

3:08  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, let’s take a minute and listen to an excerpt from that talk right now.

3:13  

Elder Dale G. Renlund: It is breathtakingly amazing that, through family history and temple work, we can help to redeem the dead.

But as we participate in family history and temple work today, we also lay claim to “healing” blessings promised by Prophets and Apostles. These blessings are also breathtakingly amazing because of their scope, specificity and consequence in mortality. This long list includes these blessings:

  • Increased understanding of the Savior and His atoning sacrifice;
  • Increased influence of the Holy Ghost to feel strength and direction for our own lives;
  • Increased faith, so that conversion to the Savior becomes deep and abiding;
  • Increased ability and motivation to learn and repent because of an understanding of who we are, where we come from and a clearer vision of where we are going;
  • Increased refining, sanctifying and moderating influences in our hearts;
  • Increased joy through an increased ability to feel the love of the Lord;
  • Increased family blessings, no matter our current, past or future family situation or how imperfect our family tree may be;
  • Increased love and appreciation for ancestors and living relatives, so we no longer feel alone;
  • Increased power to discern that which needs healing and thus, with the Lord’s help, serve others;
  • Increased protection from temptations and the intensifying influence of the adversary; and
  • Increased assistance to mend troubled, broken or anxious hearts and make the wounded whole.

If you have prayed for any of these blessings, participate in family history and temple work. As you do so, your prayers will be answered. When ordinances are performed on behalf of the deceased, God’s children on earth are healed. No wonder President Russell M. Nelson, in his first message as President of the Church, declared, “Your worship in the temple and your service there for your ancestors will bless you with increased personal revelation and peace and will fortify your commitment to stay on the covenant path.”

5:52  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, Elder Renlund highlighted some very specific blessings in that talk. Can you tell us what you learned about these blessings, and how you found the stories that you included in the series?

6:03  

Sydney Walker:  Yes, so something that I really loved about Elder Renlund’s talk was, like you said, how specific these blessings were. And I thought reading through that list, “Wow, there’s something that everyone needs. There’s a blessing here that can apply to everyone.” So when I started looking into the mental health benefits side, again, playing on the mending “troubled or broken or anxious hearts,” I joined a Latter-day Saint Genealogy and Family History Facebook group, and I just posted in there, “Hey, I’m a reporter for the Church News, this is a topic I’m hoping to explore. Have any of you had any experiences with this?” and I was blown away by the response. I was blown away by people who were willing to be vulnerable and talk about this. And I realized that this is something that was real, that this wasn’t just an idea from a conference talk or something that someone pitched — people actually had real experiences with this. 

And so as I wrote part one, and I explored part two — which was more on protection from temptation, looking at how indexing has helped people address pornography addictions — and then into part three — which looked more at family trauma, people who had dealt with divorce and abuse and suicide, like in Camaron’s case — and word spread. It was amazing to me how when I would interview someone, they would say, “Oh, you know, someone else I know has had an experience like this, you should talk to them.” 

I also talked to some licensed counselors, I wanted to make sure we had some professional input as well, and a program manager down at BYU. So it was really neat to see how it came together and how this community of people were willing to share their experiences. And to use their photos and their real names — that’s something I loved about this series, is that it wasn’t just anonymous sources. They were real people with real stories, who were willing to use their names and photos so people could relate to them.

7:49  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And that’s probably because they had experienced real healing. 

7:53  

Sydney Walker:  Yeah, I think that’s a great point.

7:55  

Sarah Jane Weaver: So healing through family history really isn’t just a Latter-day Saint idea. There’s some research out there that supports this.

8:03  

Sydney Walker:  Yes, that was something so exciting when I started exploring this. So researchers at Emory University did a study where they learned that adolescents who participate in family history have higher levels of emotional well-being, and family stories helped to provide a sense of identity and who they are in the world. Bruce Feiler highlighted the study in an article for the New York Times. And more recently, Psychology Today published an article titled, “Genealogy Provides the Strength to Persevere,” and how learning of our ancestors who went through the Spanish flu can help us today with COVID-19. 

I would say to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the research side of it, Devin Ashby at FamilySearch has done several webinars and also a class at RootsTech Connect on the science of family history where he looked specifically at the research.

8:49  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And let’s go back to Camaron’s story. This is sort of a hinge point for you as you’re writing this series, and you hear her story — and how did it sort of impact you and propel you to move forward?

9:03  

Sydney Walker:  So Camaron’s story really, really hit me. I think, initially, when I talked to her, she was a little apprehensive about sharing her story publicly. This was a really hard thing that she went through, to lose her father to suicide, and it took a little while for her to be willing to use her name and to go public with it. And I remember her saying, “I hope just one person will read this and feel impacted or strengthened,” and the neatest thing — so I had the opportunity to present at RootsTech Connect, and I wanted to share Camaron’s story. And so I called her a little while ago. It had been about a year since we published the article with her story in it, and I wanted to see how she was doing, if anything had happened since we published that article. And she told me the neatest story: she said that shortly after the article was published, a lady found her on Facebook and messaged her and said, “Camaron, I just came across your story. I went through the very same thing. I too lost my father to suicide after psychological reactions from ending a medication. I wasn’t sure how to cope with it. I was really struggling, and reading your story gave me strength.” And so then she and Camaron were able to message back and forth. And Camaron said, “You know, I felt like this was my one person, it was all worth it.” And she said this quote that I want to share with you. She said, “The more we can open up and be vulnerable about our own struggles, it allows others to open up and we can heal together.” 

Read more: What I learned at RootsTech Connect about the necessity of connection

So that’s why I think we need to share stories. Someone out there needs our story and our experience, as we saw with Camaron’s.

10:36  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I think there’s great power in connection. I think that, as we found from Camaron’s story, that people can provide support and hope, and draw strength from one another. And a recent podcast we did with Elder Kevin Hamilton and Steve Rockwood, who’s the director of FamilySearch, talked a lot about the things that people discover as they discover their family. And one of the most important things they discover is a connection to family, to others who share similar experiences to them. Tell us some of the other stories that you wrote about as part of this series.

11:12  

Sydney Walker:  Sure, I would love to. I’ll just share a few that I still think about on the daily. So, Sarah Hammon, during her teenage years, her relationship with her father became pretty damaged as he began medicating his mental health struggles with alcohol. He couldn’t hold down a job. This put a lot of emotional and financial strain on the family. Her parents ended up getting divorced, and she was pretty angry with them. She said when she went to college, a friend encouraged her to take a family history class, and that this was soothing, to work on her family history. She said learning of ancestors who had “complicated stories and complicated lives” helped her open her heart and reconcile with her father’s side of the family and with him, which I thought was so powerful. 

How these Latter-day Saints found healing through family stories after suicide, abuse, other traumatic events

Another one was a lady named Christina Herzog Garcia, and she had experienced many years of sadness and anger because she wasn’t able to have children. And then she found someone in her family history who went through the same thing. And she said, “Just by knowing that my great-grandfather’s sister was married and was never able to have children, just like me, gave me a comfort knowing that someone in my family went through the exact same thing I’m going through now.”

And then another one I want to share with you is a lady named Lisa Ashby. Lisa’s childhood included abuse and grief, loss. And when she was a young mother, she felt her body begin to shut down because of what she had been through. She said she felt guided to write down and verbalize the traumas she had experienced, and as she did family history, she learned about an ancestor whose story somewhat paralleled her mother’s complicated marriages. And I love what Lisa said. She said, “I learned that telling the good and bad from my own personal history was helping me heal physically.” And I love that idea — telling the good and the bad, because we all have hard stories, right? Everybody has something in their past that maybe is difficult to work through, but because of that, it can help us with what we’re going through today.

13:08  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, none of us are immune to hard times. So we have them in our past, we’ll have them in our future. Often, at any given time, we’re dealing with different challenges. Talk to me more about the mental health benefits, or stories that exhibited those benefits that you found in your series.

13:27  

Sydney Walker:  Yes. So, this, again, was the first part that I looked into, and this is what got me started, again, the responses that I received from that Facebook group. There was one lady that I met, Amelie Bleakley, who lives in the UK. She told me that she had suffered and continues to suffer with depression and anxiety. During one period of pretty severe depression, she felt like she should begin searching for ancestors. She said she felt alive as she made discoveries, and it helped her overcome the feeling that she was useless or worthless. I love this quote from her. She said, “I found sad stories, happy ones. And I feel so close to many of the people I found.” She said, “Doing indexing and researching really gives you a different perspective of life — how you’re not the only one with trials, how things can be tough, but life goes on anyway.” 

Dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression: How doing family history can help

So again, playing back to the idea that we learned from Lisa Ashby’s story, that it’s the good and the bad from our own personal history that can help us move forward and what we’re presently dealing with.

14:25  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, in my career as a Church News writer and reporter, I have covered a lot of stories about the impact of pornography on families and on individuals and on couples. Over the years, I have developed a great, great empathy for people who compulsively view pornography. In fact, there are very few people that I have more empathy for than perhaps their spouses. But you also discovered that family history has helped those that are working through an addiction to pornography.

14:57  

Sydney Walker: Yes. These stories were so powerful and so insightful. I’d never considered this idea before, that family history could help in this area. One person I interviewed — Hunter Wood, and I’m so grateful that he was willing to share his story and include his name and talk about something that’s kind of hard to talk about — but he told me that he’d struggled with an addiction to pornography as long as he could remember. He had met with his parents and his faith leader, he went to group support meetings and received professional help. Then, he met a mentor who encouraged him to try family history and index daily, and this mentor also held him accountable. So Hunter had to send a thumbs-up every day that he did a little bit of indexing. And he said (that) just by indexing one name a day, he saw a difference. I just think that’s so powerful. And I remember him mentioning, too, in the interview, that the very device that he was using for his addiction was actually a strength to him when he was doing family history. 

Addressing pornography: How indexing and family history can help

He said, “Indexing is an important tool, but isn’t a cure-all. Family history work can only help as much as you use it,” which is also a great point — that family history maybe won’t help everybody in the same way, and it won’t cure all our problems. But it’s one of many tools that can really help bring the Spirit into our life and help us with whatever challenge we’re facing.

16:15  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Did writing this series drive you to your own family history?

16:19  

Sydney Walker: Yes. So as I had mentioned earlier, I had not done much family history prior to writing this series. I thought, “Oh, I have grandparents who have handled all of it. There’s nothing left for me to do.” But writing this series really made me start looking at the stories in my own family. And I think that’s the aspect of family history that I enjoy, is the stories; when we realize it’s not just names and dates and research, but real people with real lives, it can really strengthen us. 

So kind of a cool experience: When I was writing stories about women’s suffrage last year, it was the 100th anniversary in the United States of the women’s right to vote, and the 150th anniversary of Utah women voting for the first time. And I was looking through the Church News archives for a photo and I came across a photo of, I think there are eight different women, but Emmeline B. Wells and Eliza R. Snow are in this photo, who I had written about a lot. They were prominent women in the Relief Society and had helped in the suffrage movement. And then I noticed a name that I recognized: It was Jane Snyder Richards. And just a few days before I had been exploring in FamilySearch, and I had found that she was my fourth great-grandmother. And so all of a sudden, I had this really cool moment of, “Wow, this topic that I had been writing so much about, women’s suffrage, and these women, Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells, I had a relative who was connected to them.” I had a small part, or I had this small connection, to this history that impacts so many women.

Sydney Walker: My personal connection to Emmeline B. Wells, Eliza R. Snow and the suffrage movement

So I think about that story often. I’m serving in the Relief Society presidency in my ward right now, and so whenever I feel discouraged about something, I think, “OK, if Jane did it, I can do it.” So yes, the series has definitely turned me to looking more at my own family stories.

18:04  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I had a similar experience as I was looking at a story that celebrated the history of Relief Society and women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and there was a historic photo that went back to the 1960s. And I looked in the photo and there was my grandmother. It was a whole bunch of women sitting around tables with then-Relief Society general president Belle Spafford, and I guess I had known that my grandma served in Relief Society, but it first drove me to the history of Relief Society. And then it drove me to my own personal history, because I wanted to read more about her and her work with Relief Society, and I wanted to feel that connection that we both share to this organization that we both love.

18:51  

Sydney Walker:  I think that’s so significant, like you said, the connection to the organization. Another thing I’ll say on this is, I lost my grandfather in May of last year, and I remember being at his virtual funeral and hearing a lot of stories about his life that I had never heard before. I thought, “Man, I wish I would have known, or thought to ask him before he passed.” So now with his wife, my grandma, we’re making sure that she’s writing down a lot of stories from her life. And at one point, she asked, “Well, I don’t know if I should record that story. It wasn’t such a great one. I’m kind of embarrassed at that memory of my childhood.” We said, “No, Grandma, record it, because even the hard stories will give your posterity strength.”

19:31  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. Well, Sydney, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast where we like to give our guests the last word, and we always ask the same question: “What do you know now?” So I’m hoping today, we can conclude as you contemplate what you know now after writing about family history, and experiencing family history, and talking about family history, and actually studying the healing power of doing family history.

19:58  

Sydney Walker: The first thing is, I want to be better at my family history — that’s what I know now — so I can have access to that healing power in my own life. A few other things that I learned is this point that we’ve emphasized already — that every family has happy and hard stories, and we need to tell both. 

Also, that healing looks different for everyone. Just because one person had this really great experience from doing something family history-related doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll happen to you, but I think family history invites the Spirit. And as Camaron said in an interview I did with her originally, that for her, healing came through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and family history was just one tool that she could access that. 

And then the other thing that I learned is that people are more willing to share stories than we think they are. They just need an invitation. So I’m so grateful that I had the chance to do this series and interview these people who are willing to share their stories. And now, these stories are impacting others and encouraging others to open up; and when we open up, and we’re vulnerable, we can heal together, like Camaron said. 

And I love a quote from Elder Renlund’s April 2018 general conference talk that we played earlier. He said, “If you have prayed for any of these blessings, participate in family history and temple work.” I know that those blessings Elder Renlund listed are specific, and they’re real, and they can help us, as long as we’re willing to act and sacrifice a little bit of time as our Prophet, President Nelson, has invited us to do. I know that when we make our family our priority, whether that be our family past or our family present, that we’re blessed for that. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

21:43  

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.