This situation is heartbreaking for many believers. When loved ones leave, many believers might feel like they've lost common interests that once held their relationship together. That shift can be painful for anyone.
But the declining retention often represents something more painful. Many Mormons believe that losing a loved one from the fold also means losing them in the eternities. It's a situation made real when Mormons visit the temple (often referred to as "Heaven on Earth") and are reminded that their non-believing counterparts can't join them there.
These members envision something tragic: "Sad Heaven" — an afterlife where the faithful mourn those who, for whatever reason, don't make the cut.
The fear of Sad Heaven isn't limited to Mormonism. Dante envisioned that non-believers and heretics were entombed in the 6th circle of hell , leaving their loved ones in paradise to assumedly mourn their absence forever. And mainstream believers of just about every stripe still worry about Sad Heaven today.
At first glance, the belief might seem harmless. Why does it matter what people think will happen in the afterlife? Isn't it a simple difference of opinion?
In reality, a belief in Sad Heaven often damages relationships right now. Those who subscribe to this belief feel they can be happy only if their loved ones return to the fold. Some react out of desperation: I've seen parents write their children from their wills, brothers and sisters cut off contact, spouses slip out of harmony into bitter divorce. These feelings also manifest in subtle ways — through passive aggression, quiet bitterness, or loss of vulnerability and trust. These reactions stem from the fear that an eternity of sorrow is worse than happiness right now. The stakes are high. Members fear they must bring their loved ones back into the fold or suffer eternally.
In my opinion, this fear carries incredible risk. We can't be certain about what happens after death. But we can be certain about what happens before death: We're alive. What do we gain by souring our relationships with those who no longer believe the way we do? Is it worth fearing that Sad Heaven is real if it makes us suffer now?
What if instead of doubling down on our fears, we tried twice as hard to enjoy time with our loved ones? Our intimacy with friends and family doesn't need to be threatened by differences of belief. There is so much we have in common, regardless of what we think about religion. We might enjoy hiking in nature, reading literature, being an ally for people who suffer, participating in sports, listening to beautiful music, talking about ideas, or enjoying a good meal. The list is endless.
As human beings, we don't know much. But we know we have life. What a tragedy it would be, then, to let our fear of the unknown ruin the relationships that our happiness hinges upon right now. As Mark Twain once said, "There isn't time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that." We can't go wrong by working to overcome our differences. In fact, it's likely the best way to find lasting happiness.
Jon Ogden is the author of "When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life." He lives in Provo with his wife and two sons.