Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My high school has recently been shocked by the suicide of one of my fellow students. Though I did not know him extremely well, I knew that he was an atheist like myself. This has not only made me wish I had known him better, but since his death I have taken a keen interest over his Facebook page, which has exploded with prayers and blessings in the past week despite his religious stance being clear to anyone viewing the page. My worst fear was that people would see this and blame his depression on being an atheist.
However, something else has been troubling me. A week after his death, the boy’s parents, who have been moderating the page, have changed his public religious view to Christian (and his political view to conservative to boot). I understand that his parents must be in outstanding grief, and as Christians they must hope that their son is in a better place. But I feel that arbitrarily changing their son’s views does dishonor to his memory and breeches his privacy, especially after already having posted the boy’s suicide letter publicly. It’s hard to justify why I am so offended by this — as an atheist I obviously don’t believe this boy is shaking his fist angrily from the heavens or rolling in his grave. But I know that if I was in his place and could somehow look down on the proceedings, I would be extremely hurt that my family edited my strongly held positions for the public to view.
I know that it would probably be inappropriate to make any kind of comment on his Facebook page concerning the matter in such sensitive circumstances. But is my opinion on this matter completely unfounded? How would you feel in this situation and is there any way I can show my support for my late classmate as a fellow atheist without coming off as particularly offensive to my primarily Christian school and the boy’s Christian family?
I think your opinion is well founded, and if I were in your place, I would share your feelings of indignation and a sense of wrongness about it, but what you should do about your opinion and feelings is a separate matter.
When deciding your response to situations like these, one important guideline is to consider how much harm will be done to how many people, and how much good will be done to how many people by whatever actions you take. Then you must assess who are the most vulnerable for harm, and who are the most likely to be helped.
The parents and family are in extreme pain, much more than what one expects from uncomplicated grief. The grief that parents experience from the death of their child by disease or unavoidable accident is horrendous enough. If their child was murdered, then anger at the killer is added to their grief. In the case of suicide, the killer and the victim are one in the same. The family often has anger conflicting with their love and grief, and so their feelings are mixed and inflamed, and sometimes spiral into an extremely agonizing and confusing mess.
With suicides, the family and loved ones often fall into self-recrimination, thinking that they could have and should have seen warning signs, or somehow they should have been better parents, better siblings, or better friends for the deceased. They can unfairly and unreasonably conclude that the death is somehow partly or even entirely their fault. So guilt is often added to that already awful soup of unbearable emotions.
At the effect of so much heartache, people will make controversial decisions that some will accept and others will find objectionable.
We cannot know for certain, but perhaps it is unfair to assume that the family’s motives for changing his profile to Christian were selfish or were only about saving face. It could be that comments have been left on the site that reacted to his public disbelief, and were negative, disapproving, condemning or condescending, (as living atheists so often have to endure) and the family has been removing them. In light of their pain described above, it would be understandable if they wanted to spare themselves and other family members such insensitive and even cruel treatment.
Does this fail to honor his memory as the real person he was? In the strictest sense yes, but I think his family’s experience of him involved far more than his atheism. They will remember him in all the ways they need to remember him. Almost all of us do that with those we have lost.
As you indicated in your letter, you and I share the reflex to show compassion for those who are in pain, and let them have their small comforts and self-protections, especially when announcing the uncomfortable truth would only serve to vent our own indignation.
But leaving the family alone still leaves you with your unsatisfied and unresolved feelings, which is really what I think you wanted to sort out.
You spoke of how hurt you would feel if your own family were to erase your atheism or other strongly held views from whatever memorialized you. You would want to be represented and remembered accurately, with as much honesty and realism as you tried to practice in your life.
Your letter doesn’t indicate whether you have shared your atheism with your family, or whether doing so would open up serious problems. For people of high school age, coming out to their family can often be a very difficult and even risky proposition, so think that over very carefully. If you haven’t yet, then whenever the time is right, getting clear with them on the matter of your beliefs will better ensure that they will understand how you want to be represented both in life and in the unlikely event of your death.
Another thing you might do would first require you to decide whether or not you are comfortable revealing your own atheism in a high school that you describe as “primarily Christian.” If you are comfortable with that, you might consider talking about the boy with your friends and with his friends at school. Discreetly discussing what you knew about his atheism would be a way to assure that those who mattered to him will remember this aspect of him accurately.
Nicole, I hope that you and everyone you have mentioned in this sad story are able to heal from their various degrees of hurt and grief, and that none of you are ever touched again by such a tragedy. Live your life fully in these ways: gratefully, respectfully, meaningfully, thoughtfully, and truthfully, and encourage everyone you know to do the same.