Ask Richard: Teen Suicide’s Atheism Concealed by His Parents

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

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?

Thank you,
Nicole

Dear Nicole,

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.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Thorny264

    If he was a friend I would make his views known and even someone I barely know I would be tempted to leave a message

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9347436 Mark Dorn

    I just lost my brother this past Sunday to a drug overdose. A loss like this, essentially the same as suicide, is unbelievably complex. I find myself in the middle as I’m an atheist, in a fairly non-religious, but believing family. I absolutely understand the questioner’s stance, but please take extreme caution with any confrontation on the issue. I’ve yielded to a variety of issues included a service (at least my mom wouldn’t have it in a church) and a burial. I’ve never lost anyone and certainly didn’t expect to lose my brother. But, in the time of confusion, anger, and grief, outside condemnation would hurt far more than it would help.

    • Drew M.

      My sincerest condolences, Mark. Addiction is a motherfucker. =(

    • Heidi

      I am so very sorry for your loss, Mark.

    • Amazonfeet

      you are in my thoughts.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    My heart goes out to you, Mark. Find a couple of people, whether family or not, with whom you feel comfortable talking about these chaotic feelings as they come up. Having someone who simply knows how to listen and when to nod their head is of tremendous benefit to you, so that you don’t keep stuffing those feelings back down. There are no “bad,” “wrong,” or “inappropriate” feelings that you will experience. It’s all what you must feel. Having a safe and accepting place to vent them will keep you moving forward through your grief, and eventually to the other side.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9347436 Mark Dorn

      Thanks, Richard. Luckily we have a very good support system with a great family and friends. I also have an amazing wife helping me get through it. My point was, although it’s an affront to everything we believe, it’s good for us to let the survivors do what they need to do move past this. 

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Exactly.

  • Rich Wilson

    Wow.  That reminds me of the Mormons baptizing the dead.  I don’t have any answers, but an overwhelming sense of frustration over the lack of respect for his views.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    I think that if you do say anything, and I’m not sure you should, you’ll need to keep it positive – there’s no mileage in calling out his parents for vandalising his page, but you could post your memories of him as an atheist, praise his ability to think clearly and freely, his strength in being ‘out’, anything that was positive about his atheism. His parents might be prepared to delete a comment eulogising their dead son, but if they do, you’ll know exactly how low they’re prepared to go to whitewash his memory.

  • Wasd

    My condolences to those involved.

    Aw great, you think the one good thing about reading about a teen suicide  is that from there on the story can only get more optimistic…. and all you get is practical down to earth advice about “closet management”.

    The closet: on how to put the dead back in and how not to stray too far from it when angry and dealing with a horrible death thus getting your own living self into even more trouble.

    With this much hurt letting sleeping dogs lie is probably the smart choice but from my own quiet corner of the  secular Netherlands where nobody cares this is some intensely depressing reading. The idea people care about this shit enough to bother those hurt in such a horrible situation….  it defies comprehension. And lets be clear when all thats left of someone is the memories that people are trying to hold on to those looking to photoshop those memories do hurt.

    There can be only one response, Americans who are not in a situation this shitty: GET OUT OF THE FRIGGING CLOSET ALREADY!

    If the parent had more examples of atheistic but otherwise average Americans they would care less about the stupid facebook item
    If the religious people reading the facebook page had more examples of atheistic but otherwise average Americans they would care less about the stupid facebook item
    If the religious people commenting on the facebook page had examples of atheistic but otherwise average Americans they would know to keep their prayers in check (prayer is one thing, prayers with some proselytizing another and even the thought of a whiff of gloating makes my blood boil)

    And most of all: there would be more out of the closet average American atheist teens in primarily christian schools where atheist teens are contemplating suicide. I think that might help. Without a trevor project style phoneline friends and the internet would be their only lifeline.

    If you are in the closet you might only see the personal obstacles to being open but one day the example set by someone who faces relatively few obstacles might help someone who faces a lot of them.

  • Anonymous

     What the parents don’t realize is that the attitude that lets them feel entitled to negate the opinions and beliefs of their son by altering his statements on ~his~ Facebook page, which is evidence of their belief that they owned him or had the right to define what and who he was, might well have contributed to his decision to leave.  It is very demoralizing, when someone you love, look up to, and trust doesn’t or can’t accept what you know you are. 

    This applies to those who know their sexual or gender identity is not what their parents wanted, or those who cannot adopt their family’s bigotry, politics,  sense of entitlement to wealth, or other divisive issues, just as much as it does to those who cannot accept their parents’ religion. 

    A child can accept a lot of bullying and rejection in the world as long as they feel accepted at home.  Take away that support and they feel the world would be better off without them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Mona.Albano Mona Albano

      Just what I was thinking. They may be changing his apparent religion because they are feeling guilty.

      Sorry to hear about your friend–I would be furious at the disrespect to his true self. But anything that you comment on his page can be deleted. I’d probably link to it and say that I remember him as an atheist and liberal (or whatever).

      • Anonymous

        I was thinking the opposite–that they had no feeling of guilt; that they were unaware that their attitude  would have been hurtful to him.  

        If they believe they had the right to make him be what they imagined him to be, rather than support him as he turned out, then they would admit no culpability.  They might even blame atheism for “leading him astray” rather than seeing how much hurt their denial of his feelings and viewpoint would have caused.
        Or perhaps they see his lack of faith as a failure that led to the result, and want to “make it right” instead of acknowledging their contribution to the situation.

        In any case, it is a very sad thing.  My heart goes out to him for the pain he must have felt, and to his family for their loss.

    • Anonymous

      What the parents don’t realize is that the attitude that lets them feel entitled to negate the opinions and beliefs of their son by altering his statements on ~his~ Facebook page, which is evidence of their belief that they owned him or had the right to define what and who he was, might well have contributed to his decision to leave.  It is very demoralizing, when someone you love, look up to, and trust doesn’t or can’t accept what you know you are…..*snip*….

      A child can accept a lot of bullying and rejection in the world as long as they feel accepted at home.  Take away that support and they feel the world would be better off without them.

      perfectly said, jbtait.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZH4VOGHKCEXLBSZGWAW5HUWQSM Mary

    fr

  • TheSixthGlass

    I recently went to a funeral of a semi-close friend and co-worker, whom I knew as having been raised in a religious Christian household, but was more or less an agnostic deist-type. He believed in “something” and “spirituality” but not  Yahweh or Jesus. Imagine my surprise at his funeral when a Methodist minister (who are usually at least somewhat liberal in their theology, compared to the Southern Baptists that are more common around here) presided over the funeral service and began going on and on about God the Father and God the Son and the Holy Book and the Holy Scriptures and how in this moment of grief we are drawn closer to God and blah blah blah. This was a preacher that I know for a fact had spoken several times with my friend, and knew pretty precisely what his beliefs were.

    There’s always the possibility that he had changed his mind, or that he hadn’t had the conversations with the preacher in quite the way he had described them to me. But imagine my situation, knowing what I think I know, and not only keeping my mouth shut, but not even being able to grieve at a funeral because I was so generally appalled by the things I was hearing.

    At least they think he went to heaven, I guess.

  • TheSixthGlass

    I recently went to a funeral of a semi-close friend and co-worker, whom I knew as having been raised in a religious Christian household, but was more or less an agnostic deist-type. He believed in “something” and “spirituality” but not  Yahweh or Jesus. Imagine my surprise at his funeral when a Methodist minister (who are usually at least somewhat liberal in their theology, compared to the Southern Baptists that are more common around here) presided over the funeral service and began going on and on about God the Father and God the Son and the Holy Book and the Holy Scriptures and how in this moment of grief we are drawn closer to God and blah blah blah. This was a preacher that I know for a fact had spoken several times with my friend, and knew pretty precisely what his beliefs were.

    There’s always the possibility that he had changed his mind, or that he hadn’t had the conversations with the preacher in quite the way he had described them to me. But imagine my situation, knowing what I think I know, and not only keeping my mouth shut, but not even being able to grieve at a funeral because I was so generally appalled by the things I was hearing.

    At least they think he went to heaven, I guess.

    • TheSixthGlass

      Sorry, forgot to add – my condolences to the letter writer. But I agree with the assessment that it is probably best to keep most of your objections to yourself.

  • Summer Minor

    My mother died last year, of health complications. We were not close, but I was aware that her spiritual views were agnostic, leaning towards atheist. However, after her death, my grandmother (her mother) posted a tribute in the local newspaper that described her as a church-going Baptist and had a preacher at the funeral who had never met my mother bleating on about how god-fearing and religious she was. It was more of a way for my grandmother to feel better by lying to herself. If any good came out of it, I made sure my living will states very explicitly several times that I want no god business involved in something that’s supposed to remember my life. If you want to tell stories, do it in your own time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10735239 Adrian Liston

    My brother died a few months ago and I was really offended by the number of people who made religious condolences (“my prayers are with you”, “his soul still lives on”, etc). He was an open and proud atheist so these comments disrespect one of his core beliefs. I also don’t understand the rationale. In the probable scenario that my brother is correct, then they are simply disrespecting his memory. In the implausible scenario that my brother is incorrect, then under their own belief system he would be tortured for eternity in hell (despite being a genuine hero, a paramedic who saved lives on a daily basis). Not to mention how tacky it is to use the event of his tragic death to advertise their religion.

  • Nude0007

    I would post on his facebook page that he was an atheist and that changing his status demeans him and his views he worked and studied long and hard to reach.

  • Sware

    I won’t claim to be any sort of expert on what to do in every situation as it is no doubt loaded with raw emotion right now.  Coincidentally this evening I am going to attend the visitation for a friend who passed away from a heart attack.  He is the first openly atheist friend I’ve experienced passing.  I go into this both curious and apprehensive since I’m not certain his family shared his views.  I don’t want to be angry at a time like this but damn it rips at my core that whatever the motivation, when people sweep it under the rug it is just more lies that religion promotes and encourages and it grates at me when an atheist cannot even die an atheist. 
     
    Stuff like this always reminds me of Richard Tillman’s statement at Pat Tillman’s funeral.  However in his case it was the family coming forward to make loud and clear to everyone who Pat was to crush the propaganda image others were creating of him.
     
    “Thanks Pat. [toasting him with a glass of Guiness beer] I didn’t write sh-t because I’m not a writer. I’m not just going to sit here and break down on you. But thanks for coming. Pat’s a f–king champion and always will be. Just make no mistake, he’d want me to say this: He’s not with God. He’s f–king dead. He’s not religious. So, thanks for your thoughts, but he’s f–king dead.”  ~ Richard Tillman

    • Rich Wilson

      I’ve shared this story before so I didn’t think to bring it up again, but maybe it bears repeating.  My grandmother was an atheist .She may have preferred agnostic, but I’m not sure.  We never did discuss the details, but it was very clear she didn’t believe in any gods).  My mother arranged for a pastor to speak at her memorial, and he did keep it relatively low key, but any outside observer would have assumed she had been a believer.  By the end I knew I had to say my piece (other than my planned reading from Heinlein).  I tried to be respectful of everyone remembering her, but said that to honor her, I had to point out that she was an atheist.  She enjoyed the cultural value of the occasional church visit with my mother, but she never wavered in her stance on God.  People took it well.  What really surprised me was when on of my younger cousins said she’d never known it.

      Often your audience isn’t the person you’re talking to.  It’s the people listening in from their own closets.

    • Rich Wilson

      I’ve shared this story before so I didn’t think to bring it up again, but maybe it bears repeating.  My grandmother was an atheist .She may have preferred agnostic, but I’m not sure.  We never did discuss the details, but it was very clear she didn’t believe in any gods).  My mother arranged for a pastor to speak at her memorial, and he did keep it relatively low key, but any outside observer would have assumed she had been a believer.  By the end I knew I had to say my piece (other than my planned reading from Heinlein).  I tried to be respectful of everyone remembering her, but said that to honor her, I had to point out that she was an atheist.  She enjoyed the cultural value of the occasional church visit with my mother, but she never wavered in her stance on God.  People took it well.  What really surprised me was when on of my younger cousins said she’d never known it.

      Often your audience isn’t the person you’re talking to.  It’s the people listening in from their own closets.

  • Wendy

    Perhaps a small donation to Camp Quest, the SSA or some similar organization in his name would be a way to honor him.

  • Ellesar

    I feel in this situation that the parents are comforting themselves by creating a memory of their son which is not accurate, but preferable to them. So in that sense it IS selfish, and especially so if they also are doing it because they do not want others to now that their son was an atheist. 
    I must admit, coming from the UK where we do not have this sort of religious oppression as part of the mainstream culture I find it extraordinary that people are condemned for non religious views, but then I remember that the Puritans founded white America, and they were big on oppressing anyone who did not share their views. 

  • “Nicole”

    Hi, this is the letter writer. Thank you Richard for the response and everyone else for the comments. I’m sorry to hear that this is not a rare occurrence, though I shouldn’t be too surprised, I suppose.

    As an update, the parents took down the religious/political views entirely from the boy’s Facebook page in the past couple of days (without any action from myself or others as far as I know), which is not ideal at all, but I guess it’s better than outright lying? I also attended the very religious funeral service this weekend. During the service, the pastor addressed the question of whether my late classmate had been saved or not. I think the parents must have brought up the boy’s atheism to the pastor with concern, and during the service the pastor said he believed Jesus had accepted him. After the service I discussed my opinions over this whole matter with some classmates who also attended the service. I knew some of them were very Christian and might not understand, but I was surprised to find that a few of them were closeted atheists themselves and were at least a little upset over the parents’ actions. 
    As for myself, I try to be as “out” as possible at school at least when I’m meeting new people or talking with understanding friends. It’s harder to bring up with friends who have known me a longer time and who I once shared religious beliefs or even a church with. At home, my views are known but never acknowledged except as “that atheist thing” on my Facebook page that universities/scholarship committees are going to see when reviewing my applications and then will reject me for. Seriously.

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling follow-up. I suppose the best I can do for now is to remember the classmate as he was, a fellow atheist, an enthusiastic student, and someone I once sat next to in 5th hour. Thanks again, everyone.  – “Nicole”

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Thank you for the update, Nicole. That was an excellent approach. You spoke your truth to those who might benefit from hearing it, and in the process you discovered some comrades as a bonus. I admire both your forbearance with the family and your forthrightness with your classmates.

      I fully understand the mixed levels of openness that you employ with your various friends. You owe no one any more or any less candor than what you want to use. Act in your own best interest. You clearly have a good instinct for doing that without carelessly harming others.

      As for your family, it sounds like there are good possibilities for them to gradually become more accepting of your views.  It takes time for people to adjust their hopes and fears to reality, and to see that neither best hopes nor their worst fears will be realized. As they watch you growing into the person with the high ethics and exceptional personal sensitivity that your letter demonstrates, I think they will become more comfortable, and they will be proud of you. Unless you’re planning to apply to Liberty University, I’m confident that your Facebook “atheism thing” will not be an encumbrance.

      My best wishes to you, to all your friends new and old, and to your family.

  • Roame

    THOSE PARENTS SERIOUSLY DID INVADE THAT BOY’S PRIVACY!!! O MY GOD!!!


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