Ask Richard: Should I Come Out to My Dying Father?

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

Dear Richard,

I met you once when Hemant spoke at an atheist group. I shared that I had become an atheist during college, thanks to some wonderful classes and professors, but that I had been raised in Evangelical Christianity, and I was still not out to my family. I had been debating coming out to my family for awhile, but had not made the leap.

My family learned in fall of 2011 that my father has terminal cancer. He has an inoperable tumor slowly growing which will probably kill him within months. My mother and father have both retreated deeper into their faith, and it looks to me as if it is the only thing giving them comfort during this time. My relationship with my parents was severely strained when I was younger, and we have finally reached a point where we can enjoy time together (although I avoid topics of religion if possible).

My father asked me on a recent trip home if there was anything we needed to resolve about our relationship. I lied, and said no, because I don’t want to ruin what little time we have left, and I can’t imagine causing my parents and sisters pain of this magnitude while my father is dying. We are just hoping he lives to see my sister graduate from college, and me from my masters program.

Should I keep the peace and enjoy the time he has left, while knowing that he will probably never know and/or accept my views and the way I have chosen to live my life? I don’t want to create a rift in my family, but I am deeply saddened by the fact that I will not be able to have my father’s respect for the independent and successful woman I have become, because it is inextricably tied to my reasoning and my nonbelief.

I love reading your advice, and hope that you can help.

Sincerely,
Ashley

Dear Ashley,

My heartfelt wishes for your father, you, and your family to find solace and comfort in whatever forms each of you need.

When you answered your father that no, there isn’t anything you need to resolve in your relationship, you didn’t lie, you told the truth. What you needed to resolve you have already done. After a severely strained relationship, you have restored your caring and respectful bond with each other.

You say you’re saddened by the fact that you will not be able to have your father’s respect for the independent and successful woman you have become, because that is tied to your reasoning and nonbelief.

He is already aware that you are an independent person. Your youthful independence was possibly a part of the strain between you and your parents when you were younger, and I think now your more mature independence is a part of how and why you enjoy each other’s company.

He is also already aware that you are an intelligent, successful woman who can take care of herself. You will soon earn your master’s degree, and that is no small accomplishment.

He’s even already aware that you are a strongly reasoning person. The rationality that you probably apply to many things in life would be hard to miss.

It appears that he already respects you for all that, since you are getting along well.

The only thing that he doesn’t know is that you’re unconvinced of a deity. That is just one result of your independence, your intelligence, and your ability to reason, not the cause of those qualities.

Right now, the person who really needs to know where you stand on such things as religion also already knows. That’s you. So yes, enjoy the time you have left together. In this case, at this point, I think telling him would be only about giving yourself something, and not about giving him something. Let him and your mother have what ease and comfort they can find.

You can consider how you should handle this issue with your mother and sisters later, when people are not so vulnerable from anguish and grief, and in so much need of their customary comforts. You can weigh the principle of honesty versus the principle of compassion versus the principle of prudence on a person-by-person basis. As you grow, as they grow, and as circumstances change, your best guesses at the best solutions to these life puzzles will change too.

You’re sad that he will die, but there is no need to be sad that he will not know everything about you. Just make certain that he knows the most important things. Make certain that he knows you love him, and you know he loves you. He probably already knows that you are a good person who cares about people’s feelings, and who tries to find the best solutions in delicate, difficult situations. He probably already knows that you can selflessly forego your own satisfaction in order to show someone else compassion. Even though he doesn’t know you’re doing those things for him right now, I’m sure those qualities show clearly in much of your behavior. Be certain to thank him for helping to nurture those qualities in you.

Those are the essentials, the things we should be certain are clearly said and understood between us and our loved ones before we lose the opportunity. The rest are just details that we can choose to share or not share, guided by the love we have already made crystal clear.

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • “The only thing that he doesn’t know is that you’re unconvinced of a deity. That is just one result of your independence, your intelligence, and your ability to reason, not the cause of those qualities.”

    I quite like this line. As opposed to the typical view that religion gives you your strength, or that your deity is what gives you your talents and power to move through life, there’s the idea that having certain qualities may lead to being an atheist, rather than being an atheist gifting you with some special abilities.

  • mandy

    Obviously, this is good advice. However, I can’t help but be concerned for Ashley once her father is gone. The funeral would be difficult for anyone, but imagine how she must feel, when listening to the bogus, comforting, heavenly claims about her father enjoying eternal life, when she knows he is just gone–when she is the ONLY one in her family who feels this way. And in her pain, how will she keep her secret? And if she doesn’t, how will her family react toward her? This poor girl will need support from them, and I doubt they’ll give it. I want to give her a hug. To tell her she’s not alone . To give her the support she probably won’t get from them. She is doing the bigger thing in not telling her father now. She is supporting him and guarding him from the pain of her coming out. But who will be there to support her when she is in the most pain. Who will support and ACCEPT her, that is, and not try to re-convert her? 

  • I was faced with this exact conundrum 5 years ago.  I decided to keep it to myself and avoid the additional pain that would have been caused by opening up that issue.  I spoke at my Dad’s funeral and gave a very nice tribute that was clearly not Christian.  I don’t think that anyone noticed though.

  • beetlerace

    Are you still happy with your decision not to “come out” during that time? 
    Not criticizing, just curious.

  • I would keep it to yourself as Richard suggested.  As others have said, you will not only have to go through the grieving process of losing your father but you will have to deal with all the God talk that is sure to come.  That is an unfortunate extra burden but it pales in comparison to the first burden.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Maybe coming from a not very religious family colors my view, but I’m still one of those atheists who still doesn’t get why people feel so strongly about “coming out.”

  •  I think your approach shows class, compassion and restraint.

  • I’ll be dealing with this situation myself soon enough. Sound advice and beautifully dispensed, as always.

  • V Williams

    My father died when I was 19 – before I became an atheist.  From my perspective, I don’t see a reason for you to regret not telling him.  Over the years, you will do many things, grow and change in many ways, and in subtle and overt ways become a different person from who you are now.  He won’t know about any of that.  Right now, you have this one thing that he doesn’t know.  Over the years this one thing will become just one thing in a sea of things: lovers, children, jobs – none of which he knows about.

    Loosing someone you love is hard and I hope you have the support you need to help you through this.  Don’t waste the time you have now worrying about how you will feel in the future.  Celebrate the values and passions that you share.  Take the relationship for what it is now.  If you want it to be a relationship where you are talking about theology – do that.  If that isn’t the sort of relationship you want right now – don’t.

  •  Sure, that makes sense. I think this is not really one of those things that is very easy to empathize with. It’s a former theist thing. 🙂

  • Pedro Lemos

    There´s your answer, you don´t come from a very religious family, so you find it hard to put on these shoes. My family isn´t very religious too, wich is a rarity here in Brazil, so it wasn´t so hard for me to come out either (my father seens actually amused by the fact that I don´t believe in a god like the rest of the family, guess he thinks it´s just a rebel without a cause from youthness thing). Plus, they are kardecist, not catholics like most people here, so I guess they can understand better what it feels like to be a minory. But most of my friends come from families that are catholic or evangelics, so coming out as an atheist would certainly be much more difficult to them. My girlfriend is an agnostic, and her grandparents are highly devoted catholics (to get a picture, they have the picture of the pope hanging on their living room) and I think that, even not being an atheist, just telling them that she considers the possibility of god not existing, they would never look in her face again.

  • Trickster Goddess

    There was a scene from a long forgotten movie that has always stuck in my mind with a situation like this. In the movie a man had had a long standing divisive disagreement with his father, yet seemingly capitulated and agreed with his dying father. After the death someone asked him why he did this, even if he didn’t really mean it.

    His reply was: “I’m going to go to my grave believing I am right, so why shouldn’t he have the same privilege?”

  • Ken

    There are two arguments here:
    One is the “be true to yourself” ideal, which is certainly valid.
    The counter is the fact that coming out would be like tossing a hand grenade into the room, with you in it.  This is another of those pesky grey areas, where the “right” decision may be ultimately too destructive to too many others, and yourself, to be worth it.  Emotional attachments within a family are usually based upon multiple layers of mutual respect, but unfortunately, religion and sex are often hot button topics that can lead to open warfare.  It it right? No.  Can you prevent it by being ambiguous and evasive for those short periods of contact. Probably, and everyone else will probably appreciate it as well. What it comes down to is whether you want to maintain these types of relationships — is there enough emotional payoff in the other areas of your lives?  Honesty is great, but it takes compromise to get along with people with different views, and scorched earth victories aren’t very satisfying to anyone.

  • Mishaloula

    I guess you need to weigh up the pros and cons. In telling your father that you are a non believer, what then…? Perhaps you will feel better for being honest with him – after all, he did ask you if there were any unresolved issues between you, but if it does not go well then you will have to deal with a whole other set of circumstances aside from what you are already facing. I think your dad probably knows where you stand. What is important now is that you spend this time with him just cherishing one another and that you don’t add any stress or confusion that may cause you more pain down the line. Also, I am guessing that you already know where your father would stand should you tell him. His journey is coming to an end and perhaps it is more important to respect him and his strong beliefs, especially during this transition.