Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My Dad recently committed suicide. Despite the circumstances of his death I assure you he was a great man. I have been raised in a very religious family. In fact I am the only member of my family that is not actively religious. I tend to take a more passive stance on religion, although I am most definitely a non-believer. My family definitely knows I am not actively involved in religion, but probably would not consider me an atheist. I am confounded that anyone can find comfort in a God who would sit idly by while my father died. How can you find comfort in a being that is capable of preventing this tragedy? How can they worship a God who either didn’t care enough or just wanted to see my Dad die? It baffles me how in the face of tragedy people turn to God. I have not encountered suffering of this magnitude since I left religion (and had often wondered if I would come running back at the first sign of despair), but this event has only strengthened my position against religion. I also have a hard time holding my tongue as distant friends and relatives try to console me with prayer, but as my father was a Christian and this is probably not the best time to cause more turmoil within my family I have in large part just gone along with the shenanigans. Any insight would be appreciated.
Please accept my heartfelt care about you in your pain, and my wishes for your continued healing.
You wrote your letter about three months ago, and I decided that it would be better to wait to reply until you had some time for the initial upheaval of emotions in your family and in your own mind to settle down a bit.
At this time, it’s important to start taking concerted steps to move through the process of your grief. Grief fades gradually, tapering down in decreasing waves, but most people find that it resolves more quickly and more thoroughly if they are able to talk about their feelings with a trusted friend or relative. In your case, that would need to be someone to whom you can express all of your thoughts and emotions, someone who can remain religiously neutral and will not argue back in defense of religion. If you have no one suitable, consider consulting a professional counselor, one who will confirm on the very first phone call that he or she will remain completely secular during the sessions.
You have asserted that your father was a great man despite the circumstances of his death, and I want to affirm that a person’s suicide should never be used to make summary judgments about that person’s character. Stereotypical negative assumptions about the deceased only reflect the ignorance and character flaws of the person making those assumptions. Suicide is most often a result of depression, a serious mental disorder that affects tens of millions of wonderful, intelligent, loving people, and often it is undetectable by caring and thoughtful family and friends. The causes and issues are usually very complex, and they’re idiosyncratic to each individual. It’s never constructive for anyone to search for “blame.” That is a primitive and destructive concept to apply to this.
Nevertheless, a suicide can produce conflicting feelings in the loved ones. They can feel grief about, anger at, and love for the same person all at the same time. Give yourself permission, permission, permission to feel and express all of your feelings. Yes, they conflict, yes, some may be irrationally based, but they all need to be thoroughly expressed anyway.
I can fully understand your feeling confounded, and by the tone of your letter, angered by the ways that many religious people respond to tragedy. I’ve heard many theists try to answer your questions about a god who would either passively allow such tragedies to happen, or who would want or preordain them to happen, but so far, all the answers I’ve heard either rely heavily on, or consist entirely of a shrug of the shoulders. Their answers are generally not at all satisfying to a person who thinks above the level of a small child. Perhaps this is why Christians are told that they must become as little children, so that they’ll accept answers that would be inadequate to an adult. Being told to dumb oneself down, to somehow deliberately become childishly naïve and gullible is a manipulation by someone who knows that they don’t have adequate answers. Being told that thinking like a child is a virtue and thinking like an adult is a lack of virtue is an insult.
However, when friends or relatives try to comfort you with an offer of their prayers and other religious consolations, try to focus on the human motive of their offer. They’re practicing empathy, a wonderful human ability to accurately imagine what another person is feeling in a difficult or painful situation. To console someone, most people only have the tools and the language they learned as children by watching their parents and peers deal with each others’ grief. They’re not experts at this. They often feel insecure, inadequately prepared, and even a little helpless when they approach you, and so their efforts might be awkward and might seem a little canned or contrived. Try to be patient and forgiving of them. They’ve been taught that their religious clichés are supposed to help folks feel better.
Atheists don’t have such platitudes to pull out of their pockets. They must summon the courage to approach the bereaved with nothing but their empty, open hands, saying “I care about you,” and “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Use your safe person, whether it’s the trusted friend or the professional counselor, to vent your feelings, and resist the temptation to take it out on people who only wish to do what they think is a compassionate thing for you. Their hearts are in the right place, even if the words and ideas they offer are of no use to you.
I’m certainly not saying that you should never disagree openly with them. I’m talking about how to respond during the most intense first months of everyone’s grief process. Paradoxically, by practicing your best empathy and compassion on them, I think your own grief will heal more quickly.
Here are two other posts that might be useful to you:
Ask Richard: Perplexed by Irrational Religious Explanations for a Suicide
Ask Richard: Relating to Religious People at Times of Grief