Ask Richard: Atheist Dealing with Aftermath of His Father’s Suicide

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.
Thanks,
Evan

Dear Evan,
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.

Richard

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

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.

  • Michael Koch

    This is not a time to be flip…. and I’ll certainly try not to be.  Richard Wade, as usual, you’ve given the writer of the letter an educated and thougthtful answer to his questions.  I myself have had two members of my family commit suicide, and there really are no good answers as to why they chose that path.  It must be assumed that from their point of view, either that life became too difficult to handle,  or that circumstances in their life, either through sickness or crime or because of money forced them to reach their decision to end it all….   Ghod, if he even exists, and whether or not the victim of this suicide was a believer does not even enter into the equation.  I assume the man had free will, & no force on heaven or Earth was going to stop him.  An I also assume, although I could be wrong, that this was not done rashly, but only after much difficult thought and prayer.  Obviously he saw no other way…..  No one else is responsible, and once the decision has been made very little can be done to disuade it.  Religion has little to do with the outcome, and those remaining always suffer from some guilt. Though this is unnecessary,  it is also part of life…..  The young man must go on, possibly with the help of a counselor.  I  have a friend whose brother recently comitted suicide and she sees a psycologist twice a week, to help her deal with the event.  In any case… don’t blame Imaginary ghods, they’re just crutches in the first place, and as such bare little blame….   If you’re a ‘non-believer’  act that way,  rely on your own strengths to get you through.

    • TrinainUS

       Michael, you spoke very well here.  I’m sorry that you’ve lost family members to suicide.  I suffer from depression myself, and have friends who have it much worse than I.  These are multi-faceted problems and while we seek social understanding and improvements in mental health care, there’s a very real personal cost to survivors and they need support.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

    Dear Evan:

    My father very  recently died as well, and although it was not a suicide, the circumstances of his death had many similarities to suicide and caused me to feel what you are feeling now, which is anger. Anger at your father, but also at family members, for the reasons you list but also for another one. That is that they have a different view of the world, his death, and its meaning than you do, despite your knowledge that your perspective is based in reality, logic and fact. I encourage you to talk, a lot, with friends. Or strangers; the internet is a wonderful place to express yourself at a difficult time and not stress anyone whom you love or is close to you. You have every right to be angry, and hurting. It won’t go away quickly, and that’s OK too. 

    Take the time, as much as you can, to grieve. Don’t make any important decisions about your life or money or anything like that, and if you have to, be sure to consult with a trusted friend before you do. Do a lot of physical stuff: walking, lifting weights, swimming, etc. Try not to drown your sorrows in booze or drugs, but if you do, don’t beat yourself up too much and recognize that the only way to deal with the pain your feel is to feel it. I won’t say “it will get better,” because I find such notions during times like these glib and insensitive. But it is clear from your letter you have a strong mind, and I have confidence that you will find your own way to deal with the massive change in your life and family his passing represents. There are many resources out there to help you in this process, and in this way you’re lucky to live in the age of the internet, because most are only a click away. Don’t hesitate to find them, and use them. 

    My sincerest condolences,
    Michelle “Chicago Dyke”

  • Evertoniancalvinist

    Dear grieving atheist: One way to get over the grief you fell over your loved ones death is to remember the very foundations of the atheistic worldview. Grief is an abstract concept that evolved out our physical brain tissue millions of years ago. Although the grief feels real, ultimately it is just a unpleasent chemical reaction happening in your head. Try to ignore it or numb it with a doctor prescribed drug. If this doesn’t work, try to go further back in your worldview and remember that the universe has no Ultimate meaning. If there were true, then our deaths and the deaths of our loved ones have no Ultimate meaning either. Remembering his may ease your pain. However, if the fairy tale atheist worldview does not suffice to help with your pain, you can always turn to the truth of the Gospel. In the gospel we have a strong Savior who can sympathize with your grief and suffering. After all, He was a man whose life was characterized by suffering.

    • Aaron Scoggin

      This is probably one of the most heartless things I’ve ever read.

      Using someone’s death as a vehicle to get more believers.. And you wonder why you’re a dying breed. Excuse the cliche, but thank god for that.

      • Evertoniancalvinist

        Actually Aaron, I’m offering a real solution to pain, grief and death. You as an atheist have no answers for the most difficult events in life. Jesus gives love hope and life. My post was not heartless. It provided an answer to the vexing issue of death.

        • Doomedd

          You don’t provide any answers.

        • The Other Weirdo

           No, it doesn’t. It provides nothing. All you’ve got are fairy tales written down thousands of years ago, based on beliefs of a primitive peoples who eve the Romans living around them thought too superstitious.

        • Nope

          Kill yourself.

    • Miss_Beara

      You cannot be serious. :-P 

    • Coyotenose

       God but you’re a desperately evil creature.

      And since the “meaning” question was answered for you numerous times, you’re still a stupid, shoddy liar.

    • Chris

      I kindly request the parent post be deleted. It is sarcastic, cruel, and unhelpful. I cannot believe someone would be so heartless as to write something so condescending in response to this letter.

      Evan, you have my sincerest condolences and I wish you the best.

      - Chris

      • Evertoniancalvinist

        Chris…you are dead wrong. I am pointing out that the atheistic worldview offers no help or hope when we face death, suicide, pain etc. After I used satire to point this out, I quickly offered al readers REAL hope in Jesus. If you reject that offer, it’s on you. I myself have had two family members commit suicide. The only hope for the tragedy of death is Jesus—-the man who tasted death for His people.

        BTW… Your charge of me being “cruel” and “heartless” is completely inconsistent with your worldview. It’s a dog eat dog world. Stop borrowing from my worldview. Be consistent.

        If there is any atheist who wants to hear how to escape death, deal with depression etc etc. I can help. I’ll talk with you.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

      You fucking piece of shit.
      I forgot the part of the Bible where Jesus says, “Be insensitive and rude to your enemies in times of pain. After all, the ends justify the means.”
      Here’s a tip: If you’re trying to argue that your religion has more to offer to a grieving person than atheism does, you probably shouldn’t talk down to someone while all the atheists are being sympathetic.

      • Evertoniancalvinist

        Julie.. Atheism offers ZERO comfort to any mourner. Think about the foundations of your worldview Julie, and then please give us some comfort about death and suicide. Julie, seriously, give us something. On the other hand, I have offered real, true hope. I have offered a man who suffered, died and rose from the dead. A man whose life was one of pure sorrow.

        BTW Julie, your anger is very inconsistent. Why are you made at a fella for the ideas that are being produced from chemical reactions in my head? Julie.. give us some hope about our death that is coming? Waiting.

    • Robert Estrada

      Dear sad person,
      I think that it is pathetic that you only see beauty, the wonder of birth and sadness of death, thru a bronze age myth.  What is it that gives you the insight to know who an atheist feels? If you claim that you were once an atheist and felt that way I can only surmise that yoou wrer mentally unbalanced.  Yes I do mean chemically.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I lost my father to a heart attack about 20 years ago and that loss was definately the hardest thing I have gone through in my life.  The loss and pain is real and there is realy no way to make it better except for the passage of time. In time, though, things will get better but you have to traverse that time.  There is no getting around it.  It would be better not to complicate things with grudges and anger.  The loss itself is enough.  From the vantage point of many years later, I still miss him but the pain is no longer there.  You will get there too one day.  Just give it time.  It will take time. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    The way I see it is that anyone who is being tortured probably wants to die rather than to feel more pain. Pain is meant as a warning to us to fix whatever is wrong. We’re not meant to withstand constant pain that doesn’t go away and that goes for emotional pain too.
    That’s why you can be mad at someone for committing suicide because they’ve caused you to suffer, but at the same time you can feel sorry for them and love them and be glad that they’re no longer suffering.
    I hope that helps…

    • Evertoniancalvinist

      Julie, No, that doesn’t help at all. What a shallow, narcissistic, silly offer of hope. Julie has proved my point for me. Julie’s atheism has basically said “be glad their suffering is over, but you can be mad at him because now you have to suffer..”. Thanks Julie. We feel better now. Hey Evan, Jesus suffered, died and rose from the dead. If we believe in Him, He will give us eternal life and save us from death.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    The troll has been banned.

    • Doomedd

      Thanks

  • Michaelbrice

    I am not opposed to conflicting views and meaningful debate on an atheist site, but I am sick and tired of evertoniancalvinist and his hateful posts. Henant, haven’t we put up with his vitriol long enough?

    • Robert Estrada

      Michael,
      Like yoou I didnot read to the end.

      For the un-typing impared that should be “what an atheist feels” not” who.

  • Jenprohaska

    I, too, have felt alone and overwhelmed by grief when I realized that I was one of the only people who didn’t feel comforted by the christian explanations and cliches after a death.  It added to the pain.  Please remember that there are others out there who have also grieved.  It’s OK to grieve.  Sometimes shitty things happen, and sometimes there’s no one to blame.  Life does go on, though, and when you regain a sense of balance, it will be easier to look back on your memories with your father with pleasure.

  • A Friendly Theist

    There is no such thing as fate; I.e. God controlling everything that happens in a persons life. Such micro-management would be like puppetry. When people give God credit for everything good that happens they feel betrayed when something bad happens. Actually, the Bible says, “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall us all.” He gives people the “power beyond what is normal” to endure hardships, but does not keep them from occurring. God does not rule this world, otherwise it would not be so messed up as it is. He is temporarily allowing mankind the opportunity to exercise free will to rule themselves and “choose for themselves what is good and bad.” unfortunately “Man has dominated man to his injury” and use their free will “to infringe upon the rights of others” thus causing much suffering. He has set a time limit to this experiment in human rule and will restore things to what was originally intended. People say, “why doesn’t God do something?” but then grow offended at the thought that he will step in to remove wickedness from the earth. It can’t be both ways. When he steps in, it will be to be to deal with the disease, not just the symptoms people experience in their daily life. This doesn’t mean he is uncaring, just that he is patient and has a long-term plan to resolve issues permanently for all mankind not just temporarily for a few. Humans, with their currently short lifespans want instant gratification instead of taking a step back and seeing the big picture. “God is not slow, as some people consider slowness, but he is patient with you, because he does not desire any to be destroyed, but desires all to attain to repentance.”

    • Lapushka

      If God has allowed people to “choose for themselves what is good and bad”, then why are there so many rules and sins in the Bible? I’m sincerely curious, not trolling.

  • dam

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. I really like & agree with what you said here: “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. ”
    -dam


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X