Dear Surly Amy,
You probably get more email than you can handle, and I’m sorry for adding another one, but I sincerely believe you can help me here.
Can you point me to some links that discuss how an atheist can deal with a dying parent who is very religious?
I have a good relationship with my father, but we’ve argued like cats and dogs over religion for literally decades, and now that he is dying from pancreatic cancer, I want to be supportive and sensitive to his beliefs and whatever comfort they can give him, but I do not want to lie either. The thing that scares me most is if he asks me point blank what I think is going to happen to him after he dies. I have no idea what to say in that situation.
Thank you so much for any advice you can offer me.
The death of a loved one is tough. It can be one of the most difficult things that we must face.
It is true the religious find comfort in their faith especially at the end of their life or in times of great emotional distress. I am of the mindset that it is not something worth debating when time has run out.
Just be there as best you can for your loved one.
What I have heard from many non religious people who have experienced the death of a loved one is that they feel extremely alienated from their community or extended families because they can not experience or participate in the the relief of, “oh we will be together in heaven” ideal that is set forth by spiritual minded folks. So try not to be too hard on yourself. This can be a very lonely time for those free from religion when entrenched in a religious community.
There is a time and a place for the God and the afterlife debate.
I don’t feel that a deathbed or during the immediate grieving process is the right place. You do not have to lie to yourself but sometimes somethings are better left unsaid. You can however, ask the people around you to be respectful of your non-belief in terms of services and how people directly interact with you. But as for your relationship at the end of your father’s life, I would try to make it as peaceful as I could.
Death is hard for all of us.
Skepchick, A.Real.Girl recently lost her father. She had this to say:
I am so sorry to hear you are going through this most difficult time with your father. I went through a similar thing with my Dad throughout my life, at least one round a week. He didn’t consider me married since my wedding wasn’t in a church, as just one example. Lots of heated harumphing and shouting from both of us which never swayed anyone.
And at the end of his tenacious memory, which happened to be at the end of his life (although I didn’t know it at the time), the vitriolic arguing ended. When we’d talk faith, he’d simply ask the question you fear the most: what did I think would happen when he died then?
I didn’t want to lie either, so here’s what I did: I answered honestly, and patiently. And I tried to remember he was asking me because he loved me and trusted me, and I tried to soothe his mind. What did I think would happen when he died? I thought he’d no longer be sad that his body was failing. What did I think it would feel like? I thought he’d no longer have back pain. Did I think we’d see each other again in Heaven? No, but I did think there was a lot of ‘heaven’ on Earth, and I loved him as best as I could right here and now.
He wanted me to believe. He prayed for me. But more than both of those, he loved me. I don’t know if he was comforted by my answers, but he did seem comforted by my presence. I have no idea if that was the right thing to do, but it was my choice.
I hope the same is true for you both.
I would also advise seeking out secular grief counseling in your area.
We plan on writing more on this topic soon so keep your eye out for another post in the near future from A and Maria. If anyone has a link they would like to share where this topic has been discussed, please leave it in the comment section.
Best wishes to you and your family.
Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.