Ask Surly Amy: Death and What to Say

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.



Dear Rob,

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.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I think that death is one of the hardest things to come to terms with as a non-believer. While I tend to think that the idea of heaven is silly and unnecessary, when it comes to an actual loved one dying it is very hard to accept that it is really and truly the end. My heart aches for the letter writer, and anyone who is losing somebody they care for.

  2. Perhaps a statement similar to “Dad, what you’ve done with your life is wonderful, and you will live on through your actions and through me (and other siblings, grandchildren, etc.)” may help. I will need to put together such statements in the foreseeable future, since my own father is not in very good health.

  3. I agree with the “time and place for everything” concept. If you’ve already had this debate, odds are your loved one knows your stance. There’s no need to lie to make them feel better about your future, but as A showed in her letter there are ways to be gracious and avoid the discussion.

  4. The minute I read the title of this piece I started singing Hrab’s ‘Everything Alive will Die Someday’ “and in the meantime, I get to see you smile….”

  5. I really liked the suggestion to focus on how he would not longer be suffering, rather than things they disagreed on. There is a time and place, but honesty is also important. I think the suggestions manage to honor both issues and find a good compromise.

    1. This also reminded me of when my friend asked me to help her deal with her Uncle’s death (they were extremely close) since everyone had told her religious ways to deal with it. I told her that he would be “immortal” in a sense so long as she kept thinking of him and remembered him, and that was a way to honor his memory without bringing in any woo. It really can be alienating sometimes, being an atheist in a sea of religious people during something as profound as the death of a loved one.

  6. My father was not a good man, to say the least. He was an alcoholic and it brought out the worst in him. A sledgehammer of a heart attack killed him when I was 12 so I never had to have an end of life conversation with him. But I know what I would have said to him had he lived until today. Much like irreconcilable religious differences there wouldn’t be much point in bringing up how I was treated; some things cannot, and should not, be forgiven. But I would have thanked him for the one undeniably good thing that he gave me: life. If he hadn’t done that my daughter would not exist and the joy she brings me is worth at least that meagre bit of gratitude despite everything else.

    My mother on the other hand is now 81 and her health is failing. I live about as far away from her as you can get on this planet and I suspect I won’t see her again before she dies. She’s rediscovered religion in her old age, a pretty new-agey brand of the Church of England. We simply don’t talk about it. Our conversations have focused on past transgressions both perceived and demonstrably real. We’ve been clearing the air so to speak, offering each other explanations, clarifications and forgiveness where it’s due. My goal in all of this is to be in a place where when the inevitable happens I won’t be left wishing I had a chance to say this or ask that.

    This is the advantage that atheism offers us in end of life situations, the realisation that this is it, there are no second chances. That knowledge added a urgency to my relationship with my mother. I’ve had to think hard and dig deep if I want to be left with no regrets. And here’s the thing: that effort has paid off by opening up a much more meaningful exchange with her. My questioning and asking for forgiveness has allowed her to do the same. It has, as far as I can tell, brought her a measure of peace that would not have come if we’d just pushed all that aside because it’s awkward and uncomfortable and besides, there’d be time enough in heaven to sort all that out.

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