Heart Shaped Scars: Coping with the Loss of Faith and Family…

 

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From Godless In Dixie

The day before my father died, I fell down and skinned my ankle.  It was one of those stupid mistakes that you don’t regret until you are plummeting toward the pavement at 9.8 meters per second-per second.

I was going to take a picture with my phone near the side of the road. (It was for work, and I was trying to be relatively professional.)  But when the ground has the appearance of “ground” and the consistency of a swimming pool full of bean bag pellets, I learned the hard way that Mother Nature is a deceiving little prankster with an affinity for slapstick humor.

My phone clattered to the sidewalk, screen-side down and I tumbled forward in a lurching, broken stagger-cum-nose dive.  I was relieved to find that the glass was miraculously unscathed, but it was only then that the tell-tale burning sting began to alert my consciousness to the fact that I was bleeding from my palms, knees, and ankles.  Well, we all have our priorities I suppose.

Happy to have my phone in one piece, I bandaged myself up and went back to work for the next day and a half.  Early the next morning my mother called sobbing, inconsolable and disoriented.  My father had passed away in his sleep.

Now, my father was a wonderful man in many ways, but truth be told he was also kind of an ass.  Anybody who knew him well would tell you as much.  He was sentimental, principled, tenacious, intelligent, introspective, loyal, determined, trusting, and possessed an impish, incorrigible sense of humor.

Of course no one is perfect.  Everyone has good qualities and bad qualities.  My father’s bad quality just happened to be that he was an ass.  You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wow, didn’t she just say that he died?  I thought this was going to be about grief, but now she’s talking about what an ass he was.  This has taken a strange and uncomfortable turn.”  Don’t worry, this is absolutely going to be about grief.  It’s just going to be about a particular kind of grief, and my father being an ass has everything to do with it!

A Year I Will Never Get Back

You see, I loved my father very much, despite the fact that he bordered on what some might call a toxic parent.  Our relationship had never been very good, and we had not properly spoken to each other for over a year.  He had become increasingly agitated about my apostasy, and increasingly hostile toward my partner (whom he had decided should shoulder the blame for my continued apostasy).  When every interaction deteriorated into wild accusations and hurtful insults directed at my partner and myself, I decided to do what healthy people do when they are in a toxic relationship: I cut off communication.

I foolishly held out hope that he would come around.  I hoped that he would remember that he loved me, and be a grown up and do what grown ups do when they’re a guest and they don’t like the food.  I hoped that he would respect me as a human being…as an adult…as his daughter.

But days went by.  Months went by.  A year.  I continued to live my life without him.  And then my mother called, choking past her words in hesitant, shuddering breaths to tell me what I had feared the most.  I knew this would happen.  Somehow I knew.  And my heart full of hope crumbled into dust.

We would never reconcile.  Never.  Not only that, but the last memories I have emblazoned in my mind of him – of our relationship – will be when he was at his worst.  Not the impish joker, or the sentimental gentleman, or the strong quiet thinker.  But the angry authoritarian bent on control and domination.  I do not want to remember him that way, but I must because that is what is true.  Not only for the last few years of his life, but in retrospect for most of my childhood, unfortunately.

Actually, to be honest I had a pretty happy childhood, I must admit.  I am very grateful to have been so fortunate.  Now that I am an adult I know how rare it is to make it to adulthood with so few emotional (much less physical) scars.  It is something that I truly treasure.

That Kind of Kid

I grew up in a very small town where everybody knew everybody, and half the people were related.  Growing up in the rural south, my family and pretty much the entire community were evangelical Christians.  We went to one of only three tiny churches in our tiny country town.  My mother played the piano and my father taught Sunday school.  I was raised to be a “good” Christian girl, and I certainly was.  I took everything to heart.  All of it.

I was told not to smoke, so I didn’t.  I was told not to drink, so I didn’t.  I was told not to have sex, so I didn’t have sex.  I was told not to curse, so I did not curse.  I was that kid everybody despised for being a goody two-shoes, and I was so naive that I didn’t know why people turned their noses up at me!  I was so naive, I didn’t know that there were things I didn’t know.  (You remember watching a movie as a little kid, and it mentioned something about sex that you didn’t understand?  A clever kid would pick up on that and wonder what they were missing.  But an extremely naive kid would be so naive that they wouldn’t even realize they had heard something risqué.  I was that kind of kid!)

Sometimes pastors would preach a sermon attempting to strike the congregation with shame or some other emotional manipulation, and rather than feeling ashamed or concerned for my soul I felt indignant!  I was not only offended by anyone’s (obvious) attempt to manipulate me, but for heaven’s sake I never did anything to feel guilty about in the first place!  I beg your pardon, and good DAY.

I always rolled my eyes at the altar calls.  Why are they doing that?  I thought.  Everyone here is already saved, they’re just showing off!  So I stubbornly sat in the pew with my arms crossed, waiting for the music to end so we could get on with it already.  It was almost time for lunch, and these people were wasting our time with their phony grandstanding.

But I took the Bible and my own spirituality very seriously.  Ever since I was able to formulate philosophical questions about the Bible, I started trying to make sense of it.  (I know, I know, but from my perspective it was presented to me as a pervasive truth you just took for granted.)

Leaving My Religion

Remember how I said that I was so naive that I didn’t know that there were things I didn’t know?  This applies to the Bible as well.  So for decades, I struggled with my own frustration with the logical inconsistencies, yet unable to see the “solution” that many people naturally come to at a young age.  This led to my taking a very circuitous route out of my religion.

Because I wanted so badly to seek and understand the truth, I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the Bible and the Christian religion.  I also very much wanted this elusive “relationship” that everybody kept going on and on about.  But every step I took towards finding “the truth” took me one step farther away from the religion of my birth.

Until one day, while I was driving down a country road on a beautiful sunny day it suddenly hit me like a rushing wave.  “Oh! Wow!  This is all there is!“ And so many emotions followed that wave.  I was delighted and relieved to have concluded something so incredibly simple yet something that explained almost *everything* that hadn’t made sense before.  But at the same time I was furious that the entire world from the time I was born seemed to have been coordinating a giant practical joke on me, except they were also unknowingly the butts of the same joke.  I was struck with pity for those still under the spell.  How much time and mental effort had I wasted in my life?  How many important decisions did I throw away to magical or wishful thinking?  I felt enormous regret for those years of my life.  I felt embarrassment for all the times I made a fool of myself over my beliefs.  I felt a wistfulness for that part of myself I knew I could never get back.

Over the next few days and weeks, a growing grief began to take root.  I subconsciously realized that not just a part of my past, but a part of my very identity had passed away.  I certainly embraced my newfound apostasy with both arms and both legs.  Knowing the truth was like breathing fresh air for the first time after a life trapped inside a coffin.  I never wanted to go back into that coffin.

(As an aside here, I will be honest and admit that I never benefitted from Christianity’s so-called loving community.  Most ex-Christians struggle with losing their community when they lose their religion.  I was always a bit of an odd duck, and continuously ended up getting shunned and forgotten at best, treated with contempt and gossiped about at worst.  So the loss of that “community” was not a source of grief for me as it would be for most people coming out of their religion.  And before anybody says it, no this is not why I no longer believe in God.)

I did grieve though, as most people do.  I didn’t grieve over the things that weren’t real like God and prayer, but for the things that were real.  Christianity was the foundation of my childhood.  It shaped some of my earliest memories.  I still have songs from Vacation Bible School dancing around in my head from time to time.  I still hum old hymns when I cook.  Aside from the little primers they gave us in kindergarten, one of the first real books I read out of was my Bible, and I ended up with a true love of reading.  My mother read to me from the big blue Bible Story books with the lovely color pictures every night before bed.

The Good and the Bad Mix Together

There are a lot of things I dislike about religion now that I’m out of that bubble and can look at it from the outside.  I can see now how it damages and hinders people in a lot of ways.  I can see how it grossly oversteps its boundaries in personal relationships and in the public sphere. Religious belief can cause people to obsess over unhealthy things.  It can make people focus their priorities in warped, unhealthy directions.  It can turn family members and friends into strangers or even bitter enemies for reasons that are purely imaginary and unreasonable.

But at the same time, when you grow up with religion as part of your world, you experience both sides of a very peculiar coin.  You see first-hand all the unpleasantness and dirty truths, and you are forced to wrestle with learning how to endure through all of it because in the end it is all wrapped up in life itself as far as you’re concerned.  How could you possibly have known otherwise?

Alongside the shame and the exclusivity and the cognitive dissonance are the sunny little shards of happiness and sweet tenderness that dot your memories leaving a glittering trail all the way back to the beginning.  Like the shimmering flecks of mica embedded in an asphalt road, or the rainbow sheen on an oily puddle, there is simply something inseparable and distinct in the total package.

Religion functions very much like a close family member suffering from some sort of disorder or addiction, complete with character flaws, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and obsessions, eccentricities, mood swings, unpredictable behavior, loving gestures, and a desire to do good mixed with the inability to maintain reasonable behavior.  You grow up with this “person” sharing memories, traditions, and values.  You learn to adapt.  You love the positive traits and you pity or explain away the embarrassing ones.  Love is like that, and you most likely don’t even realize you’re doing it.  That “person” is simply part of your life, and life goes on.  Love tolerates and perseveres far past the point of reason.

When everything comes crashing down and the relationship falls apart, it is only natural to grieve.  But grieving will be complicated. There will be sadness mixed with relief.  There will be bitterness mixed with nostalgia.  There will be anger mixed with pity.   There will be sorrow mixed with acceptance.

The tapestry that makes up who you are is made up of all the threads of your past.  When you grow up immersed in a religious culture (and when you grow up with a toxic family member) you will naturally have a majority of your tapestry interwoven with those dark, flawed, knotted, iridescent threads that are frayed and broken and sometimes even quite beautiful.  You cannot pull out the threads without destroying your very existence.  Your identity is a pattern stitched together by these threads, and it can never be unravelled.  You can only keep going forward with new thread.

Coming to the conclusion that a narrative which frames the basis of your identity and your understanding of the world had all along been a source of unhealthy emotional baggage and factual misinformation can be incredibly painful.  Not many people make this transition flippantly or easily.  It is not a process that can be undertaken on a whim.  Often it is the case that the majority of this process is sorted out internally…privately, over many years even.  When those around you become aware of your “new” relationship status with religion, they see it as sudden and thoughtless.  Confused, they will often retaliate with a backlash of presumptuous arguments intended to make you see the error of your ways.  What they fail to understand is that they are vainly chipping away at the tip of an incredibly deep iceberg.

Unfortunately, this may happen when you are grappling with the grief of your loss.  This can only compound the pain.  If you can (and it’s not always possible), it may be wise to give yourself some time between your deconversion and the time when you share your beliefs with your loved ones.  This will allow you time to heal, time to come to terms with your past, and time to feel at home with your current beliefs.

Coping With Your Loss of Faith

It is important to understand that grief is not something that only happens after the death of a loved one.  It can occur after any major loss.  Divorce or breaking up with your partner, children growing up and moving away, the loss of a pet, cutting off a toxic family member, failing to finish or go to college, losing your job, and losing your religious beliefs are some of the many reasons you may experience intense grief.

Coping with grief is unique for each person, but there are some common helpful strategies that benefit people suffering from grief.  Experts agree that bottling your feelings and suffering in silence is unhealthy and counterproductive.  Even if you are surrounded by nothing but a sea of evangelical Christians and have no one to talk to, please find solace in an online community, or search for a local meetup in your area.  You will be surprised by the amount of relief and emotional freedom you can receive by interacting in a group of like-minded individuals.  It is extremely therapeutic.  Also, please understand that not all online communities are the same, so if you find that one group is not to your liking, keep looking!  Each group has its own dynamic and style.

Also, be aware that everyone grieves at their own pace.  It may take one person a week to “get over it” and move on, while another person’s grief hangs on for years or decades.  There is no “correct” amount of time to grieve.

There is also no “correct” way to grieve either.  Some people grieve through tears and reverent sorrow.  Others through ribaldry and jokes.  Some people grieve through anger and lashing out.  Others through philosophical contemplation.  These are all beneficial to the individual, even if it may not be to everyone’s personal taste.

I know of a very intelligent and witty young man who hosts a channel on YouTube.  When he was going through his grieving process his videos were cheeky and rather juvenile, addressing religious belief by using metaphors which were (albeit clever) rather mocking and blunt.  Then he stopped posting videos for several years.  When he came back he suddenly began posting the most beautiful, profound, philosophically deep lectures on the meaning of life as a non-believer complete with self-composed instrumental background music.  He made quite a transformation.

When the dust settles and you reach that place of comfortable acceptance, life slowly begins to crank along as it should.  The days spin by and the nights drift along in a predictable way and your mind finds that it is at ease with the way of the world.  Slowly, the “old ways” begin to feel distant and foreign and even hollow.  You’ll blink in disbelief when suddenly confronted with things that you once took for granted.

Through Turbulent Waters to the Calm

Coming to terms with the past is no easy feat, especially when that past is punctuated with positive memories along with the negative ones.  Just like a father who struggles with substance abuse and spends a great deal of time overcompensating by controlling the people closest to him and finding fault with everyone but himself, religion can function in much the same way.  Yet very much like a flawed father who cares for his children despite his shortcomings, trying to pass along his wisdom and virtues, sharing his happiness the best way he knows how, religion also serves this purpose on a different scale.

I will tell you a secret.  When you are grieving, it is perfectly acceptable to be angry and resentful over the damage you received, while at the same timeacknowledging the love you experienced along the way.  You are allowed to grieve over all of your feelings as they wash over you.  When you have to cope with the loss of something or someone that both hurt AND nurtured you, your emotions are going to be taking a roller coaster ride of pain and confusion, and you won’t be in charge of the controls.

When my father died, my mother was shocked by how bitterly and desperately I wept at the funeral.  I’m not sure if it was because I had not spoken to him in so long, or if it was because I was an atheist, or if it was because it was out of character for me to cry when I was upset.  Nevertheless she was surprised by my reaction.

I don’t blame her for her shock, but I had my reasons for being particularly devastated.  Not only had I permanently lost my chance to reconcile with him, but unlike her I knew that I would never see him again.  On top of all of that I had to suddenly begin my long descent into that complicated grief over someone who both loved me and hurt me.  Like two bodies of water forced to push together at the mouth of a bay, the water clashed and suddenly became choppy and the waves swelled and peaked.  It would take effort to push past the turbulence and return to the smooth deep water beyond.

It had only been a day since I fell on the sidewalk and dropped my phone, and my wounds were fresh.  The day of the funeral, the skin on my palms and knees were red but healing, but my ankle sported an open bleeding gash that resembled a little heart.  It would take weeks for that wound to become a scar, and months for that scar to fade to a pale impression.  That little heart may never completely disappear.  I may carry it with me all my life.  Just like the dark threads that run back through the tapestry of time, all of my heart shaped scars will always be a part of me, and for better or for worse, I think I’m okay with that.
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