Friday, May 13, 2016

Ways to Support a Loved One Who is Losing Their Faith

Losing one's faith can be one of the most difficult and painful experiences of a person's life. For many, including myself, it felt like the death of a loved one. I lost a huge part of my identity when I lost my faith and, in some ways, those aspects of my identity will never be replaced. For some the loss may not feel quite as intense, but there is still a sense of loss, whether it's the loss of a community, a tradition, a comfort zone, etc.

One of the most important things for a person losing their faith is having a support system. However, that is often exactly what they lose when they are honest with people about their non-belief or growing doubts. So what are some ways that we can be the support that our loved one needs during this difficult transition?

  1. Listen. I can't stress this enough. Allow them to talk openly with you without judgment. One of the most therapeutic things they can do is just unload all of the frustration and disappointment by verbalizing it to a caring, non-judgmental ear.
  2. Don't take it personally. Whatever they are experiencing is their own journey. Even if you don't like the conclusions they're drawing, try to keep in mind that it's not about you. Don't constantly remind them that their loss of faith is hurting YOU! Keep in mind that it probably hurts them worse. Also, this is a time when tensions and emotions may be high and hurtful words might be said. They are probably experiencing some grief and may lash out. I know it's easier said than done, but try to be as patient and forgiving as possible. There's no good excuse for hurtful language, but if you can ride this out with them your relationship will grow through it. My husband was incredible in this area for me.
  3. Be patient. Like I said in the last point, you'll need to be patient, forgiving and as understanding as possible. Their grieving process could take months or it could take years. It's difficult to have a complete change in your world view. It's difficult to feel that everything you believed and lived for has suddenly been ripped out from under you. It takes time to get used to a new outlook on life and the world. Patience from the people around you makes a huge difference!
  4. Be a shoulder to cry on. Your loved one may or may not have an emotional reaction to losing their faith. I certainly cried on many occasions and I'll never forget how loving and supportive my husband was in those times. He was still a Christian at the time, but he knew that what I was going through was really hard on me so he would just hold me while I cried. Those times could have been so much worse if he wasn't there to help me through it.
  5. Validate their feelings. Even if what they are feeling is not what you think they should be feeling, it doesn't matter. The fact of the matter is that they are experiencing this in exactly their own way and your job is to be their support through it. Acknowledge to them that you recognize that what they are experiencing is hard. When they express anger, say things like, "That must make you pretty mad." When they express disappointment, say something like, "How disappointing." These simple phrases communicate to them that you are listening and empathizing. It may seem silly that you are just repeating their emotions back to them, but it truly helps a person to feel like they are really being heard.
  6. Respect their conclusion. I was going to say, "Respect their decision," but, in reality, it's more of a conclusion than a decision. You can't really choose to believe something. You either believe it or you don't. A person bases their beliefs on the evidence presented to them (keep in mind that some people's understanding of what constitutes evidence is different than others). Could you decide to believe that gravity didn't exist and then jump off a tall building? My guess is that your answer is "No" because the evidence is too overwhelming for you to deny the existence of gravity. Respect that, even if the conclusions they've drawn aren't the same as yours, they couldn't change their mind just by choosing to.
  7. Don't try to control or fix the situation. You may feel the overwhelming urge to try to fix the situation or to make them feel better right away. As much as it sucks, you can't fix it! You don't need to fix it. The best and most helpful thing you can do is listen (and all of the other things I suggest here, of course).
  8. Recognize that they may be going through the grief process. Grieving can be a long and difficult process, but it's healthy and normal. Like I mentioned above, losing my faith felt like the death of a loved one to me. I went through several of the stages of grief. A list of the stages and a description of each is here.
  9. Communicate openly and honestly about YOUR feelings. Just because you are the supportive person to your loved one going through this difficult time doesn't mean that you can't/won't experience emotions of your own over it. You may also be feeling the disappointment, anger, denial, sadness, etc. that they are feeling. It's good to communicate openly about your feelings without making it seem that you are blaming them. Communication and honesty are critical to maintaining a strong relationship, especially when going through a crisis.
  10. Do NOT use Pascal's Wager as an argument for faith. Pascal's Wager is the idea that it's better to believe in God and be wrong than to not believe in God and be wrong and suffer the consequences. This is a ridiculous argument for many reasons that I won't go into here. You can read more about why this argument doesn't work here. Just don't use that argument on someone who has lost their faith. It's very dismissive of their position and, like I said before, a person who doesn't believe can't force themself to believe. Belief just doesn't work that way.
If you're a person who took the time to read this article the chances are that you are probably already a caring, supportive person wanting to improve and be even better at it. You are to be commended for that! I hope that these suggestions are helpful to you.

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

When She Died I Wasn't There

A few days ago was the 7 year anniversary of the death of one of my husband's best friends from high school, Liz. Seven years ago she was running near the college where she was in her senior year and was training for a race. She was struck by a vehicle on the road where she was running and was killed. It was devastating to all who knew her, especially those who were close to her and loved her. My husband had been a very close friends with her and her death hit him very hard.

This tragic accident happened about 8 months after I started dating Patrick. Our relationship took off quickly and we fell hard for each other fast. However, there was something hanging over my head that I couldn't shake all through our relationship. Since our relationship progressed so quickly we were drawn to each other like magnets and we had sex early on in our relationship, despite our conviction to abstain till marriage. I had already lost my virginity, but had abstained for 3 years prior to meeting him and Patrick had abstained until meeting me. I found that out after the fact, which was devastating to me in its own way (I felt that I had ruined something sacred for him).

Well, I couldn't shake the shame and guilt I felt over what we had done and it had gotten so bad that 8 months in I couldn't pray or read my Bible without crippling guilt and depression. So I went to him one night at his apartment and told him that I believed that God wanted us to break up and that I felt the conviction that I didn't love Jesus more than I loved him and that our relationship would never work if we didn't put Christ first. He was completely shocked and terribly upset by this and asked me if this was permanent or temporary. I told him it was indefinite, but that we had to treat it like it was permanent because I wasn't sure what God wanted for us. I hadn't seen him cry until that night. Tears were streaming down his face and I was trying to maintain my resolve, because I truly believed I was doing the right thing even though it hurt so badly.

I left that night a complete wreck. I missed him immediately and I couldn't shake the image of him crying, confused and terrified that he would lose me forever. I was terrified that I would lose him too, but I truly believed that the reason I had felt so awful the preceding months was because our relationship wasn't blessed by God. So I drove home crying and broken and missing the love of my life.

Well, a couple weeks later Liz died and this was only 3 months after another one of his best friends from high school died as well. She died and I wasn't there for him. He was facing one of the hardest struggles of his life thus far and the woman he loved (who loved him back equally) wasn't there to hold and comfort him like she should have been. Instead, I was off praying desperately to a God, who never answered, to give me a sign that we were supposed to be together.

He called me in tears, telling me what had happened to Liz and I made the decision to go with him to the funeral. I told him that I was going with him as a friend and I tried to maintain that distance even though every bone in my body was crying out to hold him and sooth him. I wanted to kiss his tears away and be his only comfort, but instead I was distant and reserved.

This is the kind of thing that bullshit breeds. It breeds more bullshit. Damaging, painful, senseless bullshit. I felt awful while we were dating, not because we needed to break up, but because I was buried in religious guilt and shame over something harmless. We loved each other and in the passion of our love we "made love." That was what burdened me so greatly and caused me to almost lose the most amazing person I've ever met.

A month or so after we broke up we went on a long walk together to talk about things and decided to get back together and to not have sex anymore until we got married, but by then the damage was already done. I had already lost my opportunity to be the real support he needed in his time of grief over losing Liz. I had already hurt him. And we didn't even stop having sex. We did several times after that too and I'm glad because those are some of the most sensual, erotic memories I have. They still fuel my lust for him today!

As an atheist I think back on this situation with anger and resentment. I realize now that what was causing me so much discomfort in our relationship was guilt, not conviction. I realize that loving Christ more than Patrick does not make our relationship stronger. In fact, I don't even believe in Christ anymore and our relationship is stronger than it's ever been. It's memories like this that remind me how damaging religious ideas can truly be, when they are taken seriously, and it makes me want to shout from the rooftops that it's bullshit, in hopes that someone like me will hear it and be freed from the chains of faith.