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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