Sunday, October 5, 2014

On Life, Death, and Family Values

I haven't been up to writing lately. Taking care of myself and my family has been enough to manage.

Last month, my therapist and I talked about coming out of the atheist "closet". I haven't told my in-laws that I don't believe in their god anymore, and she thought it would do me good. Because honesty is one of my cherished values.

But then so is kindness. If transparency is likely to cause someone else emotional distress, is it kind to be transparent? Or am I really just hiding from my fear of being rejected as a "disappointment"?

Not long after my conversation with my counselor, we buried Chris's grandmother.

The obituary said she "went home to be with Jesus".


What does an atheist do at a very Christian funeral?

The officiant keeps stating that all the children and grandchildren of the deceased have been "saved". (He is too polite to say what they have been saved from--it would be harsh to talk about hell when people are already crying. Does he believe in hell, I wonder? Some of his listeners have lived it.)

I still know all the words to all the hymns, and find myself recalling the stories behind their writing as well. Memories sweep over me with every chord. The verse written by a rabbi. Singing in four-part harmony with my team in Russia. I was introduced to one of the songs when I visited IBLP Headquarters in my late teens. It became my personal "courtship" theme song; I even wrote my own tune for it. Chris sings along with some of the songs, but then he stops. In my head, I add a soaring soprano note to the final stanza though my voice remains silent.

This pastor never knew Grandma before her recent stroke. He has taken his cues from stories the family told him over the weekend, and from the notes in her Bible. Someone has told him that in her final hours, Grandma whispered a three-word phrase found in St. Paul's writing, so he uses that text as the springboard for a sermon. Perhaps some listening find it comforting. Afterward, another devout family member tells me that Grandma was unable to communicate--that it's not possible she was able to form those words.

I understand. Telling stories to make ourselves, or others, feel better is what humans do. I decide that is the primary purpose of this gathering, a coming together to listen to stories that are supposed to make us all feel better. The stories about Grandma make us laugh. The ones about God not so much.

It's been years since I attended a church service. Several more since I attended a funeral. A lot of things have changed in the interim. These people don't know that my faith in God and an afterlife has melted away. "You haven't changed at all!" they say. I smile pleasantly and glance sideways at Chris. They are his relatives, after all.

They talk about the pictures hanging on the walls at Grandma's house. I recall our cult leader's materials framed in her dining room and the bathroom and get mentally stuck. I look at my sexy new boots and feel more grounded. The blue dress reveals my knees. My hair is the shortest it's been since kindergarten. I look nothing like the girl my husband married thirteen years ago. In fact, I look years younger.

My eyes stay open during the prayers, scanning the bowed heads in front of me. I stopped closing my eyes before I lost my faith. It's a slippery slope.

We silently file out of the auditorium to a room where cold cuts have been set out on long tables. The only thing that appeals to me is the homemade chocolate cake, baked by a kindly Mennonite lady no doubt. Sandwiches I can make at home, but no one ever bakes cake for me! Chris and I sit with cousins we haven't seen in years. We talk about kids and school and therapy while we fork the comforting cake into our mouths and sip coffee out of styrofoam cups.

Somebody is asking why So-and-so A isn't here. Someone else wonders why So-and-so B is here. I'm glad we took our kids to school today. They don't know most of these people. They would have found the homilies cloying. The great-grandma they remember was just showing signs of dementia. She may not have been certain who they were, but they knew she loved her cats, and her feisty Chihuahua.

This gathering of family members is beginning to fray at the edges. The young children are restless. The older people are tired, and worn with emotion. I have smiled with what I hope is compassion. I have been friendly to people who are almost perfect strangers. I have held in my secret.

Now I need real food. The cake was a momentary comfort, but not nourishing in the long-term. Rather like the sacred texts I used to repeat to myself, or those hymns I used to sing. They got me through some painful times, but eventually I still got shaky.

We hug Chris's mother and exit the church. A door  just inside the foyer says "Prayer Room" and we think of the Indianapolis Training Center. But here no one is locked inside. I give Chris directions to my favorite restaurant where we order gourmet sandwiches and debrief each other.

Were we kind? Were we true to ourselves? Even as atheists, we are as introspective as ever.

And someday soon, we will explain to Chris's parents that we are not waiting for heaven. We are trying to live, intentionally, right now.


  1. Jeri, you are an amazing writer. Honest, real, deep. Coming out of the closet in regards to the religion is daunting to me. Silence and privacy seem better, kinder, easier. I love how you tried to be kind and compassionate to people who would recoil in horror if they knew your secret. That is real love, love of self, love of humanity. xo

  2. My mother died in August. We had a fairly religious Memorial Service but that was fine: my sister is and my mother was religious, though I am not. Before my mother died I was talking to one of my husband's nieces and told her I was not a believer, so the whole "she'll be in a better place" didn't work for me.

    I just received a condolence card from that niece. It was carefully chosen without religious overtones, as was the gently written note she wrote inside. Of all the extraordinarily kind things people that people have done for me and my sister during the past few months, and there have been a lot, this touched me the most, because she put my beliefs before her own conventional ones.

    1. Thank you for sharing. Venturing outside the familiar takes more energy, but as you said, it can mean more.