Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Five Stages of Grief

It's time to tell the story. I'm finally ready.

The following is a re-worked copy of the original essay that inspired my book. I realized after writing this that there is so much more of my story to be told, enough to fill a novel. My book is currently two-thirds of the way done... the third part - which discusses how I deal with life after faith - is still being lived.


About three years ago [at the time of writing] I discovered I had a terminal illness. I was at work, and all day something was bothering me. There was a group of fundamentalists in America who were proclaiming that today was the day that Jesus Christ would return, and I thought it was laughable but also sad. How sad that they have all placed their hope so sincerely in something that obviously wasn’t going to happen. As I thought about these people, something else started nagging at me. As a Christian myself, am I any less laughable? After all, I too believe Jesus Christ will return, I just don’t have a date set in my calendar for it.

It was that day that I discovered I was terminal. My faith was dying.

As a born-again Christian, a practicing, devout, sincere, whole-hearted Christian for basically my whole life, this was dire news. I battled with this disease for three years, trying to come to terms with this faith that was so close to death.

Denial.
I went home from work that day figuratively wringing my hands. I must ignore this doubt. We all have doubts. I myself have had lots of doubts. This is no different. God will see me through. I pushed the thought from my mind. Ignore the doubts, and they will go away.

Yet my mind kept churning through this thought in spite of my resistance. Jesus did say that “this” generation (his disciples’ generation) would not pass without the Second Coming. I’ve heard sermons on this my whole life. I’ve explained this away to many people myself. “This” generation is a metaphor. “A day in our eyes is like a 1000 years in God’s.” He was referring to something else. I always accepted all those answers. But plain is plain. Jesus was wrong. Or he was very unnecessarily cryptic. Either way, that generation and many others, did pass away, and we’ve yet to be taken into Glory.

From here, everything began to unravel. Like a cancer spreading, the foolishness of my sincerely held, and intellectually held, I might add, belief began to deteriorate and poison my whole life. I tried and tried to deny what was happening, but denial has never been much of a comfort to me. As a Christian and as a person, I have always been honest with myself. I knew, as much as I hated knowing, that my faith really was on its death bed, and something had to be done about it.

Bargaining.
So I lived on. I churched on. I prayed on. Oh, did I pray. I prayed with fervour I rarely prayed with before. I begged God for another chance. I begged for a renewal of my faith. I requested help and prayer from others. I read online articles from other people in my situation and conversed on forums. I told God I would continue living the Christian life, I would continue to honor and worship him despite my doubts, if he would just reward me one day with a genuine faith again. Through it all, God was silent. It felt as if God had snapped his fingers and disappeared. He'd spoken to me so many times before, but now, when I needed him most, he was gone. By this time, my head was completely skeptical, but my heart was still with Jesus. I read a book about cell memory of the heart and came to believe that maybe faith really did live in the physical heart, and all I needed to do was let my heart rule over my head. It sounded so utterly foolish, but it’s all I had left. I would live this out to my dying day, if only to be rewarded with my place in heaven and a crown of jewels for carrying this cross.

The faith was still a spark in my heart. I took that as a sign that God was still there, not letting go of me entirely. This was just a test of my faith. I had always put so much stock in the truth of Sola Scriptura. Maybe God was taking me further, to a deeper place I’d never known. I would pass this test.

Yet with each question my dying faith brought up, I already had the answers. I’d been studying God’s Word and sharing my faith with people my whole life. There were no new answers to be found. I realized that for every question on the test, I automatically knew the answer. They’d been answered long ago, but insufficiently. Sufficient for an existing faith perhaps, but entirely useless to a fledgling non-believer. If this test was for my benefit, what could I possibly stand to gain from already having all the answers?

Depression.
I felt beaten. As all this was taking place in my heart, my church was crumbling around me. I’d always believed in my church, with all its flaws – flaws I never once pretended weren’t there – but I accepted them all the same. Why? Because I believed the people to have genuine, Christ-like hearts. Sadly at this point, even that was falling apart around me. My husband and I left. He was done with Christianity, but I wasn’t ready to give up. Still in the Bargaining phase as depression began to wipe over me, I went out in search of a new church. All I found was emptiness. Fifinally, I found a church of wonderful people with whom I felt I could share a little of my painful honesty without judgment, and there I stayed until we left Scotland.

I was feeling crushed under my burden. I told myself again the Christian answers – You’re trying to do this too much on your own. You are trying to get to heaven by works not faith. But there was no hope for the alternative. I was clearly on my own here. No God was answering my pleas. No faith was buoying me above the water. Sinking, crushed, burdened, I was going through life trying to hold onto something that was never going to be mine again. Death was calling; the truth was too clear for me to ignore but too agonizing to accept. I continued on slowly, with my heavy yoke upon my neck and no friend in Jesus to help carry my load.

I found a new church in my new town. Beyond anything I’d ever expected, it was a Lutheran church. Never before would I have considered going “practically Catholic”, but this place touched my soul in new ways. Eagerly, I wondered if this was finally it. God was finally reaching back down to me. All of this was NOT for naught! I began taking communion again, loving this new Lutheran concept of the “real presence of Jesus Christ” being in the elements. I felt something on Sundays when I was there. I might struggle all week long, but on Sundays...

Then one day I heard my six year old daughter telling her friend that Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit were all one called the Trinity, and if you didn’t love God you would go to hell. I cringed. What a horrible thing to believe, a horrible thing to teach my child! I realized then and there that I truly had been deceiving myself these past few months. I wanted to believe that my faith was returning so badly that I allowed myself to be swept up in the precious, sweet sentiment of it all. But when spoken of in the bright of day, so plainly, so academically, I knew I didn’t believe a word of it. I didn’t like the sound of it at all.

Anger.
I thought at this point I’d reached Acceptance. We found friends who were in the same place as us, previous Christians who left their faith and were, like us, trying to figure out how to live without it. With them, I felt understood and accepted. We all understood each other’s unfolding religious experience at its most complex level. I felt I could actually maybe embark on this new life-after-death after all. I really could accept that this was the new me.

Slowly, however, I realized there was a quiet rage underneath the surface. It only boiled up every now and again, and not too hotly, but it was simmering. I felt it when I went out for drinks with a Christian friend. She was telling us about some things she had done and someone remarked what a good person she was. She cast her eyes down and said, “Not really, but thanks.” She meant it. I knew she meant it and wasn’t just being modest; I knew it because that’s how a true, good Christian feels. All the good they do, all the right decisions they make, all the people they help really mean nothing because at the end of the day, we are all filth. We are scum. We are sinful beings God cannot deign to look upon without the covering of Jesus’ blood. I wanted to shout “But you ARE good!” I thought back on my own life, my own right decisions, the people I helped, my lifestyle in general. All I ever tried to do, even with all the mistakes I made along the way, was be good. And I really was good! It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I’d been put down by my faith my whole life and made to believe I was shit. The times when I dared to recognize that I kind of was okay, I shot myself right back down for having too much pride. Pride proved that I really wasn't any good at all.

The gurgling volcano of anger began erupting now and again in other ways. I would read a Christian article, or hear a Christian viewpoint, and find myself raging at it. I could never go back to believing those things. Even though a small part of me still wished fervently for just a blind faith to wash over me and let me be at peace instead of that constant spiritual masochism, I also knew I never wanted to be on that side of those viewpoints again. Even if I did come back around to having faith, I could never have faith in all of it. I found myself especially annoyed when I read things about why people leave the church or leave the faith, written from the viewpoint of someone still in it. Though I truly sympathized with their ignorance on the matter, (I myself having been one of them for decades), I was frustrated by how simplistic and egotistical their proposals are. If anyone realized the sheer agony I’d been through for the past three years on this awful journey, they wouldn’t be able to take it so lightly or flippantly. They wouldn’t be able to safely put me in a box and lock me away, as a friend put it.

You see, that term “spiritual masochist” speaks deeply to me. It describes who I’ve always been. Unlike what “they” would like to believe, I wasn’t a seed scattered on the path or sown amongst the thorns or cast into the rocky places. Rather, I’ve always over-searched my heart, ripped apart all the layers to find the truth of my soul. I believed in God and the Bible in spite of my conscious, intellectual doubts, and I never lied to myself about those doubts. I took my ability to still believe as a gift from God, for I knew it was all foolishness to the wise. Strip the faith away though, and I was left with oozing open wounds that I still tore and slashed at, amongst my cries and tears, trying to find the truth in the gash. I felt certain that few Western Christians have ever been to the excruciating lengths I had been going through to keep my faith alive. I spent years flagellating myself in the name of God to believe I was nothing, and there I was flagellating myself again to try and find some living cell within my incurable, terminal faith on which I could rebuild a self I didn’t even want anymore. I had been beating and bruising myself over this, and could not stop, and I discovered I was actually very angry about it. I thought I’d by-passed the Anger stage, but there I was, boiling over at any unexpected stimuli. Was I angry that I was raised in a Christian home? Not at all. My parents believe whole-heartedly in Jesus as I once did. Of course they would raise their offspring to place their treasures in heaven and aspire for eternal salvation. Was I angry that God has dropped me when I always believed he never would, never could? Extremely. I had been left to die with no savior to rescue me, just lies and manipulation.

Acceptance.
I didn't know how I’d ever be ready to accept entirely that my faith was dead. I was still afraid of death, both spiritual and physical. I feared I was failing the test, and for that, I was going to be eternally punished. I still liked the idea of Jesus. I still liked what he taught and what he stood for. I still wanted to live by those principles and guide my children in those ways. No one ever regretted being a good person. But to believe 85% of the Bible and to believe that God will come to your rescue if you truly ask with all your heart are things I could not do.

I was stepping into a sunnier forest, just one without a set path. I was afraid to forge my own, because I’d been taught my whole life that I am not able to. To find your own way is to turn your back on the Lord. Yet the Lord had turned his back on me already, so I really had no choice. I had children at tender ages to raise. I had my own life to figure out. I was afraid to come into Acceptance, because I knew that it would mean I had truly died. I knew it’s around the bend, but I was still frightened. Frightened I was wrong. Frightened I was right. Worried how I would hurt my family who loves me. Worried I’d do wrong by my kids. I was in no rush to find Acceptance of my situation, but I was done with the search. I thought, “If the God of the Bible is truly the God of Love, he will pull me back in like the one lost sheep, but I’m not holding my breath.” I was finding it hard enough to breathe as it was.

Then one day, while dwelling on God abandoning me, a thought struck me. God never abandoned me at all; God just doesn’t exist! Of course, the possibility that God might not exist had been with me throughout the entire journey, but the sudden realization felt like someone opening the door of a dark room and letting in the daylight. I felt like rubbing my eyes with the wonder of it, the excitement of it, the joy of it.

And like that, my anger dissipated. Well, not really. My anger at God was gone, because it was like being angry at the Easter Bunny. How could I be angry at something that doesn’t exist, never existed? He hadn’t abandoned me, so what was there to be upset about? But I was still angry at other things. Angry at thirty years of a life wasted on a myth. Angry at my ignorance. Angry at myself for all the things I’d done in the name of God that I was now ashamed of. Angry at missing out on all the riches of the world we live in because I was busy thinking about the next world. I was angry in general, but now had no one to be angry with.

The months went by. Gradually I noticed my anger subsiding. At first, I didn’t know how to relate to the world as a verified non-believer. I didn’t know if I was a good person or a bad one. I didn’t know how people would relate to me. If they knew I was – dare I say it – an atheist, would they all turn on me?

I kept this terrifying word to myself, but as time went on, I realized how well it fit who I was now. I was so thankful to have a husband and friends who were stumbling along this journey with me. It was a little embarrassing to realize I was only for the first time truly trying to think for myself. I had to push back the temptation to latch on to other non-believers’ opinions in search of my own beliefs – or non-beliefs. At first, all of my atheistic feelings were tinged with anger and very raw. Again, I wasn’t sure I had really reached acceptance.


But a few days ago I realized six months have gone by since I first came to the conclusion that there is no god. And in that six months, a peace has settled over me. As I drift further and further away from religion, the harder I find it to understand the Christian mind-set and how I ever owned it. I’m now at the point where I have to consciously put myself back in that place in order to relate with people still in it. I also have to remind myself how painful the exit was, because I’m actually quite comfortable with it now.

There is just one step left. I can’t say I’ve fully “accepted” my atheism, because I’m still not brave enough to let the world know. I’ve been through the five stages of grief and now I’m no longer grieving, but I realize that not everyone I know has had the time to do the same. To let my family and friends know that my faith is dead will only bring it all back up again, and now I’ll have to deal with their grief. That’s the one thing I’m not ready to accept: Watching my own funeral.

13 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:51 PM

    It has been over three years since my son died. I still mourn his death. Once we have truly loved someone and lost them, there will always be an empty spot in our hearts and lives that can't be filled with anything else. I don't believe God looks on us as being filth. He created us and loves us no matter what. God doesn't want us to hate ourselves, but to love ourselves and one another as He loves us. He simply wants us to return His love. Why are we not able to join Him in heaven without faith in Jesus? I don't know. To try understand the ways of God is like an ant trying to understand the ways of humans. I simply trust that He knows what he is doing. I believe that God sent His word to us in terms that we can understand. Unfortunately, different people have different opinions about just what those words mean. That can cause much disagreement among Christians themselves. That is a human condition. I try to live by the spirit of His word and the words of Christ Himself. I think that's a large part of what faith is. Am I always successful? No. That is where His Grace comes in. As long as I accept His gift of life in heaven through Jesus's death, I am assured that I will have that life. I was once given a gift from God of a sample of the love and bliss that comes from being in His presence. I could never say "no" to such sublime happiness! What is hell? Many scholars and believers think that is eternal existence without the presence of God. But what does it matter? I choose heaven. I know that my son was also a believer, and that I can rest assured that he is now living in that blissful place called heaven, and I will see him there one day.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for your heartfelt post. I am so sorry you have had to go through what you've gone through. I'm truly glad your faith has helped you survive and you have that hope to sustain you. x

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous1:50 AM

    I lost my Mum aged 5, she didn't die but had brain damage so severe that I had to grow up without my Mum. I remember at school they prayed for my Mum and after 6 months thy stopped praying...I remember being so young thinking why have they stopped praying? I felt angry that religion could not help my Mum. I grew up angry and confused about religion and wondered why God would take my Mum away from me. I resented people with Mums and felt that I had missed out on a lot of Mum and daughter things. I grew up and fell literally into depression and have been on and off anti depressants all my adult life. Despite my anger at God for making this happen to my family, I don't attend church but lead a relatively Christian life. By this, I mean, I live life as honestly, simply and happily as I can. I try to be the best Mum that I can be to my two boys and the best wife to my husband. Religion is a very difficult subject but for me personally by living life simply, healthily and happily then I hope I am a good Christian and wherever my Mum is I hope she is happy with how I am leading my life now x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sad that you've had to grow up without a mum. People think atheists have no hope, but there's actually a comfort in realizing that bad things happen to us, not by God's design (which causes anger and confusion) but simply because it just does. No one did it to us, and while that leaves no scapegoat (as I said earlier about being angry but not having anyone to be angry at, God or the Easter Bunny), it does take the personal assault away from it. Thank you for sharing your story. These stories and responses mean a great deal to me!

      Delete
  4. I appreciate what you've written here sharing with us your ordeal. Your struggle is important and necessary in that it demands that we "own up" to what is essential and truthful. People shy away from entering into this because it is so painful. In a manner of speaking, it is absolutely necessary that a death of god take place in order for us to become mature and responsible. The god that dies is notably the one that we think we have figured out and under control.

    "If you think you comprehend it is not God you are talking about." (Augustine)



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know exactly what you're saying, Tom (since we've spoken briefly on this before!). "It is absolutely necessary that a death of god take place" is an interesting thing to say, and I think within or without a Christian framework, this is true. However, for some, "god" will stay "dead" and for others, a new revelation of god or God will emerge. I can't personally imagine myself ever coming to believe in God again (or any god), but who knows. It would literally take an act of God! :D

      Delete
  5. Anonymous8:32 AM

    I was raised WITHOUT religion. At age 21, after years of feeling like something was missing, I got interested in God. I started reading the bible, going to church, and I got saved. Nothing happened. My heart didn't change. As I read deeper into the bible, things became harder and harder to swallow. You know how we read Greek Mythology and just KNOW that none of it is true... just lessons and stories to learn from. Well the bible and God was proving to be just as believable. Remember, I wasn't spoon fed religion since birth. I was given the opportunity to believe whatever I wanted. Still the tug of feeling like something was missing was there... so I kept trying... looked into other religions... talked to believers, prayed...

    Christians tells us that the void we all feel is something only Jesus can fill. Well he didn't fill it for me and I believed as hard as anyone. Then I started to think that maybe the only person who can fill that void was myself. I'm a constant work in progress. I am a good person who pays it forward, who loves, who doesn't judge, with lots of "works" and I'm NOT going to hell. In fact - as a parent - especially a LOVING parent, if my children didn't believe what I wanted them to believe or do everything I ask of them, I wouldn't banish them to hell. No LOVING parent ever would.

    I battle daily with God. With my believe or lack there of. I've had the amazing opportunity to travel around the world and see some amazing things... and I've gazed over some of the 7 wonders and asked myself "How could there not be something greater than us? Something that designed this whole thing perfectly.." I now have finally decided that to me, God, is just a word that means LOVE. It's not some man in a white gown sitting in a thrown in heaven wanting all of his children to worship him forever... (uh - hello... narcissist much?) Remember the movie The Avatar? Remember the tree of life... That represents God to me now. I still pray, I still believe in the power of prayer and sending positive energy out into the universe. I believe that when we die, our energy moves on, where? I don't know... and won't ever know until that time comes - and maybe then I won't even know what's going on... But I know that I will live my life to the fullest. I will love with my whole heart, I will forgive, I will not judge others, I will do me - and do me the best I can.

    The bible to me is a good guideline for people. It's got some very insightful things written in it. If it helps people be better, then it's good. When it is used to spread hate and threaten people with hell, I'm not in to it.

    Just like animals, we have a flight or fight response with an ingrained desire to survive and procreate. Sometimes I think that the bible and religion were designed to give us hope and give us a reason to continue on. We take on so much in our lifetimes that if many of us didn't have a foundation to stand upon we could very easily give up.

    Religion, while it does an awful lot of good for many, many people, it also does a whole lotta bad. Just like the Macklamore song Same Love... Whatever God you pray to, we all pray to the same one...

    Sorry my thoughts aren't as well put together as yours. I'm not able to type as quickly as the words are flowing. So some of my thoughts are jumbled.

    Lori - kuddos to you for having the guts to say what you believe. Own it. You aren't bad. You aren't misguided. The devil doesn't have his hold on you. And anyone who pushes away from you because you stopped believing, doesn't deserve your friendship anyway - and they are not the "Christians" they claim to be.

    A friend posted this video recently. Called Dear Believer from the standpoint of an Atheist. Very thought provoking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for sharing! Your story is very interesting, and I'm sure many others share your experience. And so far, all the responses I've gotten have been fairly, if not very, positive - something I truly did not expect! Maybe the people who are upset about it are just being polite enough to not say anything. :)

      Delete
  6. Thanks for writing this! As I read it, I thought, "Yes! Yes!" to so many of the things you said. Even though I've been an atheist for a few years now, it's still great to know that there are other people out there who have gone through the same process and understand what it's like. It's good not to feel alone.

    Best wishes on your journey. =)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "It's good not to feel alone."

      Yes, yes it is! It makes me so happy to know my words resonate with others. :)

      Delete
  7. You are such a great writer. I like how you explained your process of thinking over a period of 3 years. After my mom died suddenly, I went through a similar period, 4yrs specifically, where I decided God had nothing to do with anything. I found peace and happiness, escape sometimes, in a lot of places... But something was always missing. At a seemingly random juncture, God showed up, and that's when I realized he never actually left or was a made up idea. It's kind of a tangled mess to think through the process that unfolded over those years where I rejected the idea of God and then suddenly had no way I could deny him anymore. At some point I'd love to compose something like you did here. It's been a journey, as it is with all of us. And I know it will continue. So I just want to encourage you to journey on. Stay open to the idea of the existence of God and even if you don't, because you've decided to be done with God, I don't know that he is done with you yet. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  8. I also wanted to say thanks for writing this one, too. It was a brave thing to do and yes, it's good not to feel alone :)

    I went through something that in some ways was very similar, in some ways very different. I grew up in an evangelical Christian family too, but in my case I can't say that I ever really believed in it. I *wanted* to, mostly because I knew how much it meant to my parents, but I never did, if I'm honest. I did try very hard for a while in my early teens, but I just couldn't put my heart into it.

    I did, unfortunately, take on all the thought-policing that goes on. That made it hard to think rationally about the subject, because even contemplating the idea that maybe God doesn't exist (even just to play devil's advocate to myself!) felt so blasphemous that my thoughts constantly shied away from it. I slowly managed to train my brain out of those patterns and basically, the more I thought about it, the more I felt comfortable not believing -- or maybe better put, accepting that I don't believe in it.

    Now, I reason: no-one can guarantee what happens after we die. The only thing we know is that we have the life we're currently living. I feel duty-bound to myself to make this life, which as far as I know is the only one I get, the best one I can. For me that means being honest about who I am and not hiding that any more (like being gay, like not believing), using my brain, body and talents to their full potential, being positive and trying to help others as much as I can. If it turns out God does exist, I don't think he'll consider making the best out of the life he gave me a bad thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you there. Surely if there is a God, he will value our attempts to be as good and honest as possible. I doubt he'd value pretend, phony beliefs more.

      Delete

I want to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments here.