Can an Atheist Forgive People After They Die? June 18, 2010

Can an Atheist Forgive People After They Die?

On PostSecret this past weekend, the following card appeared:

One reader wrote in to say:

I didn’t forgive him for his sake, but to set myself free.
And it worked.

How would you get over something as tragic as that?

(Thanks to Greta Christina for the link)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Matt

    I’ve thought that George Hrab’s song “Small Comfort” expresses the process of grieving as an atheist rather well.

    (A live version was all I could find, sorry)

  • bigjohn756

    Well, he will never know anything after he is dead, so, if your forgiving him in your mind somehow gives you peace then so be it. However, why you should ‘forgive’ him for doing what he did voluntarily is beyond me. If you think for one microsecond that you could have done anything to prevent his action then you are wrong. No one knows how to prevent suicide in most cases. Meds and counseling can delay the act sometimes, but, rarely for long.

  • Every act we do is about us. It is never more about the other person (living or dead) than it is about the feelings we will get from the act we do. Even volunteer work and community service is more about the positive feelings we get by providing for others.

    Therefore, forgiveness is also more for us than for the other person (again, living or dead). It is an opportunity for us to let go of the ill feelings we have associated with the act that requires forgiveness.

  • Well, you don’t need to forgive him. There’s nothing to forgive. He didn’t commit suicide to get back at you. Frustration, anger, hate, pain, betrayal, and grief are all valid emotions after something like this. But, this is not so much about forgiving (which is done for the other person), as much as learning to let go. Work through the emotions as they come. Understand that it is okay to be angry. Anger is a form of grief. Spend time actively grieving. Don’t go on with your life and expect the emotions to go away.

  • trixr4kids

    Sometimes you don’t, Hemant.

    From age 11 to age 13, I used to hear my father screaming in pain at night.

    My mother became a Christian Scientist. That was her way of dealing with my father’s terminal illness (he did not convert to C.S.) Well, I became one too. Which meant we were supposed to ignore his pain and impending death because it was an “illusion”. If I thought the right thoughts, I would be able to heal him.

    Didn’t work.

    17 months after my father died, my mother died. She left me an orphan, weeks after my 15th birthday, because she refused treatment for spinal meningitis.

    Oh, and did I mention I was facially deformed?

    Not sure I’ve forgiven my mother yet (I’m 52 now.)

    I care more about truth than comfort, I guess. But life can be fucking hard, and I’m not entirely insensitive to the fact that people may sometimes need comforting illusions to help them get through it.

    I’m also more aware than most of how much those illusions can cost.

    I think the best thing we can do, as atheists, is cultivate compassion and be willing to look into the void and call tragedy, tragedy.

  • Elzigzag

    He will know neither he’s been forgiven nor he hasn’t been forgiven, ’cause dead people they just don’t know, they don’t live, but in the memory of those who love him. “Your forgiveness” in this case has but only one purpose… to heal yourself. Now that you have set free from peeping-bearded-guys-in-the-clouds you should have noticed that he was the only owner of his life and that he had the right to end it. The best thing you can do is keep him in your heart… well in your memory.

  • littlejohn

    If he’s dead, he’s probably not worrying about it.

  • Cheri

    If you have forgiven him for causing you pain, then you have put it all behind you now. Forgivness really isn’t for the person being forgiven, but for the person who felt they were wronged.

  • Aegis

    Yeah, strictly speaking it’s not forgiveness – forgiveness is between two people, and one of these doesn’t exist now. It’s more coming to terms, which is *sort of* the same thing if you stretch one or both definitions a little bit.

  • Keresth

    The writer may feel guilty for not having prevented it, but I don’t think that’s what they are trying to express in the letter or response. Most likely they felt angry and/or bitter toward someone they cared for after he killed himself but eventually accepted his choice.

    We often feel better after confronting people over strong feelings. For example, apologizing to them for an earlier mistake or like this case, forgiving them for a perceived wrong done to them. Imagine a drunk who physically abused his daughter; later in life, the sober father might wish to apologize for the terrible things he had done, or the daughter who held onto such anger for so long, may wish to let him know that she had forgiven him. Ultimately, such acts are for our own benefits, so that we can feel that a wrong has been righted. But this is impossible to do if that person has already died, and it is generally more difficult to make such a transition. How many people have stood over graves with unspoken words they’d long to say to that person, lamenting that they will never know?

    This is anyther way the allure of theism presents itself. It allows us to think that people don’t really die, they are never really gone, that we haven’t really lost someone, that we will never die, and that we will be able to interact with them in the future or even the present. It can be very hard to accept that everyone you ever have and will care for are/will be really permanently gone and we, ourselves, will be too. Even as an atheist it is hard to accept my own mortality, even while in some way I long for it. What do I tell someone who has been told all their life that no one ever really dies, they just go away for awhile and we’ll see them later. But this is what we tell children, so they don’t have to cope with a pet’s/relative’s death, but they must eventually grow up and accept it. Isn’t it a part of maturity, to accept reality, no matter how harsh?

  • Ugh. The word “forgiveness” has become muddled with the nonsense of the self-esteem/pseudo-psychology movement. It’s become a Deepak Chopra word.

    Life’s not perfect. But theism sure ain’t the answer.

  • Joanna

    I think it’s getting over the anger that is difficult. And the feeling of regret that a person would feel so desperate and alone that they would take their own life. Family members and friends are left with two choices, as I see it: hold on to the anger or forgive the person for being fragile and imperfect. The will to live and the will to die are such personal decisions…I can’t think of any decision MORE personal. And sometimes people make very selfish choices.

  • beckster

    My brother killed himself and someone else. I figure there was an undiagnosed mental issue, but he forever altered the lives of lots of people, including his children, in a negative way and his suicide notes indicated he knew what he was doing and had planned it out. Sometimes moving on, and not forgiveness, is the answer to dealing with tragedy. Sounds harsh, but I have moved on and am happy in my life, but I don’t see myself ever “forgiving” him for what he did. Besides, as someone else pointed out, he’s not exactly here to forgive.

  • plutosdad

    However, why you should ‘forgive’ him for doing what he did voluntarily is beyond me.

    I’m not sure what you mean here, maybe you are thinking of the suicide of a friend or child, but I immediately thought it was the suicide of a parent. Suicide of a parent or spouse can be seen as the violation of the marriage contract to take care of your spouse or violation of your duty as a parent to take care of your kids.

    I think a child can be angry if his dad kills himself for the same reason the child can be angry if the dad runs away.

  • Richard Wade

    Forgiveness has benefits for both the forgiver and the forgiven. If it can’t be communicated to the forgiven, the healing is still there for the forgiver. There’s a re-balancing of a disequilibrium within the forgiver’s mind.

  • Durr Hurr

    The other person doesn’t exist anymore, so they are incapable of accepting blame or forgiveness. The only one who still exists, and who is capable of action or feeling, is you. Get on with your life.

  • Evilspud

    I remember a quote from Slaughterhouse Five, “So it goes.”

    Things happen, sometimes we can’t control them, we may not be able to control them at all, but take solace in the fact that we can learn and reflect on what is and who we are, and keep moving on.

  • fritzy

    Forgiveness is about letting go of the anger. In the case of someone who has committed suicide, I think the survivors can come to the point where they realize holding onto the anger is hampering them more then helping them (and surely the suicide victim will not be effected by your anger.) So yeah, obviously it’s for the forgiver’s benefit.

    Forgiving in this case is about accepting that the person who left you did something very selfish but not because they were a selfish person. They did it because they were doing the best they knew how to do at the time–they didn’t see any other viable option. That, to me, is something that can be forgiven but getting to that point of acceptance is challenging

    Of course, often times when the person is talking about forgiving the person who left them, they are also talking about forgiving themselves–forgiving themselves for the guilt of being angry at the person for killing themselves; guilt for maybe feeling a little happy that the person is no longer hurting; guilt for not being able to see it coming and doing more to prevent it (which of course you ultimately can’t).

    Yeah, I can see the benefit of forgiveness amongst atheists in such a case. How very tragic, indeed.

  • Dianne Love

    Did he ASK for your forgiveness?

    The quandary of xtianity and forgiveness is that, to be forgiven, you must repent.

    As a true atheist, this shouldn’t plague you at all. You can miss him, that’s natural. But the larger questions about afterlives and souls and things are for believers, not for you.

  • Roxane

    “Forgiving” somebody means that you give up your right to continue to be angry with him, or to hate him. If the person you forgive is still alive, well and good–your forgiveness can benefit both of you (if he is willing to accept it). But if it only benefits you, because you don’t have to carry the anger or hate around any more, what’s wrong with that?

  • dizzymama

    It’s hard to believe that anyone suggesting it should be easy to forgive or stop being angry with someone for committing suicide has actually personally dealt with a loved one’s suicide.

    Re: the original post and question — I’ve never felt like my atheism was in any way connected to or a factor in my ability to “get over” a tragedy such as the suicide of my family member. As ‘trixr4kids’ mentioned, I think sometimes you just DON’T get over a tragedy, regardless of your spiritual beliefs.

  • Gaian

    When a life is past, the only thing people can do to a person is to forgive them. The dead don’t care but it may make a difference in your life.

    Regarding suicide and atheism I wonder if atheists are more or less likely to kill themselves than religious people?

    There is less holding us back, but maybe we are happier and less afraid.

  • Hitch

    Forgiveness is indeed a muddled word. Especially in Christianity it is deeply entwined with the notion of sin and guilt that pervades it’s mythology.

    Children are guilt-tripped very early with original sin and seeking forgiveness, so that a sensible picture of what forgiveness really is cannot so easily emerge.

    Forgiveness is multiple things actually.

    My reaction to the card is simply, that it is not a function of atheism that a dead person cannot know that she has been forgiven, rather that a dead person cannot know anything.

    Forgiving is always a psychological mechanism for self.

    But it is also a trust and negotiation mechanism.

    To forgive someone is to say, that past transgressions are taken off the balance sheet of social exchange and one moves forward with regained trust.

    For a dead person that later mechanism really doesn’t matter, hence it is only the psychological component that remains.

    And in that case, forgiveness is only for us. It’s for us to want the other person to know that they are forgiven, and it is for us to feed good that we let go of the baggage and forgave.

  • Jessy

    My sister killed herself. My pro gun law sister shot herself. I think she was probably an atheist also, but at the time I was always arguing with our mother about religion and so on(I was at that stage). I can remember her getting so mad at me for arguing with Mom about it right before she did it. She didn’t want me telling Mom that I thought her religion was bull. She had major mental problems and I think she came to a point in her life that she couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t understand that then and I maybe could have helped her if I had. Now, she doesn’t have to deal with it and we do. You have to “forgive” her and just contend with missing her. She isn’t in a “happier place”…she isn’t…

    and we are.

  • Richard P.

    Ah, this is more wallowing in self-pity. As useful as guilt is. Those things are for people that can change the past.
    Regardless, of whether you can accept it, he’s dead and will never know. Pretending the reality is different is just prolonging the pain.

  • potate

    Those who have said that forgiveness is about giving up anger and resentment are right. To forgive is to say that another’s actions are no longer grounds for pain. Forgiveness is obviously more profound when shared, when given to another person, but one can forgive the dead, the missing, and the imprisoned so long as you are still hurt by their actions.

    I am very worried by bigjohn’s sentiment that suicide can’t be prevented. It is very preventable and there are often many clues that persons identify in hindsight. 90% of those who commit suicide are mentally ill and 20-50% of persons who successfully commit suicide have already tried at least once. Those who commit suicide often speak of their plans and less explicitly, signs of their depressed or agitated condition are often obvious to those around them. Please, if you notice a friend or family member who exhibits any of the warning signs, get them help. Mental illnesses are treatable and crisis situations can be overcome.

    I know, because I have been there, and thank immensely the people who have been there for me throughout the years.

    Here is where I got the stats from, there are also the warning signs on the same site:

    Remember that suicide is tragic because of its effect on the living and the once-alive, not because of anything about Old Dudes in the Sky.

  • I agree with most of the writers. He won’t know that she’s forgiven him, but it’s really for her own good to let go of those feelings.

    I imagine that some people feel if they kill themselves, they’ll get back at the people who’ve offended them. As an atheist, I believe that you if you kill yourself, you don’t get the satisfaction of watching your enemies cry. You don’t experience relief or anything at all. You’ve just thrown away your only life over a temporary problem.

  • Claudia

    Accepting his own atheism means that he also never knew you blamed him for killing himself. I don’t have the slightest notion of how I’d deal with something like this, but I think it would depend on who it was doing it and for what reason. Its not the same if its an 80 year old terminal cancer patient wanting to make the end more comfortable than if its an otherwise healthy person with clinical depression.

  • Greg

    I have to say that I find the card rather strange. Was this actually written by an atheist, or is it a theist pretending to be an atheist and making an appeal to emotions?

    Now, obviously, it might depend on the circumstances of the suicide, but the very idea of forgiving somebody for their killing themselves seems bizarre. For one thing, it seems to assume that the person who has died regrets the suicide (or the consequences of it), which would mean the speaker has some kind of way of talking to the dead (which, although not necessarily incompatible with atheism still sounds a bit odd). But if that were the case, the person who died would be able to forgive them anyway. Either that, or they killed themselves through some sort of negligence, I suppose.

    Assuming the card to be genuine (which it may well be) I suspect that forgiveness isn’t the issue here, but rather that the person can’t understand why the person wanted to kill themselves – and, importantly, can’t understand that the reasons may be good and/or persuasive reasons. The assumption far too often is that someone has to be crazy to commit suicide.

    They don’t – they just have to be in a lot of pain, whether physical or emotional.

    Obviously if this is the case, then there’s a lot of guesswork I’d have to do to say anything else. It may even be that the person is afraid that there were good reasons for the suicide, and that they might discover they were involved in some of them.

    I’d say the best thing to do in that sort of situation is to talk to a professional counsellor of some sort.

    Incidentally, to the people who claim that someone who committed suicide did a selfish act – I honestly think you have your priorities skewed.

    The selfish (and egocentric, to say the least) attitude is the one that insists:

    “Despite finding yourself in such agony that you can not bear it any more, you should continue to live (and suffer) because I would be unhappy if you killed yourself.”

  • nankay

    As someone who has had 2 (!) people close to me commit suicide over the years, I can honestly say, the 1st emotion I felt was pure anger. How could they???! It takes a lot of time to get past that anger and the eventual pain to the point of “Letting it go”. What’s done is done and I had to move on. Forgiveness was for my benefit.

  • “Accepting my own atheism means accepting the fact that he can never know that I’ve forgiven him for killing himself. How can I do that?”

    Talk about looking for an excuse to hold on to the past. Let it go FFS. Forgive him, don’t forgive him. That’s up to the writer of this card but they should accept the completely unrelated issue that they no longer believe in gods.


    bigjohn756, I know for a fact that suicide can be prevented – my sisters prevented me from killing myself, I prevented them from it- and we don’t have access to meds or doctors.

    As for the note, forgiveness is something you have to do for you.

  • How would you get over something as tragic as that?

    I wouldn’t frame the problem that way, for starters.

    Accepting my own atheism means accepting the fact that he can never know that I’ve forgiven him for killing himself. How can I do that?

    Oh? And a theist has the privilege of being able to let his friend know about that forgiveness?

    I am not particularly fond of how atheism is portrayed here. The message smacks of the notion that if atheists really took their atheism seriously, they would be such miserable wretches that they could not help but think that life is just too much to bear, and that they look longingly and wistfully at the theists while thinking to themselves, “If only I could be a theist!”

    If would just forgive him. He no longer has the capacity to know or not know. And whether he knows or not doesn’t take away from the fact that I do forgive him.

    The reality of my forgiveness is not dependent on his knowing about it!

  • Danika Jaye

    Is it really that you want them to know you have forgiven them or is it that you are afraid they didn’t know how much you loved them? What ever pain led them to ending their life- it is over now. There is no more pain for them. The pain is now with you and in the grief you feel. Even if they do not know it, it is important that you express your love and forgiveness, not for them, but for yourself. I would honour their memory in some way. It could be by doing something they loved or donating to a charity, building something, planting a garden, or a tree. It could be anything. The important thing is that it is you, affirming to yourself, how much you love them, miss them and forgive them. It is a way to let go of the pain but still remember them.

  • cypressgreen

    I agree with Greg:
    ((I honestly think you have your priorities skewed. The selfish (and egocentric, to say the least) attitude is the one that insists: “Despite finding yourself in such agony that you can not bear it any more, you should continue to live (and suffer) because I would be unhappy if you killed yourself.”))

    As someone who has lost their only cousin and a good friend to suicide, and who has been suicidal myself, I have always resented the anger of those left behind.

    The saying, “God never gives us more than we can handle” is patently untrue –and even cruel. It encourages others to see fault and weakness in someone who couldn’t bear to go on. It makes it easy for a survivor to wrap themselves in a “why me” mantle of self pity, and even in a superiority complex (gee, *I* can handle life, why didn’t they just buckle down and do what *I* do?) The focus rightly belongs on the person who really suffered. Routine sadness and clinical depression are very different things.

    When my friend Duane died, I was crushed. He was such a wonderful, caring, smart man. His guidance was one reason I had not killed *myself* only 2 years earlier.

    having a friend who helped save my life take his own was one of the most frightening times of my life.

    But, in the end I was glad he died, because I knew his situation intimately and understood that he’d always live with this heavy burden. I was relieved that he’d never suffer another psychotic episode, never again hide away from the world for weeks on end.

    If there was a god, he certainly gave Duane far more than he could handle.

    Do I understand why people feel anger towards the dead loved one? Sure. But after a while, it’s time to move past the “poor me” phase and try to understand what happened from the other person’s point of view.

  • Nicole

    Forgive me if this has already been said 🙂

    My father did not commit suicide, what he did do is molest me, and was an rage-aholic and an alcoholic.

    For a long time I thought forgiveness was about absolving him in some way. Saying ‘it’s OK’. Since it would never be OK I thought I would never forgive him. Then I read somewhere that forgiveness was not about absolution, but it was about letting go. Letting go of the hurt and anger that I felt. Once I realized that forgiveness was about me and not my abuser, it became much easier to get there.

    I think the problem is the way we use the language …We talk about forgiving her or him as if we are doing something for the person who wronged us , when in fact we are doing something for ourselves.

  • plutosdad

    A child does have the right to demand his parents not kill themselves or run away and not take care of them. The child has that right because the parents brought it into the world, and assumed responsiblity for it when they did so.

    You can feel sorry for someone and condemn their action at the same time. If you are a parent with children, you have a duty to take care of them. Killing yourself or running away, due to pain, is still abandoning them no matter how you slice it.

    You can say that pain migitages the response we have to the parent’s actions, but that does not change the action itself. If we don’t excuse the parent who runs away (I don’t mean divorce I mean up and leaves, because they also are unhappy and pained) then we cannot also excuse the parent who commits suicide. we can feel sorry for them, we can try to help them, but it still doesn’t change what they did.

  • kat

    i think this card pretty much spot-on describes what my experience of my best friend’s suicide has been like. i’m an atheist and have no hope of an afterlife, but i was once a theist, and i know how helpful hope can be, even if it’s delusional hope. the thought that you can see someone in an afterlife is a strong one, and it’s why lots of people are theists. it is harder to be an atheist sometimes. delusions can be comforting.
    the way i see it, suicide is murder. the difference is that the person you lose is also the person who stole them away. that’s hard to forgive. and yes, forgiveness is the proper sentiment, regardless of whether or not the person who will be forgiven gets to experience it. forgiveness does not need a willing and conscious object to exist. it is the subject who creates the forgiveness.
    and finally, whoever wrote this card is a lot further on in their process than i am. it’s been four years since my best friend killed himself and i am still not sure i will ever forgive him, even though i know it wasn’t totally his fault (because he was schizophrenic). i’m still angry. i still wish he was here.

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