Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I met you once when Hemant spoke at an atheist group. I shared that I had become an atheist during college, thanks to some wonderful classes and professors, but that I had been raised in Evangelical Christianity, and I was still not out to my family. I had been debating coming out to my family for awhile, but had not made the leap.
My family learned in fall of 2011 that my father has terminal cancer. He has an inoperable tumor slowly growing which will probably kill him within months. My mother and father have both retreated deeper into their faith, and it looks to me as if it is the only thing giving them comfort during this time. My relationship with my parents was severely strained when I was younger, and we have finally reached a point where we can enjoy time together (although I avoid topics of religion if possible).
My father asked me on a recent trip home if there was anything we needed to resolve about our relationship. I lied, and said no, because I don’t want to ruin what little time we have left, and I can’t imagine causing my parents and sisters pain of this magnitude while my father is dying. We are just hoping he lives to see my sister graduate from college, and me from my masters program.
Should I keep the peace and enjoy the time he has left, while knowing that he will probably never know and/or accept my views and the way I have chosen to live my life? I don’t want to create a rift in my family, but I am deeply saddened by the fact that I will not be able to have my father’s respect for the independent and successful woman I have become, because it is inextricably tied to my reasoning and my nonbelief.
I love reading your advice, and hope that you can help.
My heartfelt wishes for your father, you, and your family to find solace and comfort in whatever forms each of you need.
When you answered your father that no, there isn’t anything you need to resolve in your relationship, you didn’t lie, you told the truth. What you needed to resolve you have already done. After a severely strained relationship, you have restored your caring and respectful bond with each other.
You say you’re saddened by the fact that you will not be able to have your father’s respect for the independent and successful woman you have become, because that is tied to your reasoning and nonbelief.
He is already aware that you are an independent person. Your youthful independence was possibly a part of the strain between you and your parents when you were younger, and I think now your more mature independence is a part of how and why you enjoy each other’s company.
He is also already aware that you are an intelligent, successful woman who can take care of herself. You will soon earn your master’s degree, and that is no small accomplishment.
He’s even already aware that you are a strongly reasoning person. The rationality that you probably apply to many things in life would be hard to miss.
It appears that he already respects you for all that, since you are getting along well.
The only thing that he doesn’t know is that you’re unconvinced of a deity. That is just one result of your independence, your intelligence, and your ability to reason, not the cause of those qualities.
Right now, the person who really needs to know where you stand on such things as religion also already knows. That’s you. So yes, enjoy the time you have left together. In this case, at this point, I think telling him would be only about giving yourself something, and not about giving him something. Let him and your mother have what ease and comfort they can find.
You can consider how you should handle this issue with your mother and sisters later, when people are not so vulnerable from anguish and grief, and in so much need of their customary comforts. You can weigh the principle of honesty versus the principle of compassion versus the principle of prudence on a person-by-person basis. As you grow, as they grow, and as circumstances change, your best guesses at the best solutions to these life puzzles will change too.
You’re sad that he will die, but there is no need to be sad that he will not know everything about you. Just make certain that he knows the most important things. Make certain that he knows you love him, and you know he loves you. He probably already knows that you are a good person who cares about people’s feelings, and who tries to find the best solutions in delicate, difficult situations. He probably already knows that you can selflessly forego your own satisfaction in order to show someone else compassion. Even though he doesn’t know you’re doing those things for him right now, I’m sure those qualities show clearly in much of your behavior. Be certain to thank him for helping to nurture those qualities in you.
Those are the essentials, the things we should be certain are clearly said and understood between us and our loved ones before we lose the opportunity. The rest are just details that we can choose to share or not share, guided by the love we have already made crystal clear.