Ask Richard: Should Atheist Student Go to College or Take Care of Mother During Chemotherapy? September 19, 2016

Ask Richard: Should Atheist Student Go to College or Take Care of Mother During Chemotherapy?


Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I am writing to you because I am going through a very difficult time right now. My mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she is likely to survive, I am having trouble coping with my grief while caring for her while she goes through chemotherapy. To complicate matters, I am a 20-year-old University student who is planning to move back to school in the fall. My only sibling is starting her first year of university as well, meaning that my mother will be living alone for the first time in 20 years while dealing with the majority of her treatment. Although she has friends and family who are willing to help her, and that continuing my education is what she wants, I feel immense guilt about leaving her like this.

I have tried looking for resources on how to cope with her diagnosis, but many of the atheistic ones are specific to losing a loved one, and the ones about cancer often invoke faith and belief in a god’s plan. My family (including my mother) is trying to help me cope, but while they understand that I do not believe in any god, many of their coping strategies involve faith and belief, therefore they are at a loss. My friends, while sympathetic, are also at a loss. I was wondering if you had any advice for this?


Dear Sarah,

You need the two things that many of my clients needed when I was a therapist. You need permission and resources.

Sometimes when faced with a difficult situation involving a loved one, we immediately see the logically obvious best course of action right in front of us, but because it involves taking care of both ourselves and our loved one instead of only taking care of them, we feel guilt that stops us from going ahead. If our first instinct is to protect and nurture our loved one and to set aside our own needs, then even when our loved one’s needs will most certainly be met in this solution, we hesitate, afraid that we are being selfish. It’s a conflict between our intellect that knows what the wisest solution is, and our reflex emotional impulse to protect and be loyal to our loved one. Your grief about her diagnosis and your guilt about leaving for school speak well about how loving and caring a person you are, and you also need to get unstuck.

One way out of this stuckness is to get permission from an uninvolved person.

Our loved one might assure us that they’re confident they will be fine, and urge us to take care of ourselves, but we often discount that as somehow not valid because we assume they’re just saying that out of their love for us. So sometimes we consult someone else whom we think has some insight, or wisdom, or simply pertinent experience. If they say that it sounds like our loved one’s needs will be met with this plan, and it’s okay to go ahead and take care our own needs too, that’s all we were missing. Sometimes just hearing that from any other non-involved person is enough to trigger the sense of “permission” we need to move past our unnecessary guilt.

From your description, it sounds like your mother will have sufficient or even plenty of support from friends and family, and many hospitals and clinics that provide chemotherapy also offer a variety of support services for their patients’s needs on many levels. Your mother has made it clear that she wants you and your sister to continue your education. Grant her that wish. Even though as you say she is likely to survive this illness, it does bring to her mind the topic of her mortality. Knowing that her daughters will be better able to take care of themselves because they have good educations is a very important thing to a parent who is conscious of her eventual death. You’re not abandoning her; you’re moving forward in the way she wants.

So even though I really have no more qualifications to do this than a random stranger on a park bench with whom you might chat about this, I grant you permission. Go to the university this fall.

Now for some resources. Your grief, guilt, and worry won’t instantly disappear while you’re away at school, so you need some support for dealing with those feelings.

One of your most important resources is your mother herself. Set up methods for communicating with her frequently and easily. The telephone and/or video chatting can help keep you up-to-date on what she’s going through, how she’s coping, and how well people are helping. Knowing all that, you won’t fill in the blanks with awful imaginings. She will want to hear about your experiences and challenges at school; those things matter to her, and it also will help her to focus on something other than her own discomfort. So even when talking with her about yourself, you’re actually helping her.

Yes, there’s an unfortunate lack of secular support groups for people in your situation; you’re not dealing with grief from her death, but grief in anticipation of her eventual death. This might be the very first time you have really been faced with the reality of her mortality. You might have to use the service of an individual therapist. Contact the Secular Therapist Project to see if there is a non-religious provider near you while you’re at the university. If the cost for that is prohibitive, investigate what counseling services the university provides for students at no or low cost. Young people away at school often face many emotional challenges. Helping them to keep their balance is in the university’s interest.

Hopefully, there is a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance or similar atheist group at your university. Join it. Even though their meetings won’t usually center around worry about sick relatives, they are comrades with similar frustrations about being surrounded by religion, and from your description of your present friends and family being at a loss, you need some comrades with whom you can identify and vent.

I think your mother will get through this, and I think that you will get through this, and I think that your relationship with her will become more mature and enriched by this. Move forward as the brave and caring daughter of whom she is already so proud.


You may send your questions to Richard right here. Please keep your letters concise, but include pertinent information such as age, relevant financial issues, and significant people in the situation. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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