Coming Clean

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As many already know, my boys and I (and many others) have experienced a tragic loss this year with the death of Alicia. As I’ve tried to stumble my way through the grieving process, I have been stunned at how my mental faculties have been affected. Normally a voracious reader, I can’t seem to even get through the headlines on a newspaper. On the other hand, I have been writing more than at any other time in my life, strangely. It seems to be the most direct route to connecting with my grief. My hope is to find healing through writing, and to offer an honest reflection of my own response to the reality I’ve been faced with.

Now to the “Coming Clean” title. I’m an atheist. There, I’ve said it. I know this is a curve ball if you are one of my beloved Christian family members or friends. Knowing full well the negative connotations this term carries in religious circles, let me explain. The simplest definition is one who lacks a belief in a god, which pretty well sums me up. I’d love to choose “agnostic”, as it implies I’m seeking or just in a state of uncertainty, but that’s a bit disingenuous, more to soften the disappointment than an honest account. Now, to dispel any assumptions that may have been made:

“You’ve faced a terrible trial, and have turned your back on God.” No, I did not stop believing in god as a result of Alicia’s death from cancer. My deconversion (yes, it’s a legit term) occurred many months before cancer ever darkened our doorstep. True to our marriage commitment of keeping no secrets, she was the first to know.

“Why wait until now to say something?” My decision at first was a very private matter, and I only told a few others besides Alicia. My intention was to broaden that circle in time. Then, cancer hit. My utmost priority once we started that journey was to love and support Alicia no matter the cost. Airing that decision would have been selfish and awkward at a time when we could ill afford it. But know this, I agonized over my change in heart daily, knowing what it was like for Alicia to be “unequally yoked”. I would have gladly put Humpty together again if it was such a simple matter.

“But, you thanked us for our prayers, you were even there and said nothing!?” What else was I supposed to do? My wife and best friend was dying, and many of her dear family members and friends were coming forth in support of her. Should I have raised my hand and said, “Uh, sorry folks, I don’t buy this anymore, please excuse me.” I did my best under the circumstances. And, to be honest, I was and am thankful for the prayers. Although I don’t believe in a god anymore, those prayers, for me, were a representation of the many hopes that so many held, and of their sincere love for her and for my family. So yes, I swallowed my objections, kept my mouth shut, and remained by her side, exactly where I belonged. What’s more, when she was afraid or would lose hope, she would often ask me to pray for her (even knowing where I stood). I would pour out my heart, giving voice to my own hopes and desires for her. She was worth far more than my own personal hangups.

“You’ve removed God from the throne of your heart, and want to be your own god, doing as you wish.” While no one has said this to me, I’ve heard it said of others who have gone before me. Sorry to disappoint, but my deconversion was pretty uneventful. No descent into drunken debauchery, no hedonism, no pornography addictions, no gambling, etc. I’m still Josh. My values really didn’t change, only my beliefs. I was the same husband to Alicia after my decision, as I was before. My actions toward her were motivated by a deeply felt love and devotion. They were never motivated by the prospect that a god would punish me if I somehow didn’t live up to my wedding vows.

“What does this have to do with your grieving process?” Quite a lot. I’m  grieving  differently in some ways as an atheist, than I would as a Christian. Which is why I chose to open this blog in this way. Some may pity me, thinking I have no hope for the future, of ever seeing Alicia again in the afterlife. I don’t know what to say to that, other than you’re right. I know the logical end to my line of thinking. While the idea of heaven is a comfort to many, it has become a false comfort to me. Rather, I’ve found comfort in knowing that I did my utmost as Alicia’s husband and caregiver, both to ease her suffering throughout that wretched cancer, and to give her every chance at survival. I take comfort knowing she was never alone. I’ve taken so much comfort in the love and support of friends and family. I also have no regrets that I did everything I could to support her spiritually, knowing how important it was to her. And, having a change in perspective meant I endeavored to cherish every moment we shared, every touch, every word, every act of kindness shown us by others. Just simply lying next to her in bed as she fitfully rested took on a whole new meaning for me. After she had passed in our home, I remained next to her for over an hour, smelling and caressing her hair, kissing her lovely face, holding her delicate hands, knowing it was likely the last time I would be able to do so.

This has taken considerable courage to pen. I have been, and likely will always be a people pleaser to some degree. Know that it is not my intention to cause disappointment or distress, but I realize that I’m being unrealistic in that regard. I would only ask that if you are a believer, that you treat me with charity upon reading these words. Alicia was the real deal. Although it was hard for her, she only continued to show me love and acceptance. I feel regretful for not being at liberty to share this earlier with so many loved ones, and you have my apologies if you feel I deceived you in any way. I only wish to live, and to grieve, in the most authentic way possible, and this is my sincere effort to begin doing just that.

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19 thoughts on “Coming Clean

  1. Oh Josh. That must have been so difficult but yet so therapeutic to write. I admire you so much and support you unconditionally. We all have our own journeys that we must take alone. Even so, you are thought of and cared about by so many so you must never feel alone. It’s been and will continue to be such a hard road, but your ability to speak honestly will ease the way. You are the kind of person I wish there were more of. Strong, understanding and kind through and through. I’m proud to call you my friend.

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    1. Ditto for you Louise. You’re the kind of friend that I can be or say anything to. Thanks for being a sounding board for me, and for always keeping an open invitation for me with the Galloway group.

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  2. Hi Josh,

    Have just read your moment of ‘exhaling’. I love you no less and hope your decision does not have anything to do with the upset between us prior to leaving your home for a place of my own. I have always felt guilty of saying hurtful things, lashing out in my defensive manner. Things said that cannot be taken back even with a heartfelt apology.
    I did notice you had quit praying at meals but did not ask Alicia why. Did notice she had lost a spark that used to be in her personality but assumed it was due to her not feeling well for so long. Would very much like to speak with you, have some questions that concern the boys regarding their connection to the Lord for the future. Your influence is the most important one in their lives and future from now on.
    Please know that I love you as if you were my own son. You are a precious person, still with the demeanor of Christ Jesus. That is not by accident, and I don’t think the Lord would have brought the two of you together.

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    1. Thanks mom for reading. And no, I want you to know that my exit from Christianity was not related to the issues we had. The “spark” you refer to, that Alicia lost, was really due to the fact that Alicia couldn’t participate in a basic human function anymore, that of breaking bread at least once a day with her husband and kids. We don’t realize how meaningful a simple act like that can be until it’s taken from us. The conversations, the contact that happens around a simple meal serve to knit us together as a family. It was painful for her, not being able to participate in that. Alicia always viewed praying before meals as a formality that most people really didn’t think about, they just did it automatically. Strangely enough, before I became an atheist I was the one demanding that we pray before meals.

      As for the boys, I know we can talk later, but for now suffice it to say that I will continue to raise them to be strong young men, who I hope will be able to make up their own minds. It would be the same if I were still a christian. I wouldn’t be forcing them into one way of thinking, but rather living my life transparently. From the beginning of this process, I have not tried to “push” one way of thinking over another. Truth is truth, and it should be strong enough to stand on its own legs. They will know too of who their mother was and what her faith meant to her.

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  3. Joshua David, know that our time together since your birth, has been a wonderful experience. As your Dad, I will love and support you for as long as can still draw a breath. I love you my son. Dad

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    1. Love you Dad. Just know how much I value your unconditional support, thanks for loving my wife and mourning her loss with me.

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  4. Very much appreciate your honesty and willingness to put this out into the universe as well as let those who may not have known.. Know. I too have had a lifelong battle with religion and the idea of embracing a God and all the things that come with that….i agree that it not only significantly changes the way you grieve but the way others perceive and try to help you in your grieving process. As you stated the only thing that matters is the time you spent with her through this process was beautiful and meaningful even in having different belief systems. And your boys are amazing and smart and because your an awesome parent and won’t be “that parent” pushing them to believe one way or another they will have the opportunity (as we all should) to explore what WE want to believe in. Ok… I’ll shut up now. I love ya Josh!

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    1. Man, thanks so much Chelsey. And thanks for letting me process with you, on the spot, when we cross paths at work every now and again. I appreciate your insights, humor, and raw honesty so much.

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  5. Josh… Thank you for letting us into your private world. You may find solitude in knowing my husband doesn’t believe in God himself either. We have been married for 15 years and our love has risen above it. We have learned to love every bit of each other whether we agree or not. Being true to who we are is what so many of us strive to accomplish in life. I’m proud of your accomplishment. We are here for you.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that Jacquie. It’s always nice to meet others who have trod the same path, in one way or another. Glad to have you guys as neighbors!

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  6. Josh, I still love you, support you and will continue praying for you and your boys. We will always be friends.

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  7. Josh, I admire your honesty. Writing is a great way to get things out and can help so many others. I have an old friend who lost her teenage son to suicide last year and a cousin who has lost her sight. Both write about life and their thoughts and experiences, it is inspiring, insightful, and helpful in my journey with grief and loss. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for reading Wendy. Sorry I haven’t been at the Galloway group in a bit, kind of got knocked off my rocker, and am trying to get back up again. Hope to see you guys all soon.

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  8. You are a talented writer. I can feel how much you love your wife when I read this. Beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.

    Your honesty is so refreshing.
    I am an atheist also. I know, ironic with a name like mine.
    I think I have questioned things my whole life. I became fascinated with religions in college and I still am. Being an atheist is like another closet. I still haven’t come out to everyone. :/

    It takes a very strong person to go through everything you have and to put yourself out there. Much respect and admiration dear friend. Please keep writing!

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    1. It’s always so good to hear from you Trinity. Even though it’s been so long, I see in you the very same strength and authenticity. I look back and can even see that you had it when we were kids. Your joy of life was always so contagious, and simply being reminded of that has lifted my spirits.

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      1. That is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
        Happy tears.
        The feelings are very mutual.
        You have always been genuine and a friend to everyone.
        I just came across a picture of you, Jeff, and me from highschool the other day.
        I’ll send it to you.
        I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone.

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  9. Hi Josh. I was directed to this post by Sarah. This post made me cry, particularly this part: “And, having a change in perspective meant I endeavored to cherish every moment we shared, every touch, every word, every act of kindness shown us by others. Just simply lying next to her in bed as she fitfully rested took on a whole new meaning for me.” So many of the religious consider atheism empty and sad. To me, once you realize this life is all we have, it makes it all the more important that we live every single day to the fullest… the good bits and the horrible ones.

    My father died in 2011. I’ve been atheist most of my adult life, experiencing “deconversion” slowly through college and coming out about two years after I graduated. I’ve been open about it from the beginning, mainly because most of my adult life I also lived in the deep south, surrounded by people who had never met an atheist before. Regardless, though, the death of my dad made me confront the realities of living and dying in a completely different way, particularly dealing with grief in a society that defines most major life events in religious terms. It’s hard carving your own way, but it’s what you do… and you are so brave for being honest about the struggle and your feelings.

    I hope for the chance to get to know you better… and I’ll definitely keep following your blog!

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    1. So great to hear from you Deborah, and so glad you’re reading along. I take that as a true compliment considering how well read you are! I couldn’t have said it better, about living every day to the fullest. It was such an interesting change in perspective for me. Before, I assumed that it was permanence that added meaning to something. If it was temporary in nature, then it didn’t have any lasting value or meaning. But, like you I’ve learned that it’s the very fact that things are temporary that makes them so precious and meaningful. It actually helped me so much as a husband and caregiver to Alicia. So, thank you friend for the encouragement, and thank you for sharing about your father.

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