Please let me know what you would do. I need your wisdom. Thank you for reading.
I haven't told my Grandma I don't believe in God because I knew it would cause her a lot of pain and worry. She's in her late 70s and we used to be very close. We used to talk about our common faith, Catholicism quite a lot. I had a lot of issues with the religion and she was my mentor as in my early teens. Later on I saw her more as a sweet old lady that I loved, whose ideas I didn't quite agree with. We still talked like friends and I shared a lot of theological discussions as I brought back new ideas from college. The farther and farther I strayed from Catholicism, the less open I was with her about my exact ideas. I still shared that I was struggling to understand and come to terms with my 'faith.'
Then last year, I stopped talking to her about it entirely. When one day she mentioned her own struggles with trying to understand why God made "things" the way He did, I couldn't offer my usually platitudes or even commisserate with her, because I didn't know how to do that without betraying us--either her trust in me or my honor. Completely unprepared for this moral quandry, I could only stutter, "uh-huh," nod, frown, and try to add a few "mmm-hmms." I felt like the spot light was on me--would I reveal that I had lost my faith and that I was happy? I offered up some evasive Socratic questions. It was nearly impossible to be a neutral sounding board with someone directly questioning you, and it was a bit obvious...
Grandma was in a lot of emotional pain, more than I'd ever seen her in without a fair dose of anger involved. I felt awful because there I sat, relaxed and finally free of all the strife Catholicism and various other Deisms had inflicted upon me--yet Grandma was still in the throws of it. Her religion was failing her during a crucial time. She revealed that she had struggled for years with these questions, "as we all do," but "somehow we find a way to trust that God has a plan," she went on. I wanted so badly to pull her out of it, to let her see the light and feel the clarity I felt. But I know that her whole identity is wrapped up in subservience to this religion and I thought it might shatter her to shake it from her so late in life. I don't know that it could be done.
It's been a many months since that day and we haven't talked about it. It galls me to think of her suffering and worrying about anything more than she has to at her age, with all that she has lived through, and all of the physical pain that she is in. However, as I know, religious questions don't magically resolve themselves for those of us who use our brains. I hope that Grandma is able to put it out of her mind and take comfort in something else. I don't know...she has aged rapidly since then (there is nothing we can do about the real world issue that caused her to doubt her faith).
I've come to terms with the fact that I must be willing for her to discover that I am an atheist if I am unwilling to lie outright. I try to be discrete and bow out of conversations when personal beliefs come up. I don't want to make it obvious. I'm not alltogether successful at censoring my political opinion when religion pops up in the news and I do love a good joke at the sake of the church...but I've always been that way, to a certain extent. I honestly don't know how I come off. It seems one of the effects of not talking about our spiritual life has been that we don't seem to connect as well in other areas. I feel like there is a wall between us now.
I am afraid that if Grandma knew one of her grandchildren is an unrepentant atheist it would be terribly upsetting for her. She would surely worry about my 'immortal soul,' and just a bit about the impropriety of it all. :-) But, she's a good woman at heart, so her true concern would be for my 'soul.' She worries so much already, that I wonder if it affects her sleep (4 hours a night). I don't think it would be right to tell her. But surely, she must suspect...perhaps I should let it hang over the family, like various other embarrassing "secrets." On the other hand, if she does suspect, she is certainly worrying herself to death about it already.
I feel keeping my atheism a secret is really coming between us but I don't want to hurt her. I really miss being close to her. This week, my mom and I talked. Grandma may be developing Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease and we all (Grandma included) believe Grandma is nearing the end of her life.
I don't know what to do.
Don't tell her you're an atheist - it would break her heart
Many people who are elderly have lived through some pretty interesting times and tough times. I've met a septuagenarian or two who had, over the decades, been tempered into sterner stuff than most are made of. It's understandable to not want to burden the elderly, but I don't think they should be underestimated either.
Very true, but for what its worth, when my grandfather was dying he asked me if I had accepted Jesus as my savior and I straight up lied and said yes. He cried with relief. First and last time I ever saw him cry.
@Kris-you're so right. But her personality is just that of a worrier, and without me she has plenty enough to fret over. We've always thought she struggled with depression and we know she sleeps so poorly.
@Flower--How can anyone begrudge a person that comfort, at such a potentially terrifying time? When my biological grandfather was dying, he was in a lot of pain. They put him on morphine, which undoubtedly had its effect. Still, he was in such peace because of his certainty about going to heaven.
Why don't you just go along with her? You risk causing her great anguish and yourself (once you see how upset it may make her), otherwise. It is a very tough situation. I feel for you also.
Thanks. I guess I could try to rebuild our relationship in other ways...
Seeing as the question is worded to ask what I would do, I'd likely be open about my atheism if religion was discussed at any length. On one hand, I think the elderly should be afforded some peace in old age, and I should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. Even so, all of my remaining grandparents are of sober mind, and capable of facing reality even if it is unpleasant to them. If I keep details of my personal life private from my grandparents, it's for my sake, not theirs. I can't decide for them what they should or should not hear, and which truths they should be protected from. It's not my right.
I know, I am treating her like a child who needs to be protected. You've never withheld hurtful information from a loved one for their benefit?
I can't think of anything that fits the bill. Everyone's family is different. I can recall unpleasant conversations with family members in the past, but never the feeling that I should have been holding things back from them.
Well... would you rather her know the truth. Or the convenient lie?
It sounds like you’re struggling with two issues: 1) your grandmother may be losing her faith late in the game and 2) you’re not sure how coming out would affect her.
Some things you should keep in mind are: many people who have managed to escape their religious beliefs have done so at a great personal expense. The stories I hear from friends who found atheism after a lifetime of religious indoctrination have described the conversion as painful and life shattering. Imagine discovering the only reality you know to be false. For many people, there exists an internal struggle to make sense of it all even years after losing their faith. Think of her potential reaction. Is that how you want her to spend the remainder of her life… devastated that she’d been lied to for so long and that, now, at the end, she has no afterlife to look forward to?
Consider what coming out could possible do to her. There’s the possibility that she’ll be relieved, finally having a loved one to discuss her waning beliefs with. As you suggest she may become worrisome about the fate of your soul. The third possibility could be devastating. By revealing your atheism, she may begin to question her own beliefs to the point that they fall apart, leaving her in the emotional tail-spin described above.
I say do no harm. Let her live the remainder of her life with as much comfort as you can give her. However you decide to interpret that is up to you. Whatever you decide, it won’t be an easy choice.
Best of luck.
You know, I didn't even consider that she may still be questioning her beliefs or that my coming out could cause her to question her faith again. Her faith has always seemed so unshakable to me, except that one time last year. But there's no way to say for certain that she's recovered her faith. You're right, triggering a deconversion could be a horrible consequence now that her health is so precarious. I really don't know how she finds the reserves to get through the day...and it could be devastating for her to develop a serious depression. Wow. Thank you, Rick.