Grieving for the Living

I originally wrote this blog a few years ago, but yesterday a friend that is struggling to decide whether or not she will tell her family that she no longer accepts the Jehovah’s Witness religious doctrine reminded me of it so I am re-sharing (with updates).

It’s not always completely freeing to come out of the closet (as an atheist in my case) and I wanted her to understand that.

I had a very strange realization recently: I don’t know what it’s like to be someone’s adult child. My parents didn’t get the privilege of seeing me come of age. I didn’t get walked down the aisle when I got married. I didn’t get parental advice when I went house hunting. I missed out on seeing pride in their eyes when I received my degrees. I haven’t had their shoulders to lean on when I struggled with infertility. I’ve never gotten relationship advice or job advice or any other counsel an adult child needs. We haven’t discussed politics or philosophy or any other complex subject matter. No, my parents aren’t dead, but I grieve for them all the same.

I’ve been estranged from my parents for almost 15 years. It doesn’t impress them that I live a pretty decent life. I’ve never been arrested, don’t do illicit drugs, I have a graduate degree, I’ve been married for 14 years, I volunteer dozens of hours a month, I have a job with a nonprofit that I am proud of. Still, I am a disappointment. They have one reason for rejecting me: I do not share their religious beliefs. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) and I am an atheist.

2thessWhat a lot of people don’t know is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult. They are fairly mainstream, but they maintain a high level of control over the membership. When you reject the religion, you are ostracized. They use the following scriptures to justify their actions: Matthew 18:15-17 and  2 Thessalonians 3:14. They disallow contact with the person that has chosen to leave the religion, going so far as to call them “marked” and to use lack of communication as an almost sadistic form of tough love. That tough love often leads to feelings of rejection, leading to depression, trust issues, and more.

One of the first suggestions that people tend to make upon hearing that my relationship with my parents would be improved if I simply returned to being a JW is to fake it. First, I don’t want to live a lie. Second, that’s not how this particular cult works. To be in “good standing” within the congregation you must attend their church services weekly and go proselytizing in the local neighborhood. They literally track your activities. Every month you report how many hours you spend going door-to-door trying to convert people. You can attempt to make a false report, but they monitor their followers closely. So, I couldn’t simply say I am a JW, I would have to invest a lot of time in this lie. I would be disgusted with myself and I refuse to do it.

I have grieved for them for years and it has been excruciating. I wonder how and if my grief differs from people who have lost their parents in death. It’s been emotionally devastating at times.. but they are still alive.. so that fact makes everything confusing. I have pleaded with my mother to just love me. Her response is that she does, but she loves Jehovah more. I don’t have children, but I’ve heard that a mother’s love for her child can not be surpassed. In fact, I’d guess that many parents would rather go to hell than deny their offspring their love. So why am I different? There is a lot of pain associated with the fact that my family has rejected me when other families have not.

I know that I’m not the only person who has a dysfunctional or non-existent parent-child relationship, but my parents were great parents when I was growing up. My mother was especially loving. When I’m sad I still long for my mother’s hug. She has soft skin and is smooshy and warm. She always smelled like bleach and to this day I associate that smell with good feelings. (My husband knows this and has been known to dribble some bleach around the house when I’m sad).

I cry for them. I grieve for them. I have a sense of loss that can not be dissipated. But I recognize that I differ from my peers whose parents have died because I still have hope (even though it’s all but dissipated). I have hope that before either of us passes, we’ll be able to reconnect. Until that time comes, I leave my door opened and fingers crossed while I grieve.


Bridget Written by:

Bridget is a thirty-something liberal Democrat living in North Carolina. Bridget was raised as a Jehovah's Witness but is now an atheist. She works as the Marketing Manager for Foundation Beyond Belief.


  1. July 17, 2015

    It’s a very good way of putting it. Up to now, I’ve been fortunate to not be totally estranged as I managed my exit very carefully to avoid df’ing and because my parents have (unlike one of my brothers) not really shunned me.

    Recently however they decided not to attend my wedding as it was going to be at a church and although the door is still open I feel, in a way, bereaved.

    Up to now I’ve always treated it like I have two sets of parents. Lovely ones and mad cultists, and who I get to spend time with depends on me, as I am the ‘adult’ in the relationship and can avoid their hot button and keep the lovely ones active (helped by their willingness to do this).

    But this isn’t a hot button I pressed by mistake. This is cultiic nonsense and an insult to my wife to be.

    But then the fact that they might have come means I am better off than many xJW to whom this was never an option.

    Evil religion.

    • July 17, 2015

      I’m glad you’re able to have a relationship with them in some manner. I used to be angry with my parents but not anymore. They are victims in many ways. Victims of cult mentality.

  2. Adina Morgan
    July 17, 2015

    I have stated many times that grieving for the dead is easier than grieving for the living. There are always those hopes in the back of your mind and every edge of the heart when the one(s) you have lost are still alive…. The rare contact, the what ifs, the chance that one day they may come to recognize the brainwashing for what it is. Thank you for this. So many have been through this.

    That having been said….. And it may not mean much, but for all you have done, all your accomplishments…. I’m proud of you.

    • July 17, 2015

      Aww! That means a lot to me. I’ve not gotten an “I’m proud of you” from my parents in over a decade. <3

  3. Kerry B
    July 19, 2015

    I am a parent, I am agnostic, so don’t understand how anybody could solely believe in something, being it a religion, that would separate you from your children. As a mother, I believe the umbilical cord is never really cut, it remains as an invisible connection between you and your children. I have no concept of what it would be like to not have your parents involved in your life, both of mine are still with me and although I don’t necessary speak with them each week, I know they are always there for me should I need a hug. Across the miles, I’m sending you a hug. I hope one day you will receive one from yours before it is no longer possible. Best of luck to you Bridget

    • July 19, 2015

      Your children are lucky to have you Kerry.

      • Kerry B
        July 22, 2015

        Maybe so Bridget, but I believe I’m the lucky one to have these 2 beautiful children in my life. Another thing I’ve also learnt over the years, is that friends can be better family than the biological ones. 🙂

        • July 22, 2015

          Agreed about friends. My husband and friends are absolutely priceless.

  4. mork
    July 20, 2015

    I am happy and sad, at the same time reading the article and the comments, esp the last comment. Happy because the comments tell me you are still loved, at least by your husband. I am sad cos you yearns for your parent’s love so much and yet can’t get it. I wonder if my mom can do that to me, no, never. But to a large extent it surprises me how some people can close their minds so much that they refuse to see reality about this JW religious cult thing. I was one, but no more because of the so many lies and the shunning and hatred and false prophesies. Hmmm, Brig, hug your husband, for I learnt it is better than a mothers love.

    Wish you the best

  5. July 22, 2015

    I appreciate your story, and I get your grief. I grieved my mother while she was still alive, too.
    My mother was never very religious for most of her life, but she sure was strict (read: physically abusive) in her child-raising manner. Kind of understandable–Grandma was the same way, and then Mom was widowed at a young age, left with 5 kids, and spent all her energy looking for a man to take care of her and her family. That never happened. But when I matured, we developed a wonderful relationship. She was so proud of me and my travels and life, and I could make her laugh like no one else. We didn’t get together more than once or twice a year, as I lived in faraway places after I graduated from college, but we had a close relationship.

    But as she grew old she dove into the Catholic Church far more than she ever did when we were kids. When she “got religion” in a big way, she was thrown into conflict with her favorite daughter–me, an atheist. Our last few years were strained, and that was sad. We had one fun week together just 10 days before she fell ill and was diagnosed with lung cancer, already spread into her brain. By the time I flew home 2 days later, thinking we’d have time to reunite and talk… she was mentally gone and died soon after. We never really got to talk or renew what really matters in life. I was left with grief for what we once had, and regret at not having tried hard enough to get that back.

    Religion really screws up relationships.
    Thanks for listening.

    • July 22, 2015

      I teared up at, “I was left with grief for what we once had, and regret at not having tried hard enough to get that back.” I wonder at times if I’m not trying hard enough to renew a relationship with my family. I reached out to my brothers on Facebook a couple years ago requesting their phone numbers and giving them mine should there be an emergency (like my mother dying) and they needed to get in touch. Neither responded. They didn’t even want contact with me in an emergency situation! Religion royally screws up relationships. Truth be told I was using the request to exchange numbers a way to begin a dialog after a decade of no communication, so perhaps I showed my hand.

      I’m glad you got in a week of fun before your mother passed away. I desperately hope I see my mother again. She’s not getting any younger.

  6. Jen
    July 22, 2015

    I’m so sorry you go through this. I can’t imagine being completely ostracized from my family. I left my strict evangelical Christian faith as an adult and although my parents have not disowned me, it has ruined our relationship. They live in constant fear that I’m going to hell when I die, so they cannot accept that I don’t believe in god anymore. I know it is agonizing for them which is upsetting to me, which makes me dislike any extreme religion even more because it separates families. It makes no sense.

    • July 22, 2015

      It doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry you’re going through this.

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