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.
What 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.