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

Dear Richard,
I have a friend who until very recently identified as Catholic. Her entire family is Catholic, and she had a rather liberal interpretation of the faith, but she believed in God all the same.
A few days ago, she “came out” as an agnostic on a small independent blogging site we both frequent, saying she’s “not sure [she] can believe in God.” Since then, however, she has made another post talking about the hardships she’s facing now that she’s let go of her faith– for instance, she misses the security of believing there was a power that “had her back,” she misses “being certain that someone out there loved [her] no matter what,” she misses feeling like her prayers were meaningful. She claims her “life doesn’t feel whole” now, and seems really down.
I was never religious, so I didn’t experience this sort of deconversion, but it worries me to see my friend so lost and empty-feeling, especially since I’ve lived a happy, rich life so far without God. What would you recommend doing to help her in this transition period? I want to help her discover that life can be rewarding and complete without religion, but I’m not sure how to go about that.
Thank you.

    Before I start with my response, your remark, “She claims her ‘life doesn’t feel whole’ now, and seems really down.” makes my old counselor suicide prevention alarms go off just a bit. You don’t need to make a professional assessment about depression if you’re not qualified, just ask her straight forwardly if she is thinking about hurting herself. It’s okay, you won’t be “putting the idea into her head.” That’s not how it works. Things go bad when people don’t ask, so ask. If she has been thinking about it at all, urge her to see a doctor immediately.
    If she reassures you that she’s not in danger, okay good. Whew. If she gets a little indignant about being asked, say that you just care about her. Better that you annoy a friend than risk her death. Then never mind all that, and continue reading the rest of the post:

Dear Lewis,
I mean it with compassion and respect when I say that your friend has some growing up to do. One aspect of her maturity has been hindered. It’s not her fault, but it is up to her to fix it, and you can encourage her.
Believing in a perpetual parent figure can keep people perpetually child-like. Until we fully acknowledge that we are orphans, and that we have to rely on ourselves and on living relationships and friendships that we build, we tend to not fully grow up emotionally.
When the belief in a protector/guide finally crumbles, often there’s a lag time between what the intellect knows is over and what the emotions continue to cling to, and it can be a painful time of grief. Even though your friend’s mind realizes that the “someone out there” is an illusion, she still misses the comfort of the illusion. Until she finally lets go of the last of the emotional attachment, she will be uncomfortable and not able to fully enjoy the freedom and confidence of independent adulthood. In a way, this letting go is a coming of age process.
The Disney animated movie Dumbo is a story of this kind of coming of age. Dumbo has come to believe that a magic feather he holds is what allows him to fly. In the climactic high dive scene at the end, as he plummets to what will be a fatal impact, the feather slips from his grasp. Without his illusory crutch he is paralyzed with fear as the ground rushes up at him. Timothy, his mouse friend pleads with him to forget about the feather, that it was all just a trick to give him confidence, and that he can fly without magic. At the last moment Dumbo tries believing in himself, spreads his enormous ears, and triumphantly soars just above the crowd’s heads.
By posting her feelings on a blog, your friend can relieve some of her pain by simply expressing, and she might get some helpful feedback. There are readers here who intimately understand her feelings, and I hope they will offer not just their understanding, but also their practical experience for soothing, healing and moving beyond this kind of grief. They will also probably confirm that this journey takes time.
But as valuable as that can be, I think the level of sorrow that she’s expressing also needs a three-dimensional response, not just words on a computer screen. She has one resource that many who are in her predicament lack, and that is you.
She needs and has a friend who can do something that her believed-in god was never able to do: Be visible, audible, tangible, and immediately responsive. Flesh-and-blood friends may not know everything, and they may not be perfect, but they can be right here for us far more effectively and satisfactorily than an abstract concept that supposedly cares about us, but from a distance.
Invite her to coffee, to lunch, to the park, or for a hike in the hills. Share with her the real-world things that have enriched your life, not expecting that she’ll like the very same things, but to show her that her own mind is filled with many possibilities for creating joy, interest, satisfaction, and meaning.
Although you haven’t gone through that sort of deconversion yourself, you can still empathize. She describes what she has lost in terms of a protecting parent or a reliable friend. Most likely you have experienced the loss of some kind of supporting figure. You don’t have to say, “Oh I know how you feel because I lost my (so-in-so).” That might come across trite or lame. Just tap into the feeling from your own experience, and it will help to guide you in how you respond.
When you don’t know what to say, you can say, “I don’t know what to say, but I do care very much.” That can be surprisingly welcome to a grieving person. It introduces her to the replacement for her friend-in-the-sky: the solid, earthly friends who have actually been delivering, in their imperfect way, the help that she used to attribute to God.
Your nonverbal communication is just as important as what you might say, perhaps even more. Voice tone, the pace of your speech, facial expression, nodding, pacing her breathing, sighing, and hugging are just a few of the ways that we communicate our caring and our empathy. They can often be far more effective than well-chosen nouns and verbs.
Right now your friend is stuck in a cul-de-sac of “I’m no longer protected and loved.” She’s focused on herself. Respectfully remind her of her relationships with the rest of the world. She said “she misses feeling like her prayers were meaningful.” Like Dumbo’s friend Timothy, challenge her that without any magic, her actions can be meaningful. She can make important positive differences in the lives of other people simply by being just as solid, empathetic and caring a friend as the one she needed, the one she has in you. Then in turn, when she has helped those people to heal from whatever is their loss, they can do the same for even more people. In this way, her very human, very real, very earthly compassion and benevolence will continue to spread far beyond her physical limits.
It’s almost like magic.
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