Grief after Losing Religion

I’ve never lost anyone particularly close to me.  So when I read that people who leave their religion often go through the stages of grief, I thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t like I could relate.  I don’t even think I know what grief is.

A couple Google search attempts (I definitely do this too much) led me to an article by Matt Oxley about the stages of grief, as applied to a loss of religion.  It was the first time I realized I had already gone through some of the stages, and I was currently struggling with the rest.  It felt wonderful to have someone almost perfectly describe some of the difficulties I’ve had in my recent life.

For those of you who are reading this thinking that it was fairly easy for you to accept that you no longer believe in the religion you grew up with, I ask that you understand that I wasn’t just a regular Jew who went to services on High Holidays or every once in a while on Saturday.

As a child, my family moved to a new house just so that we could be in walking distance to Shul (that’s what we call Synagogue; its Yiddish).  Orthodox Jews do not drive on Shabbat.  So we walked to shul every Friday night for services, and every Saturday morning, and sometimes Saturday afternoon.  During the week (we didn’t have to walk, we could drive), we’d go (almost) every evening, and then in the mornings on Sunday, Mondays and Thursday. As I count this out, on a typical week I went to shul between 9 and 11 times. Don’t even get me started on Holidays.

I’m not going to go into everything I did as a religious Jew growing up (that’ll be its own blog post, maybe), but suffice it to say the amount of times I went to shul falls plenty short of describing the level of religiosity I observed.  I BELIEVED I had the truth, and everyone else was dumb/ignorant/wrong/evil/weak/simple/etc.

According to Oxley, “the devotion you have to your god or faith will be directly proportional to the pain you will feel as that faith dies.”

Stage 1: Isolation and Denial

I stopped believing in the God of my upbringing probably around 2008.  It wasn’t until 2013 that I admitted this fact to myself (thats 5 years of denial, for those of you who glossed over those dates).  The idea that God wasn’t in control of my life was too scary for me to just take lightly.

Just because I had accepted it, doesn’t mean it was easy for me to confront those feelings.  One by one, the practices that made me an “Orthodox Jew” fell by the wayside, with the observance of Kosher finally falling just one or two years ago (depending on how you define “keeping kosher”).

I moved to a city where I knew no one, and though I attempted to find a community at the different Synagogues, I could not bring myself to affiliate with any of them.  I hid as much of this as I could from my family.  I basically lost touch with my Jewish friends from college.  Somehow, and I’m extremely grateful for this, I maintained a friendship with my secular friends from high school, and I wonder to this day how deeply this has saved my life. None of them lived where I did, so I was alone in a big city.  Not to long after I moved here, I convinced my brother to move here. He is the only person I could confide in.

Stage 2: Anger

I would have never believed I had anger in my bones, but it turns out it’s only because I have suppressed it.  You see, to be a “good” Jew, you don’t allow yourself to feel anger.  When something frustrated me, I turned to God and asked him to fix it.  On the one hand, how wonderful it is to never be angry?! On the other, I never processed that emotion.  When something would constantly frustrate me, instead of doing something to change the situation, I would just subject myself to it over and over, while trusting in God to get me through it each time and hoping that maybe He would take care of it.  The literal definition of insanity, right?

Anyway, I’ve since realized that I have some pretty intense anger at the more fundamentalist institutions I was exposed to as a child. Obviously, at the Yeshiva that emotionally abused me when I was in Israel, but also partly to the Hassidic synagogue that my parents and I subscribed to, its Rabbi, and its community for indoctrinating me at such a young age.  And to the outreach youth groups I not only attended but soaked up like a sponge and in which I did my best to be a stand-out leader. And to the religious summer camp I asked to be sent to for 2 years, despite knowing I didn’t like it. And of course my parents for encouraging all of these things.  And to people I do and don’t know personally, who are continuing to promote these ideas to children and adults who are at their most vulnerable stages as “truth” or as the best thing in the world.  And many other things both known and unknown to myself.

It feels bizarre feeling anger for something that happened over 15 years ago, and it feels incredibly childish.  But I never had the chance to be angry about it before.  Also, as someone who doesn’t really know how to process emotions like anger, I’ll probably continue to deal with it in some ways until I read a fascinating article or book on it. That’s kind of how I work these days.

Stage 3: Bargaining

I don’t really understand this one, and maybe I did go through moments of this when I first was struggling with my beliefs, but I believe I have passed the point of no return.  I’m not saying I’ll never allow myself to adopt again some of the more beautiful things that exist in my religion.  I’m simply saying I don’t believe I will ever return to the Judaism in which I was raised.

Stage 4: Depression


I was going to leave it at that, but maybe as I write this, I’ll have some interesting revelations. Who knows? (Edit: Surprise, turns out it’s helpful to write things out.)

I definitely struggled with depression in college, when I failed a bunch of my easier classes as a result of not doing the work.  I had to take a bunch of summer school classes, and still ended up having to take 5 years to graduate, including a semester where I only took one class.  My drugs of choice at the time: Hot Tamales and Cheez-Its, video games (Call of Duty and Mario Kart), really shitty TV shows (think MTV programming), frat parties, and alcohol. And hookah.

And definitely now, as I’ve been unemployed for about 6 months. But I’m seeing a therapist, and I have a better support system in place.  And I’m more comfortable talking about it, which for me is 75% of the battle.  Drugs of Choice: Books, music (both listening to and playing in a band), psychology articles, HBO, Netflix, coffee, meditation, and alcohol.

Stage 5: Acceptance

I’m doing my best to stay in this stage, but I go back and forth.  For the most part, I believe I’ve forgiven my parents, despite the fact that they still believe I’m wrong and that I’m responsible for the deterioration of “our people.” But I don’t fault them for subscribing to a system they believe will make their lives happier and easier. I’m trying to apply that same forgiveness to the rest of the responsible parties in my life, including myself.

This stage has been made SO much easier as I read the book I mentioned in my last (and first) post, “Leaving the Fold,” by Dr. Marlene Winell.

The hardest part of this stage is accepting that I am in control of my thoughts, my emotions, and my actions.  And I’m starting to believe in the truth of that. It’s scary, because it’s a new truth, and it’s harder than letting someone else handle my my issues. But its so much more freeing and empowering.

My next step is to make for myself a community filled with people who accept me for who I am, and love me for who I am.  I know this starts with believing that I am enough as I am and that I’m worthy of love.

I’m on my way, and I feel like I’m close.


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