Grief,  Religious Trauma

Grieving while Evangelical: 0/10 Do not Recommend

Evangelicals find a way of coming out of the woodwork and harassing you when you are most vulnerable. Even though I myself am not evangelical, both Caleb’s and my families are so I was surrounded with evangelicals through all of my early grieving process. In addition to that, my brain is still affected by evangelical brainwashing that comes flooding back in times of distress.

Caleb and I were a few months away from being legal husband and wife. We had already pledged our lives together a year and a half prior and had shared a home for two years. But the way his evangelical family viewed me and our relationship came to light after his passing. They refused to acknowledge that I was Caleb’s closest kin, his chosen family. They swooped in and tried to take his belongings. They took over planning for the funeral, informing me it would be held in an evangelical church and arrangements had already been made. I wasn’t consulted.

As the person Caleb had chosen as his wife, I should have been central in making plans, but my opinions regarding the service were mostly swept aside. I told the family and funeral planner that contemporary worship music wasn’t a good fit for Caleb’s or my style and I wanted music that would honor him and the person he is. They “allowed” me to select less traditional spiritual music and said I could approve all the songs, but his mother last minute snuck in a long Christian hymn in the middle of the service that we had to sit awkwardly through.

I was interrogated during funeral planning about Caleb’s beliefs. Caleb wasn’t sure what he believed, which is a totally valid place to land especially after a lifetime of mistreatment from Christians. It was incredibly tricky to talk about it in a way to appease evangelicals while still being honest and honoring Caleb. One slip, and he would be assigned as an “unbeliever” and everyone would agonize over his eternal conscious torment in hell. The funeral director snapped at me when I mentioned the words “progressive Christian” saying “I don’t even know what that means! If he was unsaved, we know how to design a funeral for the unsaved.” But a somber, hopeless service with a call to Jesus so no one else would end up with the same fate was the last thing I wanted, so I assured them that he had “followed God”, which he had – far better than any of them. They seemed unconvinced but relented and agreed to move forward with a service for “the saved”. I was clear with the pastor that I did not want an alter call or a proclamation of “the gospel”. This was a time to honor Caleb’s life, not a time to pressure non-evangelicals there who loved Caleb into something that they would expect at a church service instead of a memorial one. “This isn’t a church service”, I said. “This is a service honoring Caleb’s life, and I want to focus on that. Not everyone attending the service even feels comfortable in churches, but they are coming for Caleb as a way to love and remember him. I want to respect where they are at.” After some push-back and rudely informing me that for the service to take place on their property it was a requirement to mention Jesus and the gospel, they assured me it wouldn’t be directed at the audience. During the funeral however, the pastor threw in a “come to Jesus” moment anyway. They lied to and tricked a grieving widow. How Christlike is that?

Caleb worked hard most of his short life trying to save for our future. He wanted to get us a house someday soon. He was dedicated to making sure we could retire someday. He dreamed of being able to afford having a child. Even through all the misfortunes he weathered, he managed to pinch pennies and put aside a little money. But because I was mere months away from being his legal wife, following the accident, his staunchly fundamentalist Christian father was put in charge of his accounts. He assured me the estate would go to me once he sorted out the legalities. Then Caleb’s well-off sister offered to pay the funeral costs to ensure that Caleb’s hard-earned money went to support his widow. Caleb would want that. However, one year later I received a small check and discovered that was all that was left of Caleb’s life savings! Caleb’s dad had chosen to spend a large percentage of the money in ways I wouldn’t have if he had consulted me. All of Caleb’s years of working, and hardly anything to show for it! Caleb’s other sister later informed me that after spending as he saw fit, their father then divvied up the majority of the rest of the money between his surviving children, giving me the leftovers. She shared the numbers with me, revealing that I had received a significantly smaller portion than each individual sibling had. Caleb would have been furious! His father dishonored him by stealing from his widow and in essence kicking her to the curb. He arrogantly decided that the love of Caleb’s life was not worthy of receiving what belonged to Caleb. Caleb would be horrified to know I wasn’t taken care of the way he had worked hard to ensure. His Christian father’s actions sent a message loud and clear that I wasn’t real family – they didn’t respect Caleb’s commitment to me. They didn’t care about the ways my love and devotion healed Caleb. They didn’t respect that Caleb and I shared everything and we co-owned all our belongings and shared a home for years. I would always be less-than because I didn’t believe exactly as they did. To make matters worse, when I confronted Caleb’s father asking about the estate money, he flat-out lied to me, multiple times, in a very defensive tone. This man is very comfortable financially and if he wanted to give money to his children, he could have very easily done so from his own pocket, but instead he chose to steal from his son’s financially-strained widow. A month later, Caleb’s sister would find out that their father was intentionally punishing me financially because he didn’t think I was Christian enough. He had also told her I was “cheap” (cheap!!?) because Caleb’s lifelong best friend Jared (also a recent widow) and I had grown close, supporting each other in our grief and sharing life together as two widows who understood each other. Caleb would have been so happy to know that his two closest people were taking care of one another, and loving each other is an extension of our love for Caleb. But Caleb’s Christian dad took it upon himself to determine the acceptable way for me to grieve and then punish me for not fitting his subjective narrative. Apparently being destitute, vulnerable and at the mercy of men makes me an acceptable woman in his eyes and navigating my own life while making the best decisions I can, does not. In addition, the check I received was made out to my maiden name even though this man was well aware that I took Caleb’s name a year prior. Caleb’s dad would apparently go to any petty means necessary to show me that in his eyes I never belonged with Caleb or their family. I wasn’t good enough for Caleb or his last name. I was nothing. The rest of the Evangelical family weren’t any better. The two of Caleb’s siblings who are Evangelical and well-off refused to give the money back when confronted by their third sibling who isn’t either of those. They said they deserved it. The third sibling had already used the money for bills before she knew what was happening. She offered to pay it back in installments but I told her I wanted her to be okay too and that it wasn’t necessary. I am grateful to have at least one of Caleb’s kin loving me, but the days I learned all this were still the most traumatic since Caleb’s death. I cried suffocating tears and struggled to function at work. It wasn’t only about the money – even though that money belonged to me ethically and what happened was a gross injustice to both Caleb and me. It was a jarring reminder that years after walking away from the evangelical church, I was still at their mercy. Christians would always insert themselves into my life and terrorize me. They would actively attack me any chance they got. I wasn’t safe anytime or anywhere.

There is only one sentence in the entire Bible that actually concisely defines Christianity and it goes like this: “True religion that God our Father accepts is this – to care for orphans and widows in their distress…”. Yet… these Christians are thieving from their family member’s bereaved widow! One sentence to follow and obey and these evangelicals couldn’t even get that right. The rest of the verse goes “…and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Monetary greed is as “worldly” as you can get. These Pharisaical Evangelicals, always wagging their fingers at their son and brother and his chosen wife for not regularly attending a religious service, or for creating a loving home together – those lecturing hypocrites succumbing to the god of money, the root of all kinds of evil.

After Caleb’s passing, evangelicals’ sexism became a glaring offense I couldn’t ignore. Evangelical family members tried to sell Caleb’s things out from under me – acting like I was some sort of outsider and not Caleb’s closest person with whom he shared everything. What was his was mine. They had always trusted Caleb to manage his things when he was single, but once I was single they tried to take over my home and my belongings. Following Caleb’s death, evangelicals’ gross inability to recognize or respect personal boundaries became even more obvious, especially toward me as a woman. They treated me as a child. Evangelicals showed up at my house without warning multiple times, after I asked for privacy and a text or call request prior to coming over. They repeatedly ignored my wishes. These people always respected Caleb’s privacy when he lived alone in this house, but once it was just me, they acted like they owned the place. The most common question I received following his death was “You’re going to move, aren’t you? Surely you can’t keep up the place on your own!” Caleb lived alone in this house for seven years and no one questioned his ability to “keep up the place”. Evangelical family members tried to descend upon anything Caleb had owned and take it away. It took all the firmness and strength I could muster to hold my ground and stop the onslaught. I had empathy toward the family’s grief so I set up a system where if anyone wanted something, they needed to give me a list in writing and if I could find it and if it wasn’t sentimental to me or an important part of my home, I would give it to them. I was very generous, giving tokens of comfort and remembrance to people whenever I could. But somehow it was rarely enough.

Evangelicals who wanted something from me harassed me about coming over on days I had said I wasn’t available. I came home to find them in my yard waiting for me anyway.

His narcissistic evangelical mother claimed she gave things to Caleb that I know for a fact he bought himself, but she used it as an excuse to take them. She stole his driver’s license out of his wallet. She told me she would keep the urn just until the service but she still has it over a year later. At his funeral she had a letter read that she wrote and it was all about her and what a selfless mother she was and then she highlighted stories that made Caleb sound like a bad and rebellious kid. Which he absolutely wasn’t. Even with all of her emotional abuse he still served her and honored her. Imagine making your child look bad in front of his entire community when he is DEAD and can’t defend himself. What kind of mother does that? She had a stage for a moment and a captive audience and acted accordingly.

During the funeral I recounted stories about Caleb’s life, and one particularly funny story that showed Caleb’s personality happened to include an explicit word. I saw no point in censoring my partner or hiding who he was, especially when Caleb himself valued authenticity even in the presence of judgy Christians. Most everyone laughed and loved the reminder of Caleb’s sense of humor, but one of his sisters told me later that several evangelicals were whispering near her “He obviously wasn’t a Christian if he would say the F word! He’s definitely in hell right now”. Honestly, if you view someone that lowly, please do us all a favor and skip going to a service designed to HONOR them. Seriously though, did you show up just to scour the service for evidence to support your narrative that Caleb deserved eternal torture? If you don’t truly love him, stay away! We don’t want you.

My privacy was violated time and time again by evangelicals as they gossiped and speculated together where I was at spiritually and if I would “lean on God” during this time. People wondered if perhaps God would use this to “bring me to my knees” and maybe I would finally “turn to him”. Others were curious if it it happened because I didn’t follow God’s plan for me. Many of them pitied me from afar but never reached out. I only heard secondhand what they were saying.

Some evangelicals had a different approach – people from my distant past would reach out with incessant questions, more to satisfy their nosy nature and morbid curiosity than to offer any real help. The questions they asked gave them no real advantage in supporting me better. Evangelicals who hadn’t seen me in years expected intimate details about my life while offering no openness in return. Apparently I owed them something.

In college I belonged to a tight-knit evangelical ministry community, and ever since I left people from that community have periodically messaged me online expressing disapproval over something I posted and wanting me to listen to their theology with “an open heart” that apparently only goes one direction. I kept my social media very private and carefully monitored my settings, but somehow the messages still came. Before Caleb passed, these people would harass me asking persistently if there was any way they could “be an encouragement” to me, ways they could support me – code words for “where are you most vulnerable so I can strategize how you might be most easily influenced?” and “how can I bring you back to a conservative version of Christianity?” One might try to be optimistic and assume they did truly want to be supportive. Alas, that ended up not being the case. After Caleb passed I created a GoFundMe to help with the financial burden of losing a life partner. I sent it out to everyone I knew and overall received a lot of support. However, I noticed the pattern that the very same people who had practically begged me for ways they could “support” me before, were the very same people to ignore the fundraiser – not just decline to donate, but completely ignore. I sent private messages out to everyone about it both initially and to follow up. Seven evangelical individuals who I had been extremely close with only a few years back and who had been regularly messaging me with their agendas before I was in need, completely ignored my multiple messages during the only time I actually was in need of their support. I now had a tangible answer for their relentless inquiries, yet they were uninterested. The one time they could actually do something to “bless” me, they chose not to. They didn’t even have the decency to tell me they couldn’t donate for whatever reason – which I probably would have understood. Instead, they turned a deaf ear to a grieving widow in crisis when the Bible tells us that true religion is caring for orphans and widows in their distress. I felt confused and betrayed. These people hadn’t been just casual friends. I lived with three of them, two of them were mentor-like figures, one had listed me as their sister on Facebook and for one I was their maid of honor.

I noticed after being persistently ignored that I had written in my GoFundMe description that one of my financial needs was help with rent, because without Caleb’s income it was now double the cost. This innocent and totally normal remark about my very typical life, tipped off already-suspicious evangelicals that Caleb and I were living together before we were legally married. Somehow helping me financially in an emergency would be a way to show support for our “lifestyle”, so they decided it was better that I suffered instead. One evangelical who ended up donating eventually, had messaged me about a week before Caleb’s passing saying “I can see from your Facebook that a lot has changed in your life. I think we should catch up. Please let me know how I can pray for you.” This is ‘Christianese’ for “I’m stalking you online and seeing that I don’t agree with all of your choices. I need all the juicy details now so I can tell you more about how wrong you are.” I kept that reply very short and sweet. But when this same person was offered some very real information on my life just a few weeks later, they totally ignored my GoFundMe at first. I reached out and they said “Oh, I didn’t realize I was close enough to help.” So this person who was “close enough “ to inquire about very intimate details of my life and provide “accountability”, wasn’t close enough to offer tangible support when asked. It’s quite common to donate to charities where you don’t know the people involved – being close enough had nothing to do with it. Literal strangers donated to my GoFundMe; this person was definitely close enough to help, but they just didn’t want to. That’s not the evangelical way.

The few evangelicals who did offer tangible support such as meals, told me that often the support drops away drastically after a few weeks or months, but I could count on them not to do that. Regardless, within a few weeks or months, sure enough, all these people disappeared and I haven’t heard from them since. They had checked me off their “good Christian deeds” list.

My oldest and best friend at the time, also an evangelical, promised to be there for me and was for the first few weeks, but then I didn’t hear from her for three months. When I mentioned this was hurtful, I was accused of being bitter, and then she compared her stress from buying a house with what I was going through. Sadly but unsurprisingly, our eleven year friendship has since crumbled.

Evangelicals regularly accosted me with “God allowed this” or “It’s all part of God’s plan”.
There was no room to actually be sad or to feel the unfairness of it all. If God “allowed it” then God caused it – what kind of God is that? Several evangelicals even speculated to me, a grieving widow, on why God “took Caleb” – like, the God they want me to worship intentionally killed Caleb. One person even had the gall to say that Caleb was on a “hellbent path” (because we weren’t part of evangelicalism anymore) and God took him while he could still squeak into heaven. I experienced several other incidents where I was berated with questions about Caleb’s private beliefs, to determine if he was in hell or not. Even though I don’t believe in the unbiblical idea of eternal conscious torment, the constant stress that topic brings reignited those indoctrination pathways in my brain and I struggled for weeks with panic attacks. Evangelicals didn’t care. It was God “convicting me”.

No matter how many times I told evangelicals no, they constantly invited me to church as a response to my grief, as if that is the only thing that could help me. As if herding me through a door into a crowd of people who have consistently abused me my entire life would nourish me in the worse time of my life. As if the stress of being hounded and chased down and disregarded on top of trying to rebuild my life from scratch is somehow helpful or respectful.

I have understandable trust issues with evangelicals, but after Caleb’s death I decided to try to open up a little bit with his evangelical family and share my struggles so we could grieve together. I talked about wondering what exactly happens after death and what the afterlife might be like. At first it seemed to go well – they even opened up about some of their own questions and fears. I thought they accepted this as part of my process, until later one of his siblings let me know that other family members were defaming me behind my back by telling everyone that I was “following the occult”.

I received so much unsolicited advice. Evangelicals I barely knew were telling me how to navigate a tragedy they had never personally faced. They thought they had the instruction book for any situation and came at me authoritatively. They told me to “trust in God”, “lean on him”, and “go to the Scriptures”. This even came from my Christian landlord, which is a huge breech of professionalism. I feared if I couldn’t appease him with my spirituality I might not have a place to live. Whether or not this was actually a concern, it was a reasonable worry after everything else evangelicals put me through.

I felt so utterly alone as an ex-evangelical who couldn’t escape her past. Evangelicals always found me and chased me down. It was as if I am forever tied to a former version of myself, against my will. My future was tangled up in a past I was born into but never chose for myself. As a progressive Christian, a mystic, someone who believes in the supernatural and experiences the divine, I still had spiritual questions and needs. But I felt so alone in them. Conservative Christians obviously had nothing of value to offer me as I’ve been showcasing here. They added to my trauma and strained my very limited capacity during the most vulnerable time of my life. Non-Spiritual people were usually very supportive and kind to me but they couldn’t understand why I had so many spiritual questions or why I needed to find a way to put evangelical conditioning to rest. Thankfully, I did have a handful of progressive Christians in my life who were helpful, as well as a few non-Christian Spiritual folks who really saw me, made space for my journey and provided valuable input as I made decisions on how to honor Caleb’s body and connect with his spirit.

The offenses I described here were committed by evangelicals from separate churches and denominations that are in no way associated with each other.
They are from different towns spread out across the state and they represent all different age groups, from people my own age to people my parents’ and grandparents’ ages. This is a consistent and widespread problem.

The toxicity of Evangelicalism has never been more evident than when I was at my lowest – when I was weak and defenseless; going through my darkest hour. Evangelicals had a chance to show me they had something worthwhile to offer. They had the opportunity to be the “hands and feet” of Jesus, but all they did was abuse me and heap insult to injury. Evangelicals talk a big game, but when it was time for the rubber to hit the road, to put their faith into practice, they caused additional harm time and time again. So far all my life’s my darkest moments have either been caused by evangelicals or made worse by them. I’m proud of myself for mustering the courage to stand up for myself in the midst of some very triggering circumstances when I had almost nothing left to give. If I had any doubt, I now know one hundred times over that I made the right decision leaving Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals themselves have shown me that.

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