The Humanist Dilemma: I’m Not Sure I Want to Live If My Husband Dies

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Wish I Were Dead—Or a Believer: I’m in my late sixties, and my husband is over eighty. He is currently in rehab dealing with the effects of radiation treatment for cancer that he has been fighting all year. Although I have a good job, life has been awful with him sick and will be worse if/when he dies. I am also distraught about the election and don’t want to follow the news.

I’m seeing a therapist (have been for decades) and have met with the wife of a rabbi who is herself a widow. But I don’t want to join a caregiver support group. I do wish I’d married a younger man (although I know that’s no guarantee of being together ‘til the end). I also wish my parents hadn’t raised me atheist, filling my head with science, evolution, and reason. I feel as though my life has no meaning and wish they’d given me religion so I’d have something to hold onto now.

-Reason Leaves Me with No Reason to Go On


Dear Reason,

I am so sorry for what you’re going through. And I’m not going to sugarcoat anything: it’s possible your husband will rally and return from rehab; it’s also possible he won’t. And it’s possible the Trump administration will wreak lasting havoc upon the nation, the world, the environment, and so on.

I know it’s not much comfort to bear in mind that people have suffered equally bad or even worse times and personal tragedies as you are suffering right now. You’re not alone. And it’s good that you can be so open about your despair. Don’t even think about suppressing it. Please express your grief to your therapist and to friends and relatives who know and care about you.

As for faulting your atheist parents, I suspect you know in your heart that religion would probably not be much help. Even if you had been raised with faith, there’s a good chance you would have rejected it, if not long ago, when your husband got sick and the Electoral College count came in. But why not go ahead and read the Bible—and then read some books aimed at helping nonbelievers cope, such as Greta Christina’s Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God. (Readers, do you have any recommendations?) Try attending a humanist group, or maybe even a church or synagogue service and see if those make you feel any better, even if it’s just to find a community to be with and to support you. I hope the rabbi’s widow offered some help in getting you get through this—more in her capacity as a psychologist than as a clergy spouse.

I know several people who have lost loved ones they didn’t want to live without or didn’t think they could live without. Some are still struggling years later, yet they do find aspects of life to enjoy. There’s no way you’re going to get through a bad patch like this, regardless of how it turns out, without any pain or sense of loss. I suspect the more a person is devoted to a spouse, the greater the loss can feel, and even survivors of spouses who weren’t terribly compatible end up missing all the arguments and conflict they thought they would be so happy to be rid of.

At some point you’ll likely grow weary of the sorrow you feel right now. Then you can focus on things you still care about—friends, relatives, the arts, outdoors, whatever. Your life may never again be what it was when your husband was in his prime, but it can still be good, even great. It’s up to you to define and develop your new self and your new world as your life evolves.

Resources if you are considering suicide: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and website: