Death in the Family

What happens when your loved ones are unbelievers?

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This article originally appeared in the Adventist Review in 2012. His book Shadow Men can be purchased online.

MY FATHER DIED this summer. He shot his wife in the head, crawled into bed next to her, put the gun in his mouth, and shot himself.

He was 86 and almost blind. He had leukemia, emphysema (the man had smoked for 72 years), and such terrible shakes that he could barely put food in his mouth. (He had joked with his brother-in-law a few weeks before their deaths, “If I don’t do this soon, I’m going to miss.”) His wife of 34 years had, among other things, kidney failure, severe osteoporosis, and spinal cancer. Life had become miserable, even worse.

Thus, he honored their pact: he wouldn’t leave without her. He didn’t. And now, for the first time in my 56 years, my dad is gone.

He was a great father, having given me as a child something that’s hard to put into words: a sense of security (perhaps?) that I’ve carried all my life and will take into the next.

Witnessing to him, though, was tough. He being an atheist and a Jew made it hard enough; worse, for most of my 32 years as an Adventist, he thought
it all a front and that I was a CIA agent. Seriously! (Probably having seen too many James Bond flicks, in college I made an offhand comment about wanting to work for the CIA. I then took a couple of trips to the Soviet Union, later joined a new religion, moved to the Washington, D.C., area, and got a job that took me overseas a lot. Thus the CIA hypothesis wasn’t, from his perspective, as ridiculous as it sounds.) He eventually softened up, and my last time with him he said, “I no longer think you’re CIA.”


There was more. I had a drama published, Shadow Men, as a way to wit-ness to secular people without their knowing they were being witnessed to. He said that because his eyes were so bad he couldn’t read the book, but he wanted a copy nonetheless. Much to my happy surprise, in what turned out to be our last phone call together he said he read it.

A few weeks after he died, I got a call from a woman who had been their live-in caregiver for a few months. She was Adventist. She told me that when things were very hard for them, my dad had asked her to pray. I was stunned. My dad had said that the last time he prayed was during combat in World War II, when there was “one night I knew I was going to die.” (I proudly display his medals in my office.) Afterward he felt like a hypocrite and never believed in prayer again—until, obviously, the days he asked that Seventh-day Adventist to pray for them.

I realize, of course, that I’m weaving together whatever threads I can find into hope for his eternal destiny. It’s hard, believing what I do and having unbelieving loved ones. I’ve struggled with guilt: If only I had been a better witness . . . that kind of thing. What’s even harder is that because of me he had so many more opportunities to know truth than many others have had, which, of course, would make him all the more culpable.

In the end I retreat to what is always my default position: the cross. A God who would sacrifice Himself in order to save even one of us is a God who wants to save all of us, including my dad, and every one of our unbelieving loved ones. I’m also more grateful now than ever for the promise of 1,000 years to get the most important questions answered.

“How surely are the dead beyond death,” wrote Cormac McCarthy in Suttree. “Death is what the living carry with them.” I’ll carry my father’s death, sadly, until my son carries mine.

My dad’s ending wasn’t an Adventist one. But he wasn’t an Adventist, so what did I expect? How glad I am, though, that a loving God, with a compassion I can’t conceive, is judge, and that I will be able to say, “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments” (Revelation 16:7, NIV), whatever His judgment on my father is.