Grief Beyond Belief — How Atheists Are Dealing With Death

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Grief beyond belief logo
In a society that reflexively copes with death by using religion, grieving atheists are turning to each other.

How do you deal with death — your own, or that of people you love — when you don’t believe in God or an afterlife?

Especially when our culture so commonly handles grief with religion… in ways that are so deeply ingrained, people often aren’t aware of it?

A new online faith-free grief support group, Grief Beyond Belief, is grappling with that very question. And the launch of the group — along with its rapid growth — presents another compelling question: Why do so many atheists need and want a separate godless sub-culture… for grief support, or anything else?

Grief Beyond Belief was launched by Rebecca Hensler after the death of her three-month-old son. Shortly after Jude’s death, she discovered Compassionate Friends, an online network of parents grieving the deaths of their children. But even though Compassionate Friends is not a religious organization, she says, “I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept.” And she knew there were others who felt the same way. (Conflict of interest alert: Hensler and I are friends, and I actively encouraged and supported her in launching this group.)

So about a year later, she started a Facebook page, Grief Beyond Belief. And the group grew and flourished far beyond her expectations. Once the atheist blogosphere heard about the group, news about it spread like wildfire, and membership in the group grew rapidly, rising to over a thousand in just the first couple of weeks. The group is open to atheists, agnostics, humanists, and anyone without belief in a higher power or an afterlife, to share memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions, and to give others support, perspective, empathy, or simply a non-judgmental ear. And it’s also open to believers who are questioning, struggling with, or letting go of their beliefs. As long as you don’t offer prayers, proselytize for your religious beliefs, or tell other members that their dead loved ones are in a better place with the angels, you’re welcome to join.

So why do atheists need this?

Salt in the Wound

Comforting hands
For some grieving non-believers, the comforts offered by religious believers are neutral, and can even be positive. These atheists don’t agree that their dead loved ones are still alive and that they’ll see them again someday; but they can accept the intent behind the sentiments, and can feel connected with and supported by believers even though they don’t share the beliefs.

But for many non-believers, these comforts are actively upsetting. They are the antithesis of comforting. They rub salt in the wound.

For many grieving non-believers, the “comforts” of religion and religious views of death present a terrible choice: Either pretend to agree with ideas they reject and in many cases actively oppose… or open up about their non-belief, and start a potentially divisive argument at a time when they most need connection and comfort. As GBB member William Farlin Cain said, “I was still very much in the atheist closet at the time [my mom] passed away, and I was surrounded by believers saying all the things believers say, and I had to say them too just to keep the peace. It was hard.”

Religious ideas about death can also make atheists feel alienated: hyper-aware of their marginalized status, and of the ways that atheists in our culture are invisible at best. As I’ve told believers who were pressing their religious “comforts” on me even though I’d explicitly said I didn’t want that: If you wouldn’t tell a Jewish person that their dead loved one is in the arms of Jesus Christ, why would you think it’s appropriate to tell a non-believer that their dead loved one is in Heaven? And yet many believers do think this is appropriate… to the point where they not only offer nonbelievers the “comfort” of their opinion that death is not final, but persist in doing so even when specifically asked not to. They’re so steeped in the idea of religion as a comfort, they seem unable to think of any other way to comfort those in need. And they seem unable to see that their beliefs aren’t universally shared by everyone.

God sistine chapel
But these beliefs aren’t universally shared. And they aren’t seen as universally comforting, either. In fact, religious ideas about death can be profoundly upsetting to people who don’t believe them. Sentiments that many believers find comforting — such as Heaven and Hell, or God’s plan for life and death — are, for many non-believers, more than just ideas they don’t agree with. They are ideas they find distressing, hurtful, and repugnant. As GBB member Lisa M. Lilly said, “After my parents were killed by a drunk driver, people said things to me that I found extremely difficult to hear, such as that their deaths were God’s plan or God’s will. While I’m sure the speakers thought they were offering comfort, the idea that God wanted my mother to be run over and die in the street and my father to suffer 6 1/2 weeks with severe injuries, only to die after several surgeries, was appalling to me.” And as GBB member Karen Vidrine commented, “Even when believers don’t say it, I know they are thinking of Hell and how to tell me my children [who committed suicide] are there.” Even though atheists don’t agree with these ideas, they’re still disturbing — and they’re the last thing they want to hear about when they’re struggling with their grief.

God is not great
This isn’t just true for non-believers, either. It’s often true for grieving believers as well. In fact, as Hensler points out, the death of a loved one is often a trigger for questioning or abandoning religious faith — especially if that death is particularly painful or unjust. (This is a big reason why Hensler created the group to welcome not only atheists, but believers who are questioning their faith.) The idea that death is part of God’s plan, for instance, is comforting to some — but for many, this idea either makes them angry at God, or guilt-ridden about what they or their loved ones did wrong to bring on his wrath. And the idea of Heaven or another perfectly blissful afterlife is often comforting only when you don’t think about it very carefully. When you consider the idea of a spiritual “place” where we somehow are ourselves and yet magically don’t change or grow, don’t experience any conflict, don’t have the freedom to screw up, and are untroubled by the suffering of others (either living or in Hell)… this idea can become more and more disturbing the more carefully you consider it. And many people find that they cope with death and grief far better without it.

But the reality is that spiritual beliefs permeate grief support — so much so that it’s invisible to believers, who often perpetuate it without even thinking. As GBB founder Hensler pointed out, even in the non-religious Compassionate Friends group, “so many of their members are religious or spiritual that there is no real way to participate without being constantly exposed to comments about god, angels and signs. And when I posted about my son and my grief on the page, commenters frequently projected those beliefs onto me, with offers to pray or reassurances that Jude is in heaven. Half the time I felt understood and supported, and half the time I felt like screaming.” GBB member Kevin Millham echoes this sentiment. “The hospice in which my wife died has a wonderful bereavement program, and I now belong to a grief support there. Everyone tries to be supportive and not proselytize, but the other members are Christians without exception, and we often hear in group meetings how their faith is helping them get through (though I notice they’re having every bit as hard a time as I am…). What helps them does not help me, however, and I find that talk of an afterlife I do not believe in is a way of minimizing my attempts to deal with the finality of my wife’s death, however well-intentioned the ‘better place’ comments may be.”

And planning funerals and memorials with religious content is so common that, even when non-believers explicitly request secular ceremonies upon their death, these wishes frequently get ignored. Said GBB member Julie Downing Wirtz, “When my mom died, she left explicit instructions for her funeral. It was to be in the funeral home, not the church, she wanted 2 songs played, and she named them clearly. Well, some of my siblings chose not to honor her wishes, went to the Catholic church my mother no longer attended, somehow got the pastor there to allow the funeral service, but he would not allow the songs that my mom felt would give us comfort, since they were not religious songs.” This also happened to GBB member Kevin Millham when his wife died: “The memorials we had discussed and agreed upon before her death were pretty much hijacked by local religious and spiritual types.”

Even supposedly secular memorials often get infused with religious or spiritual content. And this tendency is so deeply ingrained, the people planning these events aren’t even aware that the content is religious, and might be unwelcome to non-believers. Hensler tells the story of a memorial held for a number of children, including her son — a memorial that was explicitly described as non-religious. “A book was read to all the children in attendance,” she says, “who were mostly grieving siblings. The book was written from the point of view of a dead child, describing ‘where I am now’ in vague, stars-and-rainbows sorts of terms. It disturbed me, particularly because my late son was one of the children honored at the ceremony. How can they say an event will be non-religious and then teach the children who attend about a version of afterlife?” And before you ask… this didn’t happen in a small town in the Midwest, or the deeply religious South. It happened in San Francisco — one of the most secular, least traditionally religious, most diversity-supportive cities in the country. As Hensler noted, “A whole lot of people seem to think that as long as you aren’t talking about Jesus, any support you provide is universally welcome.

This latter point cannot be emphasized enough. There’s an all-too- common assumption that “non-religious” means “not adhering to the tenets of a specific religious sect.” If you aren’t talking about Jesus, or Allah, or reincarnation — if all you’re talking about is non-specific ideas of some sort of higher power or some sort of afterlife — that’s typically seen to be “non-religious.” Atheism — or indeed, any sort of non-belief in any supernatural beings or forces — is still so invisible in our culture that the possibility simply isn’t considered. So even supposedly inclusive, secular events end up with religious or spiritual content that leaves non-believers out in the cold.

But even if none of this were the case — even if grieving atheists were never confronted with religious ideas about death in upsetting or alienating ways, or even if no atheists were upset or alienated by these ideas — the need for non- faith- based grief support would still be powerful.

Because in a time of grief, the need for others who understand, others with a similar outlook on life and death, is powerful.

Good without god
Secular and religious views of life — and death — can be radically different. The view that life and death are deliberately guided by a conscious supernatural being is radically different from the view that life and death are entirely natural processes, guided by physical cause and effect. The view that consciousness is a metaphysical substance with the ability to survive death is radically different from the view that consciousness is a biological process created by the brain, and that it ends when the brain dies. The view that life is permanent is radically different from the view that life is ephemeral.

And the forms of comfort and perspective that we find helpful in grief can also be radically different. The idea that life is eternal and we’ll see our loved ones again someday is radically different from the idea that life is transitory and therefore ought to be intensely treasured. The idea that life and death are part of God’s benevolent plan is radically different from the idea that life and death are part of natural cause and effect, and that we and our loved ones are part of the physical universe and are intimately connected with it. The idea that our dead loved ones are no longer suffering because they’re in a blissful Heaven is radically different from the idea that our dead loved ones are no longer suffering because they no longer exist, and that being dead is no more painful or frightening than not having been born yet. The idea that death is an illusion is radically different from the idea that death is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that the soul will live forever is radically different from the idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be valuable and meaningful. The idea that there will be a final judgment in which the bad are punished and the good are rewarded is radically different from the idea that we were all phenomenally, astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that our loved ones will always live on in an afterlife is radically different from the idea that we keep our loved ones alive in our memories, and that they live on in the ways they changed us and the world. Believers and non-believers have many things in common, and much of what we find comforting during grief is the same — but much of it is seriously different, and even contradictory.

So for many grieving non-believers, the comfort offered by religious believers is, at best, not particularly comforting. Even if it isn’t actively upsetting, it simply doesn’t connect. And so the comfort, perspective, practical guidance, support, and simple “I’ve been there and know what you’re going through” offered by the Grief Beyond Belief network has been intensely welcomed. As Hensler says, “One of the hardest parts about the first few days of Grief Beyond Belief was the number of people who said, “I wish this had existed when…”

Circle holding hands
GBB member Nita-Jane Grigson: “I get a sense of support from other people going through what I’m going through, that my friends don’t understand.” GBB member William Farlin Cain: “Other grief groups more or less insist I indulge my ‘spiritual side,’ and I just want something of the rational as I revisit the grieving process these years later.” GBB member Karen Vidrine: “I like being able to comment and vent about my children’s deaths, suicides, without fear of judgment.” GBB member James Sweet: “I look for the same things I think just about anyone is looking for in a grief support group: To know other people are going through the same things; to vent; to share; to find hope in loss, to see that no matter how terrible the tragedy, life still goes on. I just don’t need to worry so much about having to bite my tongue.” GBB member Lisa M. Lilly: “I am grateful to Grief Beyond Belief for providing a forum where feelings of loss are acknowledged and shared without anyone insisting that somehow the tragedy is a good thing or fits with religious views held by others.” GBB member Kevin Millham: “I come here to be with kindred spirits who will understand what it is I’m going through even if we do not often respond directly to each other’s posts. Just knowing that I’m not alone in my (lack of) beliefs is a comfort when in my hometown I feel so alienated.”

Even people who currently aren’t grieving are finding Grief Beyond Belief valuable — because it helps them support the bereaved non-believers in their lives. GBB member Julie Downing Wirtz says, “As a trained Funeral Celebrant, and Life Tribute Specialist, serving only non-religious families, I find the posts at GBB help me to serve my clients with a better understanding of the various thoughts that go through people’s minds when they are grieving, many of which are very different from my own experiences.” And GBB member Christine M. Pedro-Panuyas concurs. ” I haven’t lost anyone close to me, but what Grief Beyond Belief has really done for me is it helped me know what to say to those who have lost someone. It helped me learn the words to say that are comforting and are comforting in a powerful way because they are true.”

When The Trump Card Fails

Trump card
It’s commonly assumed that death is religion’s trump card. No matter what atheism has to offer — a better sex life, freedom from religion’s often random taboos, the embrace of reality over wishful thinking, etc. — many people automatically assume that, when it comes to death and grief, the comfort of believing in an afterlife will always win out. They assume that any argument for atheism being, you know, true, will ultimately crumble in the face of our desire for death to not be the end.

Many atheists reject this assumption passionately. We point out that many religious beliefs about death are far from comforting — Hell being the most obvious — and that many former believers welcome atheism as a profound relief. We point out that religious beliefs about death are only comforting when you don’t think about them very carefully. We point out that a philosophy that accepts reality is inherently more comforting than a philosophy based on wishful thinking… since it doesn’t involve cognitive dissonance and the unease of self-deception. And we point out that there are many godless philosophies of death that offer comfort, meaning, and hope — with complete acceptance of the permanence of death, and without any belief in any sort of afterlife.

But it’s one thing to face the general idea of death with a godless philosophy. It’s another thing entirely when someone you love dies, and you’re dealing with the immediate and painful reality of grief.

Grief beyond belief logo
And that’s what groups like Grief Beyond Belief are about.

That’s what the burgeoning atheist community is about.

So if you ever wonder why atheists need our own space — our own meetup groups, our own student groups, our own online forums, our own organizations, our own support networks — remember that.

And if you need it yourself — please know that it’s here.

You can join Grief Beyond Belief by going to the Facebook group and clicking the “like” button.

Grief Beyond Belief — How Atheists Are Dealing With Death

9 thoughts on “Grief Beyond Belief — How Atheists Are Dealing With Death

  1. 1

    Thank you so much for writing about this. As an open atheist who volunteers in the hospice community, I get calls and emails all the time from nontheists facing death or who are grieving a loss and who need support–and there are so few resources on this for nontheists. That is, fortunately, changing. I’ve been thrilled to see death being addressed articulately and honestly by more and more writers and speakers in the nontheistic movement…and it makes an immense difference for people facing end-of-life issues to be able to find words that really resonate with the intense reality of dying and grief. So thank you again for this post; it will be deeply meaningful to many, many people.

  2. Hal

    I come from a large (12 siblings) Catholic family. When my wife died three years ago, I received all kinds of religious expressions of comfort from my family and from hers. I wrote in reply to my sister who is a nun,
    I am comforted by the recognition that you care, however you express it. Some others are a bit more aggressive in their expressions, and try to convince me that Ruth is still here loving us as before. This is a kindly meant cruelty, because I am persuaded that this is not the case. To me it is like someone pointing to a child’s mother lying in the coffin and telling the child that the mother is only sleeping.
    Just as it is difficult to express oneself in anything by English, when one has grown up with that language, so it is difficult to express oneself in anything but “Catholic” when one has grown up with that language. Difficult, but not impossible.

  3. 3

    I think, when you strip away all the rhetoric, that most (not all, though) human beings deal with grief best by being in community with each other. It makes perfect sense that atheists would need a community sensitive to their needs, and its heart breaking that people of religious beliefs do not respect that. I think its a myth that religious people, particularly Christians deal with grief better than atheists, because all too often the church DENIES them true grief. I *DON’T CARE* if your belief systems say you’ll see each other again, the loss in the moment is devastating. And all too often, the church judges and damns individuals who are torn to pieces by loss as not having enough faith. This is simply not true. It is one of the great weaknesses of the church – the denial of many human emotions and experiences to enforce incorrect concepts of human behavior. I would much rather see honest grief, be it atheist, Christian or any other take on human existence, rather than the numb stunned expressions and isolation in the faces of those who believe – and yet are denied the humanity of their grief and pain by misinterpreted religious doctrine. My two cents, I guess.

  4. 4

    I don’t want to suggest an atheist-run group isn’t needed or wanted, but I think insensitivity is a bigger problem than religion in regard to this. The religious are insensitive to the non-religious, and attempt to impose their filth where it’s not wanted.
    Here are two similar situation I’ve heard of in the past:
    – I read once in an Ann Landers column of a woman complaining how a catholic priest behaved after her bedridden father died. The priest said during the funeral that the man was “burning in hell” because he didn’t attend the church every Sunday (never mind the fact that he couldn’t move…). The priest was more worried about attendance and money on the plate than the feelings of the family.
    – On a CBC radio documentary about infertility and difficulties in childbirth, I heard how people will say “You can always have another one” as if a new child will “replace” one that died. A woman on the same documentary told of a radio DJ on Mother’s Day playing Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” after she requested a song for women who couldn’t have kids. I suspect that’s the last song any woman would want to hear after losing a kid or learning that she can’t have any.
    As for myself, when someone I know is grieving over a friend or family member, I usually tell them:
    “The pain is a good thing. It’s a sign of how much you liked/loved the person.
    In time, your pain can be turned into good memories. If you didn’t feel pain now, it would only turn into regret.”

  5. 5

    Your writing is usually insightful and inspirational, but in this piece you really outdid yourself – you hit so many nails square on the head! Especially pertinent for me is the point about how religious thoughts about death are quite disturbing, if you think about them at all carefully. I would go so far as to say that the reason I am an atheist is that every religious thought I have heard about death is too disturbing to embrace – even too disturbing to pretend to embrace.

  6. 6

    I am so glad that people are more willing to be open and honest about their conflicts regarding death and belief. Thank you for a very thorough and well-written article.

  7. 7

    William Farlin Cain from the Facebook GBB group here.

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I hadn’t ever expected to be quoted.

    I’m out of the atheist closet with my family now, and GBB and Freethought blogs played a big part in it. I hope someday to join this community with a former believer perspective as a blogger. I have so much to say.

  8. 8

    Hi Greta Christina,

    I landed on this article via one of today’s other FtB blogs about this issue – Stephanie Zvan’s – and wanted to let you know as well how grateful I am to hear of this group.

    I’ve been a FtB member (as a reader only), but have only commented a few times. (Some did not go through due to technical issues at my end…smartphone out-smarting me. Lol)

    Anyway, until landing on this post I didn’t know to what extent you were involved with Grief Beyond Belief, so want to thank you for both this article and your role in supporting & promoting it.

    I tried to express what this issue means to me on Stephanie’s blog post. In your above post, you have fully expressed what I was trying to say, but in a far more coherent and eloquent manner.

    I’ve been reading a lot of your posts the past few months. You touch on a lot of important issues and always do so in a respectful, informed and intelligent way. Bravo!

    I didn’t actually finish reading this particular post as I was getting a little too emotional. Think I’ll print it out and try again later to see if I can keep the waterworks at bay while I finish it!

    Well, I’m off now to join Grief Beyond Belief.

    Best wishes! 🙂

  9. 9

    I am trying to learn if my only son’s decision to live as an atheist has an impact on my continuing to have him as my medical power of attorney and my personal executor as I am an active Catholic. I am a recent widow and he is our only son. I have no other family members. We have a good relationship and I do not discuss his faith choices with him. I respect his free will to choose his path, although, yes, I wish it was different. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s more on my mind is thinking through what this means to my wishes for my care as I age, during the dying process and at and after death.

    I do not want to initiate a discussion with him if there is no need, so I am thinking all of this through. Will my spiritual needs during the times I will need him cause him so much discomfort that it would be best for me now to start looking for an alternative.

    Does anyone here have insight on this, experience with it?

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