"Public rituals of grief": A Guest Post by Rebecca Hensler

Rebecca Hensler
This is a guest post from Rebecca Hensler, founder of the Grief Beyond Belief secular grief support network. It was written in response to this request from Dave Muscato of American Atheists, calling for education of public officials about the diversity of their communities in times of tragedy, and atheists’ desire and need to be included.

Aurora, Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon… following each tragedy, I ask myself, “Who is taking care of the nonbelievers among the grieving?” As the founder of Grief Beyond Belief, a secular grief-support network whose members reach into the thousands, I am painfully aware of how alienated, isolated and without comfort many atheists and other freethinkers feel following the death of a loved one — or following public events such as the ones above, events that touch and traumatize not only those present but the millions who see, hear or read about them. I think of the atheists among the multitude who heard the President use the word “we” as if he was speaking not just to the nation but for the nation. Might they, like I, find more hurt than comfort in having belief in scriptures, God, and an afterlife projected onto their own grief by the leader of their nation?

A believer might say, “But this is an interfaith ceremony; why should a speaker not speak of the faith that supports him through tragedy?” Certainly a Rabbi or Imam or Pastor at an interfaith ceremony should do so. But this is why the public rituals of grief at which our elected officials speak, the ones that are aired on television and through the internet across the country, should be secular in nature. They still might have clergy speak for those who share their beliefs, because belief about what happens after we die is an intrinsic part of grief. But if clergy are given the opportunity to speak religious words of comfort, the same opportunity should also be provided for a secular or Humanist celebrant to speak secular words of comfort.

Politicians, however, should either admit they are speaking as individuals, and leave out the “we” and “our,” or they should speak for a nation in mourning using language that is universal. The president — this president — is certainly capable of finding words that speak for us all: “sorrow,” “love,” “remember.”

– Rebecca Hensler, Founder
Grief Beyond Belief

"Public rituals of grief": A Guest Post by Rebecca Hensler

4 thoughts on “"Public rituals of grief": A Guest Post by Rebecca Hensler

  1. 1

    I kinda waffle on this, in that I think you are dead-on accurate about the issue itself, but it might be one of those “Not just yet” things, i.e. people might not be ready to empathize with nonbelievers in a situation like this at this point in history…too many raw emotions, passionate feelings, and any perception of saying “ur grievin rong!” could be met with more hostility than understanding.

    Nevertheless, I have a policy of “Don’t throw people who are right under the bus”, so I applaud you agitating for this, whether it’s “too soon” in history or not. And on a side note, Rebecca does wonderful work with running the Grief Beyond Belief group, so I just have to take a second to praise her here. It is such an important thing, and such a difficult topic. She’s a “saint” for doing it, if you’ll excuse the religious metaphor 😀

  2. 4

    I’ll add my “thank you” as well, Rebecca. It is very comforting when we know we are not alone. And James, “It’s not time yet” is a poor argument for just about anything. If not now, when? Historically, it has never been the right time for movements, but they need to happen.

    Love you, Greta, and love that you included Rebecca’s writing.

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