Seeking Atheist Grief Stories for “Grief Beyond Belief” Book

UPDATE/ CLARIFICATION: Some questions we’ve gotten about this project have made us realize that we need to clarify. We’re looking for grief stories from non-believers — but we’re not seeking submissions for an anthology that we’re editing. We’re seeking personal accounts that we’ll be using for our research, and that we’ll be quoting from in the book. People sending in stories don’t have to be professional or even semi-professional writers, and stories will probably not be printed in their entirety (unless they’re very short): we’ll be excerpting them/ quoting from them.

If you’re an atheist. agnostic, humanist, skeptic, freethinker, or any other sort of non-believer in God and the supernatural — and you have an experience (or experiences) with grief — we want to hear about it.

I’m going to be collaborating on a book about faith-free grief with Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, the online grief support group for non-believers. (Working title: Grief Beyond Belief: Living With Loss as Atheists and Other Non-Believers.) We’re looking for stories from non-believers about their experiences with grief. We want to hear from you if you:

* were a non-believer at the time you experienced the loss/grief;
* became a non-believer while you were acutely grieving;
* re-experienced old griefs or losses when you became a non-believer;
* have any other experience related to faith-free grief that you want to tell us about.

We want to hear all stories — positive, negative, mixed, complex, changing over time. And we want to hear both the parts that relate to your secularism and the parts that are just about grief — who you lost, how it affected you, what comforted you, and how you have or have not learned to live with your grief.

The following questions may help you get started, but please don’t take them as either limits or requirements. You are not expected to answer every question or touch on every topic. If you have something to say about your experience of faith-free grief, whether or not it fits one of these categories, we want to hear it. Stories can be of any length.

* What has your experience of grief been like? What have been some of your feelings, thoughts, actions?
* Do you think you experience grief differently than believers? If you were once a believer, do you experience grief differently as a non-believer than you did as a believer?
* Are there experiences of grief that you think are the same or similar for everyone — religious or not?
* How has it been dealing with religious believers — in your family, friends, or the world in general?
* What kind of successes or difficulties have you encountered in seeking grief support that felt appropriate for your needs?
* Have caregivers (therapists, support groups, doctors or other medical providers) assumed that you were religious, or pressed religion on you? If so, what was your experience of that?
* How do you feel about religion generally when it comes to your grief? For instance: Has grief made you wish that you believed? Has grief made you angry about religion? Has grief made you more sympathetic with believers? Are there other feelings you’ve had about religion related to grief?
* Was death or grief part of why you became an atheist? If so, what was that experience like?
* If you have mental health issues (such as depression), how has grief affected that?
* Has your experience of grief has changed over time — and if so, how?
* What have other people done or said (family, friends, or anyone) that’s helped you with your grief? What have other people done or said that’s been unhelpful?
* Have you gotten support from atheist communities — either online or in-person, either grief-specific support or more general community support? What was your experience of that?
* Are there secular ideas about death and grief that you’ve found helpful? (This can include songs, poems, quotations, philosophies, books, movies, TV shows, or anything else.)

Again — please don’t feel limited by these categories, and don’t feel that you have to respond to all of them. If you have something to say about your experience of faith-free grief, we want to hear it.

You can post your stories here, or email them privately to griefbeyondbelief (at) gmail (dot) com. Please let us know how you would prefer to be quoted: by your full name, your first name only, your online handle, or a made-up name. (If you don’t tell us, we’ll err on the side of caution, and will use a made-up name.) Thank you so much — we know these can be difficult experiences to write about, and we intensely appreciate you doing this to help other people.

-Greta Christina and Rebecca Hensler

Seeking Atheist Grief Stories for “Grief Beyond Belief” Book

21 thoughts on “Seeking Atheist Grief Stories for “Grief Beyond Belief” Book

  1. 1

    I’ll see if I can find some of my writings from the time (early ’99). I experienced three close family deaths in very short succession. Two were very sudden an unexpected (one was a suicide) which made them much harder to deal with.

  2. 2

    What kind of length are you looking for? Any?

    I joined GBB on Facebook relatively early in its history after a close friend died of an oxycontin overdose. I found it helpful. My grief was not tremendously traumatic, so I don’t know how much I have to share, but I probably have a couple of hundred words or so to share about my thoughts regarding the parts of the person that “live on” (and how our brains experience that).

  3. 3

    Hell, I’ll just do it:

    After a close friend of mine passed away suddenly, one of the experiences of grief I was most struck by was this very visceral feeling of implausibility. Some might call it denial, but to me it was distinct. It wasn’t just, “She can’t be gone,” but rather, when I pondered that she really was gone, I had this sensation that I was catastrophizing somehow, that in fact the permanence of the thing was clearly a delusion. “Why am I being so silly and thinking she’s permanently dead… this will all work out. Don’t know how, but of course it will! Why, I can imagine what she is thinking right now!”

    Beyond that, I found a sort of “phantom limb” syndrome at work. All of my mental models of this person were still there, even though the actual physical person had been removed. I experienced day-to-day life as if she were clearly still alive, and the way I thought about her did not immediately change. Our brains have not evolved to easily handle the loss of a limb, and by the same token I do not feel that they really do a good job at handling the sudden loss of a person. And so our minds keep on going as if the person is still alive.

    Whether this is disturbing or comforting depends on how you look at it. In his book I Am A Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter refers to the concept of “soul shards” to describe the parts of a person that remain after they are gone. In this case, he is referring not just to their legacy, but actual reflections of that person in our living brains: A software model of that person, albeit a limited one, still executing on somebody else’s hardware. I felt that this very much described what I was experiencing, and I loved the positive spin on it. Maybe it is simply that I like to over-intellectualize, but for me, this idea was much more comforting than the old cliche about how “she’s still with us in our hearts”. Quite literally, a piece of her was still alive in my brain. I liked that.

  4. 4

    What kind of length are you looking for? Any?

    jamessweet @ #2: Any. I’ve updated the post to say that. Thanks for asking — and thanks for posting your story. We greatly appreciate it.

  5. 6

    I had a friend who was like an older brother to me. I loved him dearly. He developed acute myeloid leukemia when he was 70. I looked at the stats, which said only 5% of patients over 50 would live five years. I promptly told myself that he was “tough” and he would make it. Pure, uncomplicated denial. Then he had a bad reaction to the first chemo treatment and died suddenly.

    I was completely devastated. I simply could not deal with the idea that the world did not have him in it. The funeral first made it worse–when a pastor told everyone that he had “prayed the prayer” with my friend and that he was now in Heaven. I knew what my friend thought of religion. I suppose he might have said that if he thought it would lessen his wife’s grief, but frankly, he wasn’t expecting to die right then, so I seriously doubt it. I sat there, outraged on his behalf, and forced myself to remember that the funeral was about me and the couple of hundred other people who needed to grieve together, not about a lying pastor.

    Then the funeral made it better, because I spoke with his granddaughter. She told me he had introduced her to her favorite books, the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I told her I had turned him on to that series and we hugged each other and I started feeling a little better. Yes, my friend was gone, but he still lived within the lives he had affected and that was no small thing. I still grieve, even 10 years later, but it is no longer a burning hole in my heart.

    I honestly don’t think that belief in an afterlife, even a belief uncomplicated by whether a loved one actually made it to heaven, would help with grief. I think that what we are grieving is the loss, and though the belief in an afterlife is supposed to mitigate that, I don’t think it really does. Heaven or hell or a simple ending of life, what hurts us is the loss of someone important to us.

  6. 8

    Here’s my contribution, Greta:

    When my Christian mother died, six of us children and grandchildren arranged the funeral, all of us atheists. Wanting to honor who she was, we sang her favorite Christian hymns. I had invited her pastor to speak; after briefly mentioning Mom, he spent the rest of his time in a weird fiery rant about how those who don’t accept Jesus are immoral and hellbound. It ruined the funeral. Afterwards I angrily went up to him and said, “Why would you insult all of us that way? Most people in the room weren’t Christian.” He apologized and said he just assumed the whole family was Christian.

    Should we really have to inform pastors the religion of everyone attending a funeral so they don’t insult them? Would it not make more sense for these supposed models of virtue to instead reform their message so they don’t have to worry about voicing it to the wrong people?

  7. 9

    I’m not sure if these stories of my own loss fit the bill, but here they are, from several blog posts over the past two years, starting with one written as I was flying back to India to reach my mother’s deathbed:

    Another post written a few days after she died:

    This is perhaps the one most relevant to you, where I address our lack of faith while appreciating the prayers offered by those friends who do believe:

    More recently, a post and poem about being unmothered, from this Mother’s Day:

    Earlier, I had also written this tribute to my other mother, my mother-in-law:

    If you find something useful in the above, or have questions for me, please feel free to contact me – I’m leafwarbler on twitter and gmail. I look forward to reading your book!


  8. 11

    What’s your deadline?

    Johanna Mead @ #5 and Ronja Addams-Moring @ #10: You have a couple of months at least. We’re just starting work on this project. Thanks for asking!

  9. 12

    There was a span of two or three years between me becoming an atheist and my first post-deconversion loss of a loved one. I had thought a lot about death during those few years and how I would cope with loss since I no longer believed in an afterlife; that is one of those nagging questions you seem to get asked as soon as someone finds out you’re an atheist. “But what about an afterlife? Don’t you think that you’ll see your loved ones again? Don’t you want to think that you will?” So I had some time to think about it, but thinking is no substitute for actual experience.

    When my sister-in-law (brother’s wife) died unexpectedly, I tried to prepare for the worst. I was expecting that I’d feel some sort of insurmountable grief, that I wouldn’t be able to face the reality of someone being gone forever. But I was in for two surprises.

    First, that sort of grief never came. There was grief, to be sure, but nothing extraordinary compared to the grief I had felt when I faced loss back when I was a believer. And what I eventually came to realize was that this is because the grief that I felt, that I had always felt, was the loss of the person here and now. That person is gone from my life from that point on, and even if there is a heaven where we’ll see each other again, that doesn’t make their absence during holidays, birthdays, weddings, births, etc., any less poignant. The fact of this person’s absence for the duration of earthly life is a fact that both believers and non-believers face, and they cope with that by following exactly the same formula: find comfort until you find acceptance. Exactly how one goes about those things will vary from person to person, but from what I can tell that’s the only way that one truly handles grief.

    The second surprise was at how little funerals had to offer me in the way of comfort. I couldn’t connect at all to the religious aspects of the services. This wasn’t unexpected; I’d been to church services, weddings, and other religious ceremonies. I couldn’t connect to those either, but it never bothered me. Here, however, I wasn’t just an observer. I was also a participant. The funeral was supposed to be a place where I could express my grief and find comfort, but I couldn’t. There is nothing comforting about hearing about how the deceased is in “a better place” and that “we’ll see them again.” The scriptures, the prayers, the hymns, also meaningless to me.

    Not only could I not connect with what other people were expressing around me, I also felt the need to keep my own views hidden. I didn’t know a single person who shared my views on the afterlife, so no one would understand them the way I needed to be understood. What’s more, even letting people know that I was a non-believer seemed to me like it would be an inconsiderate thing to do. What would it do to someone who was actively mourning and drawing solace from the idea of seeing their dead loved one again in an afterlife if I was to say to them “doesn’t it suck that they’re gone forever and we’ll never see them again” or to respond to them saying “they’re in a better place” by saying “no, they’re not.” I can’t do that, so I keep my views under wraps.

    Of course, while I’m gagging myself trying to not make believers feel bad, the same consideration is not paid to non-believers, depending on the funeral. At my sister-in-law’s funeral service, the pastor made a throw-away comment during a prayer, asking hopefully that if there were any people present who didn’t “know Jesus” that their grief would draw them into a relationship with God. I’m not sure anyone else even noticed the comment, but I was dumbstruck and angry. I had spent the better part of three years trying a hundred different ways to reason my way back into Christianity, trying to make the religion make some sort of believable sense, and here he was basically saying “I hope you are feeling so terrible right now that your emotions are able to completely override your rationality in a way that lets you believe just like me.” I tried to convince myself that he meant well and that he wouldn’t have said something so inconsiderate if he was speaking to me face-to-face if he knew I was an atheist, but that didn’t really help. That just meant that it didn’t occur to him that there actually were non-believers there, which only accentuated my loneliness. For about six months I could barely keep myself from crying whenever I thought about the funeral, not because of grief, but because of how angry I was.

    Going through that, though, made it possible for me to make it through the funeral of my aunt a little over a year later. My most conservative, fundamentalist relatives are found in that one family, so I prepared for the worst and almost got it. Where the hurtful comment at my sister-in-law’s funeral had been a single line in a single prayer, the emotional manipulation was a built-in feature at my aunt’s service. The pastor gave a ten or fifteen minute sermon about heaven and how we should all want to go there and how the only way to get there was Jesus. This was followed by an all-out, honest-to-goodness alter call, complete with impassioned pleas from my aunt’s husband and children.

    I wish now that I had walked out, or at the very least flipped off the vulture of a pastor when everyone else had their head bowed and eyes closed. But I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want a funeral to be the place where I came out to my family.

    I can handle my grief as an atheist. It’s hard, mostly because I have to do it alone, but I can do it. What I still can’t seem to get the hang of is coming to terms with the fact that funerals are not sources of comfort or an outlet for grief. Not anymore. Now they are times of anger, loneliness, and resentment, and that has to color the grief I already feel.


  10. 13

    Hi Greta,

    It’s 14 years now since my Dad died. We as a family were basically life-long atheists, though with some mild CofE identification since that’s what you put on forms back in the 1970s in Australia.

    Accordingly, everything was secular with no problem. Our funeral celebrant helped us put together a memorial service with some of his favourite music and poems and some brief eulogies. The crematorium chapel was resolutely nondenominational; no crosses or anything. No-one looked sideways when we put a quote from Shakespeare on his plaque. Religion never came near any of it.

    The experience of grief? The sheer animal pain of the loss; the phantom-limb experience of the missing person as if just out of the room; the weird sense of wrongness of daily life somehow continuing as if nothing had happened: that I imagine to be common to all humans. My personal response of lying around re-reading the complete works of Tolkein, perhaps less so. I also found grief to be a profoundly different experience from depression, which surprised me as I had feared a relapse. Perhaps something to do with the undeniable reality of the cause.

    The consolation of a future reunion is inconceivable to me. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see him again. There was some consolation in seeing all the people who had cared for him, but I find that more equivocal. His impact on the world was mixed, and I’m afraid not all good. Some of my grief was more for what a father might have been than for what he was.

    My consolations are more philosophical: all life is short, everybody dies, all things must pass. Change is the nature of existence. Taking a physicist’s view of the universe, where space and time are one, he and we are still always eternally there-then in that chunk of space-time. We may die, but we can never not have been. For a moment there, the universe assembles its atoms into us, little stardust beings experiencing the universe. Here and gone. The view has a severe poignant beauty.

    There’s also no fear. I was recently diagnosed with an illness that might have been terminal, and my main reactions were “thank fuck I’m an atheist” and “OMG I’m going to die!! … but wait a moment, who isn’t?” Death will be OK, with no more pain and suffering than before I was born. No fear, no post-mortem torture. The thing to do is to live as much as you can while you can. There’s your life, your own artwork hanging there eternally in space-time.

    *happy to be quoted by my namiest nym, Alethea Kuiper-Belt

  11. 14

    When my grandmother died I was very sad that she had gone, but I know that death is a part of life. I went to her funeral, which was a cremation, wearing a periodic table t-shirt. When people asked me why I was wearing it I explained that she was returning to the elements from which she was made, and all of her atoms were going back into the world, not longer a part of her. The t-shirt showed what we are all made up from, and I could point at the elements we are mostly made of.

    My other relatives thought it was a bit strange but are used to my ways. Many of them were very interested when I could point out to them the main ingredients that make up our bodies. Even though she is dead she’s not really gone forever, not until I and everyone else who knew her are gone, anyway, as she lives on in some small way in the memories of those who knew her.

    Terry Harvey-Chadwick

  12. Pen

    I grew up an atheist surrounded by non-believers so although losing someone is always hard for everyone, all my ideas of mortality and my expectations of death were formed from childhood in an atheist environment. I don’t think I have anything special to say about them because they don’t seem all that special to me. I am very ‘life focused’ perhaps because that’s all I think we have. But life ends, and for some reason funerals in our family always have a religious component in them. We go to the crematorium and there is always some religious type there who gives a speech with religious things in it. It seems to be the default option. It’s meant to be comforting but it isn’t.

    I was particularly close to my grandfather and when he died, I was doing just fine until the religious guy started talking to us about heaven and the afterlife. At that point I broke down. When I was already dealing with grief, it was too much to have to listen politely to random fantasies (as they are to me). If I’d thought my grandfather believed it, it would have been another matter, but that’s not the case. The whole thing made me feel defiled, as if my relationship with my grandfather had to end on that note of subjugation to someone else’s casually imposed religious belief system.

    I’m probably not really expressing the strength of my feeling very well, but I actually developed a bit of a phobia about funerals at that point. I realised that the closer the person is to me, the less tolerable religion at the funeral will seem, to the point where the closer the person is, the more horrifyingly traumatic it would be to attend their funeral, to the point that perhaps I wouldn’t. Bereavement is one of the very few circumstances in which I actually feel discriminated against as an atheist.

    This story is coming from the UK, in case that matters for your book.

  13. 17

    Thanks for taking this project on.

    In November 2012, I came home from work one Monday to discover that my bride of 17 years had taken her own life with a combination of prescription medication and booze. She was bipolar, and for 7 years a mostly “dry” alcoholic. She’d also become an atheist herself only three years beforehand. At the time of her death, she was super over-medicated, recently unemployed after her surgery didn’t correct the problem keeping her from her vocation. In the aftermath, I was fortunate in that I’d been an out atheist for so long that most of my friends, family, and coworkers knew better than to couch their expressions in religious terms. My response to the few that either didn’t know better or who felt the need to proselytize was to explain that no, she wasn’t in a “better place”. Her best place was here, by my side, being loved, adored, cared for, looked after, and protected.

    Since I had a counseling master’s degree, I knew where to go for help, and how to locate a sound, secular practitioner. In the weeks following her death, I found myself wishing and hoping that I could come around to believing in heaven again. The pain and hurt of never being able to talk to her again, and the thought that I would never, ever see her again outside of my dreams was crushing. Until that happened, I never fully understood what Matt Dillahunty and others meant when they say you can’t choose what you believe. I always figured that was a matter of debate, but I found that my atheism was unshakable. I would not be taking any comfort from the notion of seeing her again someday in an afterlife. Not only did I understand the skeptic stance on belief more fully, but also the powerful attraction of religious belief, especially when it comes to death and dying. What a wonderful refuge for those suffering loss!

    The only thing that happened that really angered me was the funeral home. They constantly talked to me in godly language even after I informed them that I preferred not to be spoken to like that. They vastly overcharged me for a simple cremation with no service and no frills, and my last words with them were terminally unpleasant. What made me really angry, however, was when I received a parcel in the mail. Maybe some readers have seen this. It was a leather-bound, gold-lettered book personalized in her name. It was from the Heritage foundation (or one of their front groups with the name Heritage in the title). It was bible stories and parables, with illustrations befitting a children’s Sunday school primer. The first few pages were ads and offers from local businesses, and it was clear that the funeral home had given or sold my name, and my bride’s, to the Heritage parasites. I ripped the book apart by the bindings, tore it into several pieces, and deposited the pieces on the front porch of the funeral home, and stuck a note on their door excoriating them for their insensitivity, even going so far as to remind them that ignoring the beliefs and requests of their bereaved clientele was about as un-Christian as it gets. Of course, that’s not totally true since far too many Christians feel that the best time to proselytize is precisely when people are hurting, grieving, or terminally ill. Damn those smarmy ghouls.

    One more thing: I think a lot of my religious friends didn’t hit me with the “better place” mantra because it was a suicide, and many Christian sects feel that suicide is a sin against god that can’t be forgiven because the sinner cannot ask for forgiveness. What an unnecessarily cruel belief to hold, and moreso to express.

    Michael J., New York

  14. 18

    My stepmother’s family is one of those big Italian Catholic families, where Papo came over from the old country and sold fruit from a cart, everyone has 6 or 8 children, and of course the whole family is very in with the local parish. Dinner with the Monsignor once a week and everything. So of course her funeral was in the local Catholic church. It went on for about three hours. Aside from a couple musical interludes, it was all church dudes talking. And in the whole time, Mama S. was mentioned exactly twice. Both times in the context of what a good church-going woman she was. Nothing about her life, nothing about supporting each other. Just over and over about how in times of grief like this you should take solace in the arms of the church.

    I was so furious by the end I nearly walked out.

    About a year later, my wife’s father died. (Technically she wasn’t my wife yet, but for purposes of the story she may as well have been.) They were a family for whom religion wasn’t a thing. In small-town Pennsylvania, no less. College town, maybe that helped.

    Anyway, his memorial service was held at the local restaurant (-slash-bar) where he and his family had spent a lot of his time. The owners donated their banquet room for the evening, and we all gathered there. No body (he had been cremated), no religious leaders, just a bunch of friends and family remembering him. We dressed in Steelers regalia, sang his favorite show tunes, and told the craziest stories we could remember about him. By the end I felt I knew him better than I had when he was alive. To me, that memorial will always be a model to which all others should aspire.

  15. 19

    I was 16 when my mother woke up early one September morning to let me know my dad was dying. While she called 911, I carried my baby brother, who slept peacefully in the dying man’s arm, into my little sister’s bedroom. I rubbed my knuckles on his sternum to try to rouse him from agonal breathing. The paramedics arrived and carried him to the back of an ambulance. As my mother phoned family and prepared to drive to the hospital, she sent me to the ambulance to ask for his oxygen stats. They were pumping on his chest, and when they saw me, their faces told me all that I needed to know. But even then, I could not accept what was happening before my eyes. To my 16-year-old self, it was unfathomable that my father, on whom I could always rely, would be beyond my reach forever.

    I spent two days designing a commemorative video and brochures for the funeral. The church informed me that I would have to mute my video, as it contained satanic music: Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, which I had selected for my and my father’s shared love of classic rock. After I had printed a hundred copies of the brochure, I was told to mark out on each copy the small picture of Wild Irish Rose that I had buried among the images of my father’s other favorite worldly items. Alcohol consumption of any amount, the preacher reminded me, was a sin.

    In the weeks that followed, rumors circulated in the good Christian community. My father was a drug user, they said, and it was not heart failure but addiction that had claimed his life. At his funeral, while we wept quietly in the pews, the preacher expounded for twenty minutes on the great suffering of hell, and urged somebody to come forth and repent. When no knee appeared at his altar, he grew more insistent. My father’s death amounted to a chance for the preacher to add another notch to his belt of saved souls.

    My father was a religious man, but not of the hellfire and brimstone variety popular in my rural fundamentalist town. A sensitive and caring man, he practiced love and forgiveness; I remember him crying once when my sister and I argued over a belonging. When I told him in private that I didn’t understand why abortion was bad, he didn’t become angry and aggressive as would the other Christians in my family; he said that he had felt the same way when he was younger, but having children had changed his views. Once, we had lunch where one of my friends worked as a server. A mentally disabled coworker asked my friend to be his girlfriend; oblivious, I unwittingly interrupted the conversation. My father smiled, assuming I’d done it intentionally to spare my friend, who was visibly uncomfortable by the proposal, from having to let the man down. “Remember, even different people want love, too,” he told me. His soft approach to Jesus won him no friends in our church.

    I witnessed my boyfriend’s father (a wealthy and highly respected preacher in the community) physically and emotionally abuse his wife and son. I watched my best friend’s mother daily drink herself into a stupor and invite strange men to molest my friend. I wondered why God would choose to allow such people to live while marking my gentle father for death. How easy would it have been for God to reach down and heal his failing heart? I grew angry. I told myself that they needed time to repent, whereas my father didn’t. Meanwhile, I watched the havoc that those parents wreaked on innocent children, while my family fell apart and lost our home in my father’s absence. I grew angrier. My mother sent me to a therapist when I told her that we were like ants and God was a child with a magnifying glass, laughing at us as we squirmed in His flames.

    My faith rapidly dwindled after that. Raised in Christianity, I had always accepted what I had been told without serious examination, even as I bristled at the role of women in the Bible. Now I needed proof that I would see my father again, and I spent long hours on the internet searching for evidence. Even at 16, I could see the gaping holes in apologists’ explanations: the circular reasoning, the denial of basic science, the ignorance of history. The physical, historical, ethical, and logical objections that atheists listed against the Bible pierced a mortal wound in my belief.

    I moved out at 17, and soon after, I went to university. Free to explore viewpoints without fear of retaliation from my family and community, I shed Christianity within months. At last, I could release my guilt and my anger. My father’s death was due simply to chance and not to the negligence of an omnipotent being who wielded the power to intervene but nonetheless opted to allow suffering. This, I could accept. Further, never again would I have to worry that I or loved ones would face torture for all of eternity for the slightest of mistakes. I developed a healthy relationship with death: it became a natural part of life, one that made life ever more precious and one that would ultimately end suffering. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that out of my immediate family, all of whom remain firm Christians, I am the only one that has been able to move on from my father’s death to find happiness.

  16. 20

    I’m not sure if my story counts, exactly. It’s to do with a time when my mother was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Mum survived and is still alive and kicking now. Submitting my story therefore feels a little bit glib given some of the other stories I’ve read above.

    I’m giving it anyway because it might be useful. I hope I don’t offend anyone here by presuming to include my story.

    I’ve been an atheist for most of my life. We’re all going to die, and at the present time there’s nothing we can do to avoid that outcome. So in the best of all possible futures, parents should not outlive their children – children should outlive their parents.

    Which means that I am going to outlive my mother. I’ve known I was going to outlive my mother since I was old enough to understand what death was. I’ve thought about it, and felt the ghost of future grief, like an echo moving back in time. It sucks. It’s going to suck. But that’s the way the world is. Hiding from it isn’t going to change the outcome.

    That said, when mum told me she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer it was still a serious shock. I had expected to have her kicking around for at least another 40 years. The prospect of losing her so soon and so suddenly… It felt like the ground had dropped out from under me.

    Because I’m an atheist I had nowhere to turn for reassurance. It was in front of me, it was happening, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I just had to front up and accept it. She hadn’t died yet… But I was still grieving for her loss. Frantically hoping that she would recover, yes. But at the same time, realizing in a visceral way that I had never experienced before that no matter what, some day, she would be gone.

    It was a rough time. I turned to my friends for support. They all know I’m a strongly atheist. Most of them are religious, but rarely express their religious beliefs particularly openly. But in the context of this kind of tradgedy, there was a tendency for it to come out a bit stronger.

    Nothing overt or hurtful. But a lot of ‘we’re praying for you and your mum’ type stuff.

    I knew it meant that they were being supportive, and letting me know that my mother and I were in their thoughts. Which is all I could really ask for from my friends, really.

    If I hadn’t been under stress it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. But precisely because it was such a rough time, I found myself suppressing a wince every time.

    One very good friend of mine is Ben. He was the only one to check ahead of time. Can’t remember exactly what he said, but he checked to see if it was okay to tell me he was praying for me, because atheism.

    At the time, he was the only one I confided in: That I knew the offers of prayers came from a good place, that they meant good things, and that I should take them in stride… But that I winced about it, and had to suppress that wince when expressing the requisite gratitude for their attention and their prayers so they could feel good about themselves for discharging their perceived responsibility as friends to be there for me… Which isn’t how I wanted to feel about it. I wanted to feel genuine gratitude. But because of the grief, I couldn’t.

    Every time they offered prayers, the traitorous little voice inside me would bubble up and I’d think to myself: Yeah, that’s nice. Did you leave some cream out for the damn fairies too?

    Which was bitter and ungrateful and not how I wanted to feel, and not what my friends deserved to hear when they were just trying to be there for me. So with the exception of the one religious friend who thought to check first, I held that part back, faked a smile, expressed insincere gratitude, and got on with my day feeling both grief at my mother’s predicament, and also like a measly grinch for having such a negative reaction to their attentions.

    Eventually the offers of prayers stopped. I don’t know if Ben told them to knock it off or if they just worked it out from my transparently fake responses – I’m a bad liar at the best of times.

    To be clear: My friends are actually really great, and they really rallied for me. They know my mum from time they all spent at my house when we were younger and they all got along really well with her, so it felt very natural when they’d come into the clinic where mum was staying to bring her flowers, check in on me, sit with her while I left to get some food, all that sort of thing. They really came through for me – my negative reaction to the ‘we’re praying for you’ really was uncalled for… It just couldn’t be helped in the situation, because bitterness of my grief was leaking over all my other reactions at the time.

    So in one sense, my atheism was a burden: The religious expressions of sympathy and support from my friends wound up having the opposite effect, because on some level, at that time, I was unable to take those expressions in the spirit they were offered.

    But on the whole, I think my atheism was a boon during this time. Because as I said at the outset: I’ve thought about the death of my mother before, it’s an inescapable conclusion for any worldview that lacks an afterlife. Because I’ve thought about it before, I was ready for it when it looked like it was about to happen.

    Yes, I grieved. Yes, I struggled. But I can’t help but think that if I did believe in an afterlife, that promise would have worn thin when presented with the reality of my mothers immanent death. I would have had to reconcile my belief in a loving God with why such a God would target my mother for an early death, so that was a burden I didn’t have to consider. I’d had lead-in time to consider it up front. So it didn’t come as a total shock when I was presented with it. I was still able to function as a human being.

    Having that lead in helped me face the reality when it looked like the worst was about to happen.

    I was able to look at my grief not as some aberration to be purged, resisted or removed, but as an expression of my love for my mother. I could accept it without wallowing in it. It was a hard time for me. But it was also the best of all possible universes, the best version of myself and my situation that it was possible to have had in those circumstances.

    My mother survived, thankfully.

    But nonetheless, I have to confront the fact that eventually I am going to outlive her… I’m going to have to deal with her death one day.

    Because of my atheism – because I have had to think about this and confront it ahead of time – I think I’ll be able to confront that time and survive it while being there for my brother and my mother’s other loved ones with some small amount of grace and dignity and acceptance despite my grief.

    Because of my atheism I can contextualize my grief and make it a source of strength.

    And I don’t need to rely on dubiously unfalsifiable postulates in order to do so, which makes it robust in a way that I suspect most religious people would be hard pressed to match. Because I don’t need faith to deal with it. I can accept things as they are and move through it… Because I’ve had time to confront it beforehand.

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