Grieving as an Atheist

Dec 27, 2012


Discussion by: Kimberly Danner

Death, Funerals, Church, and Loss by Suicide.

Experiencing the whole process of loss and death is quite different as an Atheist. The obvious difference is we do not believe in an “afterlife” whether it be good or bad, it doesn’t exist to us.

My graduating class had our 10 year reunion early this year because we had three losses over the summer. Two of them were death by suicide.

In addition to that there were a few deaths caused by natural causes but this year is by far the most tragic for myself and for many of my peers. The typical grieving process takes an individual through various stages until reaching acceptance. While religious individuals can imagine their loved one in a sense where they are still “alive” aka happy in an afterlife, Atheists would have to accept that their loved one has made a choice to take their own life forever. Being around religion while being upset can take a toll on an Atheist (especially if people talk about it with you at the funeral). 

Do Atheists grieve slower than theists? 

31 comments on “Grieving as an Atheist

  • 1
    canadian_right says:

    I really doubt that being religious or an atheist affects how long you grieve compared to what your basic personality is like. Some people just take more or less time to grieve.

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  • 2
    Bananamama says:

    I lost my mom and my grandfather in the same year. They were both hard-asses and they didn’t really care too much for drama and that’s why I love them. I thought it would be an insult to their memory if I got depressed so I just took comfort in the fact that they’re free from all forms of bs humanity has to offer. I never really felt the need to seek solace from outside sources(religion, support groups etc.). I dealt with it by getting closer to the family I have left and partying more often with friends I’ve known since childhood. It took me a couple of days but then I found a reason to smile again. I guess in my case, an atheist grieves faster than a theist. 

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  • I don’t really think it affects the grieving process – the person is still gone. Maybe you can convince yourself they’re in another place, but you’re still going to go through life not seeing them. I have a friend that I know I probably won’t see again, though he’s alive, and that hurts very much too. It doesn’t really help knowing that he’s just in another place.

    Sometimes it seems like religion can be used as a coping mechanism, but I don’t know how effective it is. My mom died of cancer and my dad tried to reconcile her prolonged death as a sign that she was a good Christian, and came up with a list of other “good Christians” that suffered terribly before dying. I went to another funeral, and that woman’s suffering (she basically suffocated to death) was said to be a gift from God, because he knew she could handle that burden. People that knew her were nodding their heads in agreement. (Seems like a crappy deal to me, though.)

    But in each case, though being in heaven was said to be a cause for celebration, extreme life saving measures were taken prior to death, despite those measures causing suffering and pain. I think we can convince ourselves that something is true, and perhaps people really do believe in life after death, but there’s a part of the brain that does not buy it and will take any measure available in order to stay alive. We still have a strong sense of preservation, and we still suffer from loss.

    Perhaps the best thing about religion in that case is having a built in community of sorts. My mom would make meals for people she didn’t even know, just because they were a part of the church, and there were a lot of people at my mom’s funeral to offer their support. I’ve sort of built something like that here for myself, outside of a church, but I don’t think a stranger would just volunteer to help if I needed it. Maybe though – it hasn’t been tested. =)

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  • I was thinking along similar lines recently. My mom is ill but the worst part is it is effecting her mind as well as body. She’s been suffering from delusions and paranoia and normally she is the sweetest lady on Earth. There were times when just getting up in the morning was almost intolerable. I was so depressed I was just like a zombie, going through the motions and dealing with the endless things you have to deal with in a situation like this (I’m the only family member that can take care of her) and it occurred to me that I can see how religion is so useful in situations like this. Just having something, anything to pray to and to hold out as hope no matter how irrational at times like that would help someone muddle through.

    Not that I’ve converted or anything.  But I don’t find the religious trappings of others to “take a toll” on me in such situations.  On the contrary when people say “I’m praying for her” I just thank them, their hearts are in the right place even if I disagree with their reason. In fact one of the few positive things that I’ve observed is how helpful and genuinely caring many people can be in such situations and how for good people questions of politics, religion, etc. are secondary next to just helping someone who really needs it. 

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  • I don’t think there’s really much difference in the length of the grieving process, but there is a huge difference in a childish versus adult-like attitudes.  We view death and dying differently and are more honest with ourselves.  The religious people I know desperately try to hold onto their magical thinking and love to say, “He’s in a better place.”  One woman told me when my dad died that “you’ll see him again one day.”  That would be amazing since he was an atheist and is now ashes in an urn!  

    Anyway, I see it in their eyes…  flashes of doubt, fear, sadness, grief, misery…  For all their surety and proselytizing and dutiful praying, death rips the self-denial-of-reality bandage off their skin, though they usually won’t admit it.  I’ve yet to see the smiling faces, joy, and celebration one would think they should show if their loved one was now frolicking about in perpetual afterlife with their loving god and all their long dead relatives and friends, never again experiencing any pain, suffering, etc.  One obit I read actually said that the deceased, who had been particularly attached to a much loved horse, was now not only with his heavenly father but also reunited with his horse and prancing about in heaven.  Absolute silliness that nobody really, truly believes.  Nope, we all grieve pretty much the same.  The nonbeliever just doesn’t play ridiculous word games about “better places” and strives to fool himself into thinking magically like a little child.

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  • 6
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    “Do Atheists grieve slower than theists? “

    I think we only grieve once, while theists grieve twice. There is the grief remedied by myth, but a part of them grieves on the same level as the rest of us. There is a nagging part that they don’t really know what happens, and I think this can be more painful.

    I’ve lost some friends to suicide, and that is a unique pain. I can’t imagine the thought that they were bound for Hell, which is what afterlife doctrines often suggest.

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  • “There is a nagging part that they don’t really know what happens, and I think this can be more painful.”

    There is a lot of what therapists call cognitive dissonance with most theists. When you think about it they should be happy not sad, at least for Christians their loved one is now in heaven listening to Jimi Hendrix concerts and having drinks with Dorothy Parker (at least that would be my version of heaven) yet instead they mourn because down deep I think many of them know its just a story. 

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  • 8
    Ben_Keyes_780 says:

    I do think the fact that believers exhibit little or no celebration of of death is a strong indicator of weak or faulty faith. However, I also think it wise to not make too much of it at the same time. The grief experienced by believers is mostly the same as their non-believing counterparts: they are sad that a loved one is to no longer to be in their presence (at least physically), a fact that is not changed by belief. The believer arguably could claim an extra source of solace, unique to them, in believing that their loved one continues to live on blissfully, thereby giving them an edge in reacting to the uncomfortable reality of the absence of the loved one. So it may be that they do grieve better, dubious as the truth of their claim may be.

    But I do not accept that believers fully grieve, because much of their grief is deformed by self imposed delusion. To me it seems to be, like all magical thinking, a cop out. But again, we might be well advised to not fully write off theistic grieving as hypocritical. I am myself sympathetic to this assessment, but it is a little too simplistic for a phenomenon as complex as grief to be granted credibility.

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  • 9
    achromat666 says:

    I lost my fiancee 12 years ago. I had the comfort of my friends and loved ones of differing backgrounds, and in some measures still deal with the loss in my own way. It is a lifetime process I think regardless of who it is, or of what persuasion. It is more about the impact the death has on you than the perspective of the grief.

    I have since lost 2 cousins, my eldest sister, my grandmother (who made it to 101 years old!) and most recently my uncle. Each death takes a separate toll and affects me in a different way. 

    I have had to deal with people in church for many of the deaths but I don’t think that has any more or less impact on how one grieves. That process is still very personal to each person, I think. And whether theist or atheist, the life the loved one led is vital to the memory of them, which I’ve always found more comfort in than any idea of an afterlife.

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  • 10
    Uriel-238 says:

    I think the tool that people are using (tool from a psychological sense) is a device of denial as a means to temporarily relieve the pain of grief. My roommate recalls imagining her best friend (who died of diabetes in the ’90s) was just on an extended globe-hopping holiday. She knew this was a fantasy, but she was aware that the effect was the same (he was just as accessible either way) and so it helped when she was tired of crying.

    I suspect that it is no different when a theist engages a bit of their own dogma for the same purpose. After all, there is very little psychological difference between faith in a thing and pretending that it is true.

    Being skeptical of afterlives also allows us to be more thorough in our grieving. We won’t be satisfied that we can encounter our loved ones when we die, and then feel the weight of our invested interests when our faith occasionally buckles to doubt. Nor do we worry that new relationships (friendships, romances, whatever) are going to betray those that are gone, because they’re really gone

    U.

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  • Hello Kimberly, others have said things I agree with, and so have you. Permit me to add something. I don’t think you have a clinically correct understanding of what the words acceptance (or resolution) are meant to denote when they are used in the grieving process.

    I mention this because I do think it may help. Acceptance or resolution is about one thing: understanding that a loved one is dead (at least according to American psychologists). It’s not really about accepting or being resolved with the subjects of heaven, hell, oblivion, or, as the case may be, the unknown. 

    Many of those issues are actually worked through in the anger, denial, and depression phases. I think when acceptance is understood in this way, an enormous amount of pain is in fact relieved (or at least transformed into something that is more tolerable), which is the goal of trying to have a healthy grieving experience. And I do hope one of those for you. Sorry about your challenging year to say the least. 

    Regards,

    Mike

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  • Upon academically studying the idea of a funeral and most of the processes associated with it, we have arrived at the understanding that they are more for the living than the dead. Human societies have generated many ways in which to deal with the loss of our most like and loved kind, and over time these ways have changed. But what is concurrent in each of these funerary practices is the interactions between people, (experiences that can engage some or all of our senses). This may not come as a surprise, but that is most likely the foundation of the grieving process.

    As their practices have changed, strange constructs have become manifest. If we generally accept that there is no evidence of afterlife, then is the soothing the grieving receive built upon a suspicious notion? The answer is, most likely, “yes”. Richard Dawkins and others have stated that just because we don’t like something doesn’t make it not true. But does that make us cold and calloused organisms? Of course not. Our reasoning abilities have come so far in such a short amount of time. So how does one reason a statement like: “They are with Jesus now.” or “They are in heaven and one day I’ll see them.” I find ideas like this shocking. They actually push those people away from us. To me it sounds as if someone is saying, “well, they are over there now so I can get back on with my life”. We have probably all experienced death of friends and family and we can use our powers of reason, combined with our life experiences with these people, to continue to make a difference in our lives. And those experiences count that much more when we expect no further experiences with those people to occur in heaven, hell, or in between.

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  • 13
    TyroneAByrne says:

    I think @rdfrs-77acb97a04c70d2e50d158f841b93af9:disqus has a point, but I would say that religion is a factor. I would say atheists probably do take longer to grieve because, naturally, we understand the true weight of death as eternal. One way I think you could help to aid your grieving is to consider the beliefs of the person who took their own life, were they religious? If they were they probably did not understand the eternal nature of death, they thought they were going to a better place. It is tough grieving as an atheist, but ultimately, in the long run, the false hope that the person lives on “somewhere” is not going to satisfy you, because you know the truth of the matter, and in many respects you are lucky that you do not have the deal with the burden of the possibility of your loved one going to HELL. After all, flip the coin and religion can lead to more grievance than simply not believing you go anywhere where you die, it all depends on which way you view it.

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  • 14
    Pauly01 says:

    It’s not easy. I’ll tell you the way that being an atheist can help you. Many Theists in these circumstance are bound by an unreasonable urge to put themselves out their like an emotional punching bag. Because that’s the so called holy way. Unhelpful emotions such as guilt and shame come into play because it is felt that peers and god sit in judgement of the person. Pick yourself up as soon as you can and accept that these situations will inevitably rare their head through out your life. I don’t know what your feeling , but if it’s guilt , that emotion is for fools.

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  • My Mum, who died a non-believer, always said to me, ‘Never believe in hell,  the worst ‘hell’ is separation from those you love”.   Death is a final separation, that’s  why it is so painful for us left behind.   I still miss her very much.

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  • 16
    Nordic11 says:

    Kimberly,

    I’m so sorry for your loss.  I lost my cousin to suicide two months ago.  His brother had found him and actually saved him from a previous suicide attempt.  After several shots of Scotch, my living cousin and I had a heart to heart.  He is a non-believer, and I’m a Christian, but we connected with each other in our grief.  Whether or not my deceased cousin still existed or where he was did not matter.  My living cousin felt guilt because the last words spoken to his brother were in anger, but I was able to tell him what a good brother he had been all these years.  I told him I was praying for him even though he does not believe in prayer, and that meant a lot to him because he knew I cared and wanted to help.  I have cancer and shared with him my own weariness with battling the chemo and disease and anxiety, and I think that helped my cousin understand his brother’s lost war against depression.  I think this was the only conversation of substance we had ever had in the decades I’ve known him.

    I guess I’m telling you all this because we can find common ground in our humanity through our grief.  Your loss touches me and I whispered a prayer for you this morning (though you would think it a silly waste of time), and I find myself genuinely concerned about you though we stand at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum. 

    Be well and know that others care.

    Nordic

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  • 17
    Ben_Keyes_780 says:

     Nordic11, your words are touching, and I think the world would be a much more pleasant one indeed if more were to spare such kindness. You claim yourself to be “at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum,” which may be true in relation to god(s). But I would suggest that your words mark you to be more similar in ways more important and on matters more dire: namely, stewardship of our fellows. 

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  • 18
    typical animal says:

    OP, it doesn’t exist to religious individuals either. You can’t make it exist. 

    Is it possible that living a lie could ever be right? If you were a very religious person and then suddenly someone convinced you there was no afterlife, then you might get extremely depressed and sad for a while… but this would be more as a backlash to all the lies you believed. Suddenly you would have to do a large amount of reorganizing the way you look at everything, and that hurts because the lies lived previously can seem like a huge waste and make you feel ashamed. This is surely a big part of the reason that older people find it a bit more difficult to change their belief systems and commitments (though it’s always possible, my aunt was a nun who a nurse told me was questioning god’s existence on her deathbed, which seemed totally unlike her, though I couldn’t say whether or not she questioned it previously).

    I have to believe that in the end the true way is the only way to do anything. People don’t want to face the truth, they hide it from themselves. When the fact is that if they gave themselves a chance… their biology starts to work on this new (true) information at many different levels, and produces appropriate and good responses to this truth. It’s not possible to believe in something you know is a lie anyway, it’s a contradiction. So this question of is it “easier” or “harder”… there is really no meaningful comparison.

    Other primates grieve a little bit, horses are in fact notorious for grieving. It’s a natural process. If you remain true to yourself and to your beliefs and always try to do what is right in life then there is no reason that you would feel extended sadness. It might be concerning if you didn’t grieve.

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  • 20
    Nordic11 says:

    Hi Smill,

    I’m sorry for your loss.  I read your post hours ago, and I’ve been sitting here thinking off and on about how I could respond to you.  As a Christian, my “realistic and valid” view of life is so different from yours’ that I’m not certain how I can connect with you to help you.  I lost my dad eight years ago, and I do believe I’ll see him again, which made his loss less devastating for me, but I beleive many Christians (and theists in general) are hypocritical with their comforting belief in the after life.  We look forward to the joys of heaven but do everything we can to stay right here.  I do have faith in a God who has this broken world figured out, but I wrestle with the feeling that life does not make sense and seems random.  In my opinion, the great cruelity and evil that humans perpetrate upon each other contradicts both a good God and evolutionary explanations.

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  • 21
    Nordic11 says:

    Sorry, Smill.

    Somehow I cut off my previous comment before I was done.  None of the things I said before helps you.  I do know that I never had the chance to grieve properly for my dad.  Grief started to hit me, but as the only son in the family, I suddenly became the family patriarch and needed to help my mom with the myriad of funeral details, and by the time everything was done, I missed my chance to grieve.  Like most fathers and sons of my generation, my dad and I were not very close, and I used that deficit to focus on being close to my own sons.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, I almost wanted to pull away from them to spare them greater grief when I died, but I decided to use each day to love my boys as much as possible and spend as much time as I can with them.  I have no control over how this universe works, but I can make a huge impact in the lives of those I love. I can turn grief into acts of love; I can combat great evil with those same acts and let the universe, God, no-God, belief, and unbelief sort itself out.  I believe we are hard wired to love others deeply, and to avoid love because we will suffer future loss will open us up to greater grief and regret at the end of our lives.  I never heard of someone on their deathbed saying, “I wish I had spent more hours at the office and worked harder to make more money instead of spending so much time with my family and those I love.”  Again,Smill, I’m sorry for your loss, and I said more than one prayer for you this morning.  I wish I could do more for you.

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  • 22
    intuitionella says:

    what I read you as saying is that you are finding it difficult to deal with your own feelings of grief and loss, it’s not how do atheists grieve, it’s how do you deal with your feelings, in a non scientific way?

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  • 23
    NoKiddingMan says:

    To me, who lost his father some years ago, religious interpretation of death of a loved one is not relieving.  The grieving period is not related to religious belief scientifically.  I was involved in psychiatry as research worker  for some years.

    DSM-5:

    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/1

    Since there is no evidence for eternal existence after life, I do not need to worry what happens to my loved ones (or myself) after death.

    It is natural for us to avoid thoughts of annihilation.  When we die such thoughts will cease to exist for us.  So, live happily and enjoy your life.  I am sure your loved ones who are not living now wanted you to be happy.

    My best wishes.

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  • 24
    FreeThink says:

    My dad committed suicide a little less than 3 months ago. During the services I was pretty upset that all they talked about was how he was going to Heaven because he was baptized and basically talked about God more than him. I thought about if I was Christian I could have at least looked forward to seeing him in Heaven and maybe this grieving would be easier. At the same time I though he would probably be going to hell according to every other religion. Yet the preacher (who had known my father) was so certain he was in Heaven, as were my grandparents (my grandfather is a preacher, both very religious). So I started thinking, I would probably worry that he would be in hell if I was a Theist, and that honestly would trouble me more than the thought of him being dead. I recalled a few weeks before he passed that told me that he had a lot of ghosts in his head. He was abused as a child. He was a Marine, lost nearly all of his friends in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, he felt as if he should of been there with them and felt he left them all behind. All of this is just scratching the surface of his life. He was still being haunted until the day he died So at least I know that he is no longer in pain, no longer haunted. I don’t have to worry if he made it to Heaven or not. I don’t have to worry about anything, even though this may sound a little dark, he finally got what he wanted, a peace of mind. Which also gives me a peace of mind about him, and I may not have that peace of mind if I wasn’t Atheist. And that peace of mind my friend helps with the grieving process. 

    I’d also like to mention that my dad didn’t give a shit about religion, raised as a baptist, but I would say he was more undecided.

    I apologize because this probably isn’t the most well-written comment, just some thoughts on my mind.

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  • 26
    tardisride says:

    I’m a little late to the party but thought I’d chime in anyway. I believe some theologies can extend the pain of a person’s death, even through the life of the person left behind. My biological father died of cancer when I was too young to know him. His family was Catholic and his parents lived in fear over the fate of his soul until their own passings, paying their local church to have masses said in his name several times annually for about thirty years. The goal? To be sure his soul wasn’t trapped in purgatory. This is not the same as grief, but it adds an unhealthy, never ending panic and urgency that prevents the wound from healing.

    Conversely, I suspect there is some truth to the idea that the theist who believes in an afterlife (without a troublesome purgatory level) may experience grief differently, if not less. Surely the afterlife first entered the imagination as means to assuage both the fear of death and the grief associated with it. My dad (who raised me) passed away earlier this year. My mom was devastated but adopted a weird ‘oh well’ view of his death, saying that god picked that day for him to die, they’d be together again one day, he is with Jesus now, etc. This is an obvious means of coping and does not reduce grief, but it might alter how intensely that grief is felt, like an analgesic. 

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  • I find the concept of Heaven pretty absurd, what would heaven look like? are we some abstract bubble which neither eats and drinks but each day gives praise to god. This sounds like perpetual hell, so the idea of a better place needs defining by theists, sorry they seem quite certain about what god wants in nearly every other mattter so will ask {not at funerals} what is this better place.

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  • 28
    jasongw1122 says:

    Be careful about theuse of forever if you consider the immense size of the universe and the unimaginable time that is available it is possible that we could meet family members again if the conditions are right.

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  • My uncle (my mother’s brother) is dying of terminal cancer. There’s nothing we can do avoid that. He probably has a few more hours or a day or two left to live and I’m sitting here at home, helplessly looking at my grieving mother and my uncle’s young kids(who don’t even know that their father is about to die). this is the cold and dry narrative of what’s happening with me right now,at this very moment. As an atheist I can’t run to religion for refuge,but I want to. I want to be able to leave everything to god because if I don’t, there’s no way I can make sense of anything. I don’t want to be the one to tell these kids what happened to their father because I can’t convince them that their father is in a better place, because I don’t think there is a place after death. But right now, I want a place to be there. I’m breaking apart everytime I see these kids giggle and shout. I’m shattered to see my mother like this and I’m wondering what my uncle’s thinking right now (if he can think). Is death becoming an obvious fact to him? Does he feel comfortable because he believes in god? Am I allowed to change my beliefs after years of atheism, just because I can’t handle this grief?
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  • Shrindhar

    When people close to me have died in the past, I have made many of the same observations that you describe in your comment above. At funerals, I looked around and saw many people who were comforted by believing that the deceased was in a “better place” and not really gone. I don’t believe in better places after death or any place at all after death but what good does it do for me to press my lack of belief onto the grieving? I imagine that it must be easier to deal with the catastrophe of death of a loved one if one really believes the mythology of heaven and a loving God(s) but isn’t there some comfort in the realization that we are lucky to be alive on this earth in the first place? It’s a gift to have lived in this beautiful world even if that life is cut short at some point. This might be harder to process but it’s honest.

    As adults we can accept the truth of death, difficult as it is, but with children, as you described, that is more complicated. Depending on the ages of the children, they may or may not have the cognitive development to understand the finality of death. But I believe we can prepare children for the sad event that is imminent. Most children have observed the death of a pet and have processed that event to some degree and they can understand that people are a sort of animal too and subject to the same biological processes including birth, life processes and death. Of course they will be devastated but they will recover and achieve an acceptance like the adults all around them. What is the alternative? To hide the truth and obscure it with fairy tales? I can’t see how that would serve the best interests of a child.

    Stay strong for everyone around you.
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  • Shridhar 29 
    First of all please accept my condolences during this obviously difficult time.  As you note in your moving piece, as atheists we don’t have a belief system to comfort us in such circumstances.  I am reminded of what Professor Dawkins has said on several occasions – what is comforting and what is true are two different things.  I am not qualified to give advice regarding what to tell the children of a parent who has died.  Adults, on the other hand, need to confront the reality, the truth, of the situation.  The truth is that everyone who has ever been born has died, or will die.  I suspect that children too will also benefit more from the truth than from fairy tales.  We will miss our loved ones, but as an atheist I do not understand how pretending that they have gone to a celestial North Korea – to reference the late Christopher Hitchens – is a comforting thought.      
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