Grief Without Belief: How Do Atheists Deal With Death?

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A religious friend once wrote to me, asking how I coped with death as an atheist. Her father had just died a week or two earlier, as mine had years ago. She wrote:

He's dead and in the ground. I take great comfort in thinking that he's in a good place. Do we just become fertilizer, end of story? I am not questioning your beliefs and the why or where of it. I'm just asking what you think is the next step. If you think it's fertilizer, please lie to make it more interesting.

For all the talk of rationality, intellectual honesty, and objectivity we engage in as atheists, this is one of the most uncomfortable questions we have to wrestle with. What can we offer as a substitute for the emotional comfort religion offers believers in facing their own death, or that of their loved ones? What should we say to our believing family and friends when they are acutely grieving these losses?

My friend's note jolted me. Not because I didn't have a response. I did. I just wasn't sure how to articulate it in a way that was both accurate and emotionally supportive, her loss being so recent. It also forced me to revisit the death of my own father, who I had a very close relationship with.

Processing a horrific experience like the loss of a loved one using rationality and logic does help when you're trying to make sense of things, but not as much during those times you're feeling helpless and emotionally vulnerable. I can see how believing in God can help there.

That said, what do believers do with this God? Do they rage at him for cruelly taking their parent, spouse, or child away from them? Or do they surrender to their helplessness, thanking him for putting their loved ones "in a better place", begging him to reunite them one day?

Written By: Ali A. Rizvi
continue to source article at huffingtonpost.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. Dealing with death is a process of education like everything else. I think it makes a difference when the loved one dies. If it happens earlier than expected, there’s all that wasted potential to add to your grief. If death comes after a long,happy life there’s far less grief and it’s much easier to except as inevitable.

    It’s probably better if the whole topic is dealt with openly by parents from the time kids are old enough to understand. I tackled this the same way that I tackled reproduction, that is by pointing to instances in nature and using the right terms. That’s when concepts like decay and conservation of matter can be used in the discussion.

    Our kids had a lot of pets, ranging from hermit crabs to cats and guinea pigs. When each one of them died it was another opportunity to broach the whole “death” concept. It was always sad, and it always involved grief and tears.

  2. We don’t actually feed worms unless the traditional embalming is omitted, and burial is in some form of biodegradable coffin. Cremation, if followed by ash scattering, restores some of the minerals at least. There are such things as GREEN burials, but they seem to account for a small minority of burials. Taking the long view, when the earth is “recycled” at the end of our sun’s life, so will be our mortal remains.

    That’s good enough for me.

    Steve

  3. This isn’t really an answer to the question, but to add to comment 1: I am retired from a 40+ year career as an urban veterinarian. A few times when a pet died or had to have its euthanasia, a parent asked my advice on how to talk to their child about it. That was always a hard one for me–who am I to advise a parent on how to deal with a child’s emotion, when it wasn’t even my child? I never did very well on that. I stumbled a lot. I could only suggest that a child takes all things in his or her life in context, that the parent shouldn’t pretend that it was an unimportant concept, and that it was entirely appropriate to grieve for the beloved pet. But the concept of an afterlife never came up from the parent or from me. I recall a young widower with his 12-year-old daughter and their old failing cat. The girl, with considerable emotion in her voice, said something to the effect of “When she dies, I will go to pieces.” The father calmly told her, “You’ve had worse.”

    • In reply to #4 by 78rpm:

      This isn’t really an answer to the question, but to add to comment 1: I am retired from a 40+ year career as an urban veterinarian. A few times when a pet died or had to have its euthanasia, a parent asked my advice on how to talk to their child about it. That was always a hard one for me-

      For children growing up, the loss of some pets is an education which helps them cope with greater losses.

      If they keep stick insects, tanks of fish, other short lived creatures, or annual plants, accepting death becomes routine. Small furry animals have greater attachments, but gerbils, hamsters and mice are short lived, so the issues have to be understood at an early age. Longer lived animals like cats or dogs, have greater attachments, but again, understanding the nature of life and death is something from which many modern city dwellers are isolated, building fear of the unfamiliar and the unknown.

  4. I have asked to be cremated and a hiker friend of mine to throw me in a mountain lake. It is pleasing to think my ashes will fertilise some aquatic plants which will nourish some fish which may in turn nourish some boys fishing. In a way, this is a form of immortality. It is one that I am quite sure is real. It conjures up a quite pleasant image of death, far more pleasant than the ones the Christians offer.

  5. How Do Atheists Deal With Death?

    Why, like everyone else, of course, we deal with death in our own unique ways, ultimately. But I get the feeling that for atheists, unlike many religious people, for whom there is a generally prescribed way to deal with death, we have so many more options at our disposal (as atheism doesn’t allow or disallow anything bar a belief in God/gods), which seems like a good thing. I’ve personally dealt with death, so far, by remembering the good times I shared with the deceased, and being grateful to have shared this often wonderful planet with them in the first place. When there is sadness, it’s usually due to the knowledge that I cannot continue to share in this life with the dead person. Generally though, Monty Python had it about right: “Always look…”

  6. We die. Everybody, everything dies. Yes, that is it. Sorry it is not interesting. But, the natural world is VERY interesting. I’d suggest that you bring that up to your friend and ask just how much of the wonders of this world they have drank in and how much they are allowing to slip by them unnoticed. Since this is the only guaranteed time we have, are they maximizing? That is the real measure of your life. Maximizing what you are lucky enough to experience.

  7. My own opinion is that we get through grief ultimately because our memories slowly vanish. We forget about them. Not unlike a foreign language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. As the months turn into years the details of our loved ones occupy less space in our daily events.

    Would I ever tell a person freshly grieving that “you’ll forget them and it get’s better”? Of course not but I really think that’s the process for many of us. It’s awful in a certain sense, but that’s life.

    Regarding what 78RPM experienced

    The girl, with considerable emotion in her voice, said something to the effect of “When she dies, I will go to pieces.” The father calmly told her, “You’ve had worse.”

    Ironically, the father in this situation is not immune from having less grief over his own death than the grief his daughter poured out over the animal. I can’t tell you how many people I know who take the loss of a domestic pet harder than the loss of their parents. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the psychologist (the one I had a professional relationship with) at the ASPCA who counsels people about pet loss said her number one challenge was to console people who felt it was wrong that they grieved more for their pets than the death of their parents. I’m not judging, this is just reality.

    As for me, I’ve taken strongly to Prof. Dawkins’ comment that the dead are the lucky ones. To want another life seems a bit selfish to me. That we are alive, despite such immense probabilities that we might not be, is something to celebrate each day. Death has nothing on that.

    Mike

  8. I’m explaining this to my four-year-old these days. I’m being as honest as I know how. She’s taking it well. She tells me at night I’m her best friend and she doesn’t want me to die. She doesn’t say it in a sad way, she just says it honestly. My atheist sister seems to have taken the easy road (for herself) and gone with heaven for her three-year-old.

  9. I think, ultimately, we all deal with the death of those we love in similar ways, regardless of belief. Believing that they exist elsewhere doesn’t really compensate for the loss here and now. That person still won’t be at the other end of a phone, over for dinner, or present at important life events.

    As for one’s own death, I’m not sure. Personally, having the pressure of “Will I be tortured or make it into heaven?” removed is a huge relief. I still feel like I have too much to do now, though, and would regret not having a chance to experience many of those things.

  10. Atheists deal with it the same way as everyone else they suffer emotional and psychological distress until such time as they can come to terms with it. What they do not do (if they are true to themselves) is fall for the cruel ponzi delusion that if they believe in some supernatural protector then they’ll be reunited with their loved ones.

    Atheism offers no substitute for religious delusional belief and why should it. Be thankful you have lived to share your consciousness with others and experience this corner of the cosmos. The price for opening your eyes when millions of others were denied that privilege by mere chance is death and with it the cessation of consciousness. As the old adage goes better to have loved and lost……………….

    I like all of you have watched xtians grieve and die and for all their cant about eternal life and doG wiping away every tear a bigger bunch of whining hypocrits I’ve yet to see. If they really believed in a better hereafter that justifies their otherwise meaningless lives why the tears and wailing? The religious are the real cowards in this reckoning

  11. I lost my son, Jamie, in May this year in a motorbike accident. The pain at times is unbearable, but I have a loving family and dear friends who are all helping each other get through it, in our different ways

    He wasn’t religious, (he did get an A* in RE, by actually quoting some of The God Delusion), so we had a non religious service. We told everyone that there would be no black worn, to try and find something red and that the goal of the day was to laugh more than we cry. (Although tears are forming as I type). His casket was decorated with photos of him and our family and was taken to the crematorium on a motorbike hearse, with an escort of 79 bikes from the Royal British Legion Riders, (who he was a member of). The service was entirely conducted by myself and his mother, (no stranger telling us how much we miss our son), and we had 10 other people come up to talk about him, with strict instructions that they slag him off and use the work “cunt” at least once. We had over 200 people there, some stood outside in the rain. My closing eulogy took from Sagan and how we are all made of “star stuff”, I mentioned the first law of thermodynamics, that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes state, that all of the energy that was my wonderful son, is still with us, but is just a bit less orderly. I asked that many years from now, if everyone could go and sit on on the grass, on a sunny day, kick off their shoes and then walk on it, grass which may contain at least one tiny atom, that had once been their friend. Atoms that could one day become a part of them and that will, eventually, end up back inside the heart of a star, where I like to think my son and I will be reunited, at least in part.

    Jamie has just gone on ahead, with instructions to burn hard and burn bright, to show us the way… No God(s) required

    • Hey,

      Sorry for your loss. Your tears and vulnerability with this post came through and I am having a little tear myself. It takes great strength to write what you have written. Thanks, I sincerely hope that the loss is mitigated somehow (although i do not know how).

      Peace.
      Crooked.

      PS. (from the outlaw Josie Wales)… “There is steel in your words of death; therefore I know there is strength in your words of life.”

      In reply to #14 by Johnny_O:

      I lost my son, Jamie, in May this year in a motorbike accident. The pain at times is unbearable, but I have a loving family and dear friends who are all helping each other get through it, in our different ways

      He wasn’t religious, (he did get an A* in RE, by actually quoting some of The God Delusio…

  12. As an aside, my 16 year old daughter, did say, “It does make you wish there was a heaven, so we could see him again”. I said she was free to believe that, if she wanted and if she thought it would help. She just turned to me with a wrinkled brow and said, “I don’t believe in things because I want to Dad, I believe in them because there’s evidence to”. I was so very proud of her for not letting wants and needs, inhibit the critical thinking I have tried to raise her with.

    On the other hand… His mother, (we’re divorced), has been to see a medium, his Maternal Grandparents constantly talk of him “watching over them” and several of his friends talk of him “Riding the skies”, so from my own experience of dealing with death, I’d say that it’s the Atheists that deal with it best.

    We can accept that it is over, that the person will only live on in our meories and our hearts

  13. While we atheists have to accept when someone has died that we will not see them again and that they only live on in the memories that their family and friends have of them, there is not the worry that some Xian’s have about where the departed has actually gone and they might be burning in the eternal fires of hell. This is all helped by having a funeral service free from religion and focussed on the deceased and what they meant to those present.

  14. What a dumb question. Non believers respond to their innate sensibilities.

    And, I have a little bit of news for blind faithers: you have the same innate qualities, and there’s no need for you to delude yourselves into thinking you are different, superior or more prone to suffering than the rest of humanity.

  15. To add to Comment 8: *Regarding what 78RPM experienced

    *The girl, with considerable emotion in her voice, said something to the effect of “When she dies, I will go to pieces.” The father calmly told her, “You’ve had worse.”

    Ironically, the father in this situation is not immune from having less grief over his own death than the grief his daughter poured out over the animal. I can’t tell you how many people I know who take the loss of a domestic pet harder than the loss of their parents.*

    Definitely. Glad you reminded me about all the people who where actually ashamed that they were taking the loss of a “mere animal” so hard, and felt they needed to apologize for it. Ten or fifteen years later, when their next pet dies, they grieve just as much, but somehow come to the understanding that what they feel is quite normal and appropriate.

  16. I always think of Plato’s Dialogues with Socrates when he is asked, just before he is to be executed, if he was afraid of death he replied he was not since he had no idea what happened when you die and he was interested in learning the truth of the matter.

  17. “How Do Atheists Deal With Death?”

    Presumably, how anyone should: with integrity towards the truth, care for others and for themselves, and a commitment to helping other people deal with both for their sakes.

  18. The important thing here IMO, is how one deals with life.Being an atheist, one knows that the only time is NOW.There is no pie in the sky by and by.I constantly keep in mind that life is extremely fragile and treat my loved ones accordingly.It is remarkable how patient and tolerant one can be when looking at life from this perspective.

    Creating wonderful memories with one’s nearest and dearest and telling them that one loves them is important too.This way,when one of us dies we know that we have not wasted the brief, precious time we were fortunate enough to have.

    What I said above pertains to those who are my nearest and dearest.

    When it comes to religious friends,listening to them helps a lot. A friend of mine ( a devout Christian) lost her son in a motorcycle accident.I spent a lot of time just listening, and later sharing in good memories.Just follow their prompting and see what they need.
    Another friend was worried sick that her father would go to hell because he wasn’t ‘saved’.In this case,I told her that she couldn’t determine that because she couldn’t see into his heart at the moment of death and didnot know if he had changed.Atheists may slam me for doing this,but the woman was in terrible mental pain and this eased her.

    What actually happens at a funeral depends on what people want.Not very important.Because most of our family is Christian, my mother’s funeral 3 years ago was the usual Christian service. In my eulogy, though there was not any mention of god. no lies, just honest memories which my siblings and I found comforting to talk about when we got together after the cremation.

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