Dear Counselor: How do Atheists Deal with Grief?

Posted by Patty Guzikowski on September 28th, 2010 – 2 Comments – Posted in Atheist Counselor

In this post, I respond to a letter I received from an atheist facing issues of grief and loss. All are invited to send letters they wish to be answered to counselor@freethoughtcounseling.com. The name has been changed to protect the writer’s confidentiality.

Dear Patty,

After many years of being a member of a conservative Christian church, I left and am moving toward a life without religion or God. Recently, I experienced the death of two friends within three weeks. The first death was unexpected and quite tragic. The second came after a protracted battle with lymphoma. I cried for days after the first death. Just when I was starting to mend, my second friend died and the emotional wave started again.

As I attended their memorials, visitations and funerals, I found myself wanting to be comforted by the word of God and the belief in heaven. I also had to resist the temptation to show anger at God for allowing my friends to die because he doesn’t exist. It is quite the paradox a lot of Christians face: anger yet wanting comfort from the same entity. I guess this is why the parent analogy works so well for Christian churches.

So how does an atheist deal with grief? I mentally get that life ends with death; but emotionally, the thought of no afterlife is a tough one to lose.

Sincerely,
Kelly

Dear Kelly,

First, let me say that I am so sorry for your loss and I can’t imagine what you have been going through. Although your letter is about grieving for two friends, your loss goes even deeper—your grief is compounded by the loss of your faith. At the same time as you mourn the friends that meant so much to you, you also mourn the loss of your Christianity, the community you had in your congregation and the sense of belonging you felt as a Christian.

Since you describe yourself as moving toward a life without religion or God, you’ve lost your friends during a time of difficult personal transition. Even if you see become an atheist as a positive experience in your life, it’s still likely to be stress-inducing. It’s only natural that you would find yourself wanting to turn to sources of comfort that have been there for you in the past. Just as your journey from faith to non-belief has no doubt been a very personal one, so will be your healing process as your recover from grief and loss. Please bear with me for a moment as I discuss grief and loss generally before moving on to specifically address how atheists cope with grief.

Grief and loss are among the most difficult experiences that people, professionals or not, struggle to help each other overcome in life. While grief is a universal experience in life from which none of us is exempt, it is also a highly personalized experience. Grief encompasses so many other emotional experiences along with it—sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, resignation, hopelessness, and sometimes a sense of relief. Unlike anxiety, depression, or a number of other personal experiences that counselors help others with, grief is not a diagnosis and there is no one recommended treatment.

But there are ways of dealing with grief that others have found helpful, and there are particular issues associated with the grief and loss that atheists experience differently from believers, and those I will share with you today. As a counselor, I feel compelled to add that if at any point you feel a great sense of hopelessness or inability to cope during your process of grieving, I recommend that you do see a professional face-to-face.

When an atheist has suffered the loss of a loved one, the difficulty of the experience can be compounded by the usually well-meaning but often ignorant comments by others, including “She is with God now” or “I’m praying for you” or “You’ll be together again one day in heaven” or “They’re looking down on us from above right now.” Even those who know you are an atheist and are supportive of it may say something that makes you grit your teeth, like “Everything happens for a reason.” There is no one way that atheists handle this aspect of the grieving process. Some choose to thank the well-wishers, others choose to argue with them, ignore them, and so on. The right way to handle this is the way that you feel is best for yourself and those that care about you.

You mention memorials and funerals, another often difficult experience for atheists due to the highly religious nature of most of these events. It can feel like just another opportunity for an atheist who’s in emotional pain to be marginalized or misunderstood. And in your case, for you to be reminded that your friends and family are finding comfort in something that you are no longer able to be soothed by.

You might think about having your own memorial service(s) for your friend. Whether you have it privately, all alone, or invite others, you can decide what type of memorial will help you. Maybe you want a completely secular memorial that celebrates what their friendships meant to you. Maybe you want to sit down and look at old photos of them and laugh and cry. Maybe you want to incorporate elements of ritual that you used to find comforting when you attended church, like lighting candles for them or meditating (instead of praying). Maybe you even want to do something religious, just this one last time, as a way of saying goodbye to that method of dealing with death. When my husband’s mother died, after the funeral they all went to her house and listened to her old records, sang along, and told the funniest stories they could remember about her. They made it a celebration of who she was and what she had meant to each of them.

You said you also found yourself resisting the temptation to be angry at God. Well, I say, why resist? Although you may not even believe he exists, why not be angry at him? Why not talk to him or write him a letter and express your anger at him? Remember, it’s about you and expressing your feelings. Maybe giving in to the temptation and using it as a way to express your anger, fear, anxiety, whatever, will be part of your healing process. But maybe not, it’s up to you. The important thing is that, whatever you are feeling, you understand it’s OK to feel that way and to heal in your own way and at your own pace.

One thing you should know is that, despite the popularity of Kublar-Ross’s idea of five universal stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) experienced in a linear fashion from the first to the last, there is no empirical support for this model. While many people do experience those emotional reactions, they don’t necessarily experience them all or in any particular order.

Many people have found writing to be an important part of their grieving process. They may write a letter to the loved one who has died expressing whatever they felt they didn’t have a chance to express while he or she was alive. They may journal their emotions every day just to get them out, and then overtime see that they have begun to heal. They may write poems or songs about the loved one or just about life or death in general. Whether they choose to keep their writings to themselves or share them is a very individual decision. Don’t like to write? You can draw. Or you can photograph things that remind you of him or her and put them in a special album. Or you can make a scrapbook. Maybe, in your case, you do this not only to recover from the loss of your loved ones, but your loss of faith.

A former client of mine who lost her mother and her faith and her trust in Alcoholics Anonymous all at the same time found comfort by seeking out others online who had recovered from addictions without admitting the were powerless and putting themselves in the hands of a higher power. At the same time, she journaled her feelings, wrote a letter to her dead mother, and spent a lot of time reading about atheism.

Reading can also be an important part of the healing process. I recommend a book called Godless Grief, by CJ Jones. Here is a link to the website, which also contains a forum where you can find support from others in similar situations http://www.godlessgrief.com/ Support groups are also a source of comfort to many people, but they do present a dilemma for an atheist, as more often than not they will be loaded with the “He’s in a better place” type of comments. The Godless Grief book contains not only recommendations for ways to deal with loss, but many narratives of others and their personal stories of grief and loss.

You may find it helpful to read or listen to the views of knowledgeable atheist professionals who have struggled with the great existential questions of life, death, and meaning. Irvin Yalom, atheist psychiatrist, therapist, and author, has written extensively about existential therapy, the meaning of life, and the anxiety of death. I recommend his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.

When people close to us die, it reminds us of our own mortality and brings out our own death anxiety. This can be particular true for those, such as yourself, who are experiencing the loss of their belief in an afterlife. You are grieving the loss of the time you thought you had—you grieve for a lost eternity—not only your own eternity, but that of your friends. Existential philosophy and psychology may be topics you want to explore in more depth, to see how some of the greatest minds describe, from an atheistic perspective, the universal experiences of grief, loss, and recovery. When faced with difficult life experiences, the faithful often turn to Priests and Pastors and other church authority figures. Atheists turn to other prominent atheists they admire, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens, and so on.

Maybe you will find comfort in examples of how a couple of prominent atheists have handled grief over their own illnesses and impending deaths. Check out these links. One is a blog entry by Mike Celizic of The Today Show and MSNBC and the other is a link to Anderson Cooper’s recent interview with Christopher Hitchens.

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/38771115/ns/today-today_health/

http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2010/08/07/video-extended-interview-hitchens-on-cancer-and-atheism/

While believers find comfort in the ideas God’s great plan for mankind and life after death, many atheists find comfort in knowing there is no one watching over their every move or reading their minds and that when they die, their consciousness will simply cease to exist. It may at first seem counterintuitive, but when you think about it, the scary idea that we live in an indifferent universe and have no special purpose or significance can be comforting. It means that if we become ill, it’s not because we deserve it or did something to anger God or that we are somehow inferior to those who are healthy, it’s just because we are human. It means that we don’t have the huge responsibility of pleasing a deity and living up to the standard of being made in his image or living a perfect life as Jesus supposedly did. We are human, with all our failings and frailties, and that’s OK.

There is one last, but very important piece of advice I would like to impart. Whatever you need for your recovery and healing, please do not be afraid to let others know what it is. If you need to be alone for awhile, let others know that, but reassure them you will not isolate or shut them out. If you need to have a memorial service and want others to attend, let them know how much it would mean to you. If you just need to sit and cry and not do housework for a day, allow yourself to do so and ask others for their understanding. But if you need to have a good laugh, let others know that, too, and ask them to remember funny stories or go see a comedy with you. And remember that while you have lost your faith and the sense of belonging to a faith community, you have gained a new perspective on life and death and joined a large, supportive community of freethinkers. Maybe some of them will post more ideas in the comments section below?

Thank you so much for your letter, and again, my sincere sympathies for your loss.
Take care,
Patty

Patty Guzikowski is a licensed professional counselor, National Certified Counselor, and Distance Credentialed Counselor. She offers telephone and email counseling to adults through her private practice, Freethought Counseling LLC, at www.freethoughtcounseling.com

  1. Ms. Crazy Pants says:

    When I was 19 and my dad was dying from cancer, a professor told me a story that’s stuck with me for many years.

    He told me a story about a man talking to a counselor about his grief from his wife dying. He felt he couldn’t bear the grief of his wife’s passing. The counselor told him that he gave his wife a wonderful gift by continuing to live. This upset the man to hear and he said he would have happily traded places with his wife. The counselor asked the grieving man how his wife would have felt if he had died first? The man replied that his wife would be devastated with grief. The counselor told the man that his gift to his wife was being willing to be the one to bear the pain of their separation so that she wouldn’t have to go through this. The man understood, and though he still felt the pain of her passing, he was willing to accept the grief as what he was willing to bear for his wife so that she wouldn’t have to.

    When my uncle passed away a while ago, I told my Aunt this story. Mostly, because I really didn’t know what to say. I was surprised when she appeared to brighten a little and said that her husband wouldn’t know what to do without her and that her dying first would have broken his heart.

    I think we’re all taught that real love means a person would die for another, but I can see how, it could be greater love to be willing to live for another instead.

  2. Ms. Crazy Pants says:

    I need to add an edit. I think the story was a man talking to some philosophy guru, but I don’t exactly remember all the details. It’s been 21 years since I heard that story. I thought using ‘counselor’ instead would still get the idea across.

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