Thursday, September 28, 2017

Grief without God

While I don't focus much on it in my writing, nor am I extremely outspoken about it in my every day life, I do not believe in god.  I am what you could classify as an agnostic atheist, meaning although I can't claim to know for sure, I am not inclined to believe there is a god.   I would also consider myself a Humanist, which is less about belief in the supernatural and more about faith in humanity and our responsibility to our fellow humans.  

I came to my beliefs really over the course of my lifetime.  I think all people search for meaning in their lives, and I was never one to find it in religion.  It never made sense to me.  I had too many questions and not enough answers.  I was never angry or upset with god - I just never felt like the concept of god fit in with who I am.     

Over and over, I see confusion regarding how atheists function as people.  How can they be a good person without religion?  How can they find meaning in a life without god?  I've already written a post about the misconceptions others have towards non-believers and a post about how I feel about the phrase "God's Plan".  Yet somehow, I have yet to write about atheism in how it relates to the main point of this blog - grief.  So, here you go.  
This is that post. 

Recently, I read an article that claimed the difference between how an atheist grieves and how a Christian grieves is that a Christian "grieves with hope" and that those without god "sorrow without hope."  I've seen this same mistaken idea in many places throughout the online universe.   I, by no means, "sorrow without hope".   Just because my hope doesn't come in the form of faith or belief in god, doesn't mean it isn't there.  

In the darkness of grief, we look for light - any light - to help guide us through. This is universal.   We all seek out ways to bring peace to a broken heart.  For some people, prayer brings peace.  Holding on to their faith in god and the belief someone loves them and guides them through the dark is comforting. God is both the buoy and the lighthouse in an angry ocean.   I understand this mindset, but I don't follow it.  So, what's my light in the dark?  What keeps me, and any other non-believer, afloat?   Honestly, I think that answer is very different for everyone.   At the beginning, I don't really know how anyone gets through that absolute shocking pain - we just do.  All of us, with or without god, broken to our very core, go into survival mode and for the longest time, we are alive but not living.  We eat, we sleep, we cry.  We feel empty and lifeless.  It's when we reach that moment of wanting to live again - of wanting to try to feel something more than blinding pain -  where the differences in grief manifest.

As a non-believer, I did not find comfort in faith in god.  I didn't shun it, it just wasn't part of my thought process.   A month after Kenley died, my first real act of healing took place when I volunteered for the charity that supplied her memory box.   I spent time with other women who had lost babies and I created bracelets to wrap around the wrists of teddy bears.  I helped pack the memory boxes with important items to help parents memorialize their child who will never come home.  This afternoon was the first step in trying to make meaning out of what had happened.  

For me, my hope comes not in the form of religion, but in action. My hope is that I can bring positive change to my life through the things that I do.  When I DO something to make a difference in the world around me, I feel connected to her.  I feel like I am making her death mean something. Grief is work.  Anyone who says it's not has never done it.   I worked hard to arrive at the place where I am now, and the road is long and treacherous.  So, I do whatever I can to make an impact in her name.  I volunteer.  I write.  I carry out Random Acts of Kindness.  I give presentations.  I attend Walks of Remembrance.  I run.  I do whatever I can to bring some light into my darkness and to walk this path with as much strength and grace as I can muster.  

Obviously, taking action isn't unique to non-believers.  I think most grieving parents, religious or not, seek out a way to honor their child.  I have many Christian friends who head charities, run support groups, or write blogs and articles.  The only difference between what they do as believers and what atheists do is that they do it while believing in god.  Their charity may have a religious theme.  Their support group may pray before meeting.  Their blog may reference their faith.  But, the purpose and the end result is the same.  Our children are remembered and our hearts find some peace.  

I think many people may think atheists grieve without hope because we lack a belief in the afterlife, therefore we have no hope of seeing our children again.  Everyone has their own way of coping with the finality of death.  For me, endings are comforting.  When I was in elementary school, I remember being terrified of the concept of eternal life - even one in paradise.  I imagined this beautiful expanse of pink, like a sun setting into infinity, and my stomach would drop and tingle in fear as I thought about how that would go on forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.... so I rarely allowed myself to think about it.  As I grew into my mindset as an atheist, the idea of life ending at death actually settles me.   I imagine it being like the time before we were born; we are conscious of nothing and so nothing matters to us.  For me, I feel that knowing I won't see Kenley again is easier than thinking I might.  I'm not hanging my feelings on something that won't happen until the end of my life, and I'm not having to envision her somewhere without me.  I mean, I would do anything I could to have her in my arms again, obviously.  But, that's not the cards I've been dealt, so I play the best I can with the ones I have.

A popular piece of writing in the atheist community regarding death is called "You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral" by Aaron Freeman.  

"You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly."

While religion has never really made sense to me, science always has.  I love the fact that energy can't be created or destroyed - only changed in form.  I love thinking about how all of our atoms once came from the belly of the beginnings of the universe, swirling in a cosmic soup that would one day become galaxies - and how, long after our consciousness has ended, those same atoms will find their way back into the stars.   Right now, the body of my child is in the form of ashes in a pink ceramic urn.  Millions of years from now, when Mother Earth has breathed her last breath and our Red Giant sun engulfs our planet, my baby's atoms, along with mine, will return to the universe - and to each other.  To me, that is beautiful.  

Despite what some people may think, Christians and Atheists don't really grieve all that differently.  We all love and miss our children terribly and we all do what we can to help ourselves get through our day.  We all need hope and, if we are lucky, we all find it in something.  Maybe it's found in the belief in heaven and maybe it's found in the power of stardust.  Either way, we are all just humans doing the best we can not to hurt as we live our lives on this spinning sphere.



  1. Your words have always impressed me. As an educator, your powerful and quiet words coming together to tell a story were even intimidating.

    Your words as your shared feelings from one human to another are pure and honest. Whatever someone chooses to have faith, trust, or belief in, he or she has just that, a choice.

    I have so much respect for you for sharing your thoughts so openly.

    Many people could learn to be better humans following this example.

    With admiration and sincerity...

  2. Thanks for this. Your post brought tears to my eyes (specifically the Physicist poem).

    I grew up in a very Mormon family, left religion about six years ago, and now identify as a nontheist humanist. I've written several pages' worth with my take on grief without God, but have not yet shared it with the public as you have (though I did share a poem on my loss -

    I also appreciate your points about 1) similarities between Christians and atheists relative to grief, and 2) the upside of perceiving death as final.