angel of grief

"Angel of Grief" Glenwood Cemetery, Houston, TX (photo by teejayfaust)

A former coworker of mine just lost his sister to cancer after years of riding the rollercoaster of hope and fear. His love for her inspired me, and it reminded me acutely of what it was like to watch a family member die from the disease.

I have only experienced fresh grief as a Christian. My father died in 2003, and I sought comfort and peace in the hope that he was “in a better place” and free from pain, experiencing the joy and bliss he always desired in life. He was a very passionate believer, and he would always tell me we’d “be together again” when my time was up. I found this to be very soothing and helpful, because I didn’t want to let him go. I wanted more time with him, and I desperately wanted him to be healthy again. I was so fearful of being separated forever. Magical solution? Heaven. Duh.

I’ve never lost a loved one as an atheist, so I honestly can’t speak to what it feels like to say goodbye to someone knowing we will never be together again. I imagine this could be a healthy, helpful way of letting someone go, processing the loss, and moving forward. Is that so?

What matters most to me now is understanding someone’s role in my life and how that helps me be a better person. That way, they live on in me, through me. My father is part of me down to my very DNA. He’s gone, but he has a legacy that affects me and every single person I encounter. I am very fortunate to have had such a great life with him while it lasted. Isn’t that what grief should be about?

What about you?

We can all can talk a good game about how great it is not to be oppressed by the burden of hell, yada yada… but only someone who has actually experienced a loss can talk about what grief is like.

Has anyone out there experienced intense grief as both a faithful religious person and as an atheist? How did your experiences differ on a personal level? Could you share with as much transparency as possible (as you feel comfortable)? Were both healthy experiences? Was one more comforting than another? When someone says “It doesn’t matter if so-and-so has faith in Heaven if it comforts them,” do you agree or disagree?

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17 thoughts on “Help me Understand Atheist vs. Religious Grief”

iamzuul · August 10, 2011 at 11:29 am

I don’t know what it’s like to grieve as a person of faith; even back to being a tiny child, I’ve never believed in a heaven. Also, I don’t know what it would be like to lose someone suddenly, like in a car accident, versus watching someone go through a great deal of pain and suffering before finally dying. For me, although it hurts to let them go and know I’ll never talk to them again, relief from pain and suffering is far more important to me. Once they’re dead, they’ll no longer suffer, and that’s far more important than any suffering I have to go through when dealing with their loss. That’s the real comfort. After all, once you’re dead, you’re dead; there’s no happiness, no suffering, nothing at all. So death isn’t a bad thing at all.

Dealing with a sudden death… I’ll have to get back with you on that one.

limey · August 10, 2011 at 11:44 am

ooo, good question.

I lost all my grandparents whilst still a Christian. My mother was diagnosed with cancer while I was still a Christian, but by the time she died, three years later, I was well on my way out and now 3 years later I am an atheist. Within a few months of Mum dying, I admitted to my brother that I no longer believed in God. Just to be clear, my Mum dying and my atheism are not related, they happened at the same time, but one did not cause the other.

Right, so how is grieving my Mum different from an atheist perspective? I’ve not actually sat down and analysed it, and to be blunt, I’m not fully over it. Watching her suffer with cancer was quite frankly the most tormenting thing I have ever endured. The pain of her loss reduces what I felt for my grandparents into utter insignificance.

I don’t have the same background comfort I had when her parents died. That deep seated knowledge that we’ll be together again. However, I don’t think that means I am suffering her loss more. The one area where I categorically no longer take comfort from is being told by Christians that they are thinking (read praying) for me. What I’d rather is they made the effort to come round and have a cup of tea and natter. Talking about Mum helps me so much more than knowing someone is praying for me.

Is my grief any worse because I am an atheist now? I really don’t think so. I think I would miss her and feel her loss just the same, whats different is how I respond. I don’t seek solace in prayer, instead I have a good cry and remember her, that’s not to say I wouldn’t have done the latter if I was still a Christian, I just have more time for the latter now :-).

starsdfw · August 10, 2011 at 11:55 am

My grandfather passed when I was in high school. He actually took his own life, somewhat suddenly, but in the midst of questionable times. At the time, I cannot say I was an active Christian, as I was old enough to tell my mother I was not going to church any longer, but I had attended religious-based private school for most of my life. Perhaps it was the innocence (naivety) of youth, but his passing did not impact me as much as my grandmother, his wife, passing away this February. She was progressively sicker the months leading to her death, but geographical distance prevented me from living it day to day. I was able to see her two months before her passing, but was delivered the final news over the phone, much like my grandfather.

At my grandmother’s passing I was 20 years older and think I have a better grasp on my mortality, but I have also become much more critical of organized religion. I have to say, I was reduced to a crying mess at my grandmother’s memorial, but I also declined to receive communion at the service with her church. I simply do not recall this level of emotion at my grandfather’s passing.

I am not sure we experience losses of this sort differently in terms of religion; unless you are using the shield of faith to deny your feelings. When you lose someone dear to you, you know it. You remember the good, bad, and meaningless details of your interactions. Whatever happens next, you instantly know you loved them when they are no longer here. We can only experience events in terms we understand; everything we encounter is defined in terms of a comparison to a previous event. This limits us to not knowing many things, but also makes those events we do know that much more meaningful.

PersonalFailure · August 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm

When someone says “It doesn’t matter if so-and-so has faith in Heaven if it comforts them,” do you agree or disagree?

I don’t ever, ever, ever mess with someone else’s grief. If someone told me they believe their loved one has jumped bodies into that squirrel over there, I wouldn’t argue the point. While someone is wrapped up in grief is not the time to debate the authenticity of their holy book or the logic of belief in supreme beings. It’s a time to pat their back and promise them that this, too, shall pass and there will come a time where it won’t hurt nearly as much.

That being said, I’ve never noticed any difference between grieving believers and grieving nonbelievers. I’ve seen grieving nonbelievers hold up quite well and grieving believers go over the edge into drug addiction and death. I’ve also seen grieving believers do quite well and grieving nonbelievers sit on the couch and cry for months at a time.

I don’t think it’s the belief, I think it’s the person doing the believing or not.

keetedw · August 10, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I lost my father while a Christian, and my aunt while an atheist.

I can tell you right now, the loss of my aunt was much easier to deal with. It wasn’t because she was my aunt instead of my mother, it was because I’d accepted the natural order of things. I also think it was a bit of a Buddhist perspective that helped. It was the acceptance that these aren’t things happening TO ME, but just things happening. It’s much easier to accept the inevitable when you understand these aren’t things happening to make you miserable. It’s an event. Not worrying about heaven or hell helped as well (my father didn’t have the most stellar track record, but at the time I took comfort knowing he was found by his pastor, in the prayer position).

How do I react now that I’ve moved away from Christianity? It will be what it is. I’ve accepted the natural order of things and understand this is just what happens to people. To invest myself that emotionally does no one any good, especially me. I understand will need a period to mourn when my closest relatives and friends die (especially if they suffer in the process), but I don’t anticipating dressing in black for months, or being in a drunken stupor for weeks (maybe if it’s an Irish Wake, but that’s different).

To be fair, this is just my stance. I’m sure there are others that will feel the same levels of grief regardless of what reason they apply to the situation (acknowledging there’s no lack of soul or spirit, acknowledging there’s no heaven or hell, acknowledging the natural order).

kclendenon · August 10, 2011 at 5:26 pm

It is true Christians have their hope in a “better place” at a better time. But what happens when they lose a child or someone in health in the prime of their life? Christianity causes the “WHY” question. To me that is the worst grief of all. What if a Christian’s loved one dies out of belief in Jesus? They are tormented with the thought of living eternity missing the other person. Why did the Chilean miners all get out, and the New Zealanders all perished? All were prayed for. Many were believers. The Christian way isn’t always a bed of roses.

Why can’t you be an atheist and still, like old Thomas Paine, “hope for happiness beyond this life”? There could be more out there. This universe is pretty huge, and to say that we have all the options figured out when we die is quite presumptuous.

My dear Mom and Dad are 91 and 95 respectively. I’m going to be facing this soon in all likelihood. I think we miss them and grieve regardless of what we believe. But I’m planning on reminding myself that I just don’t know whether I’ll see them again, so I’ll hope I will. When I die, I’ll either find out or it won’t matter to me. But I sure as hell don’t believe in Hell. What a moronic concept.

My best wishes for you as you wrestle with these issues. Life is good.

awalk6801 · August 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm

I lost my grandfather (Alzheimer complications) while I was a Christian, and my dad (cancer) last year when I was well on my way to atheism. I would say that the death of my dad has been much more difficult, but I was also much closer to him than my grandfather. I think the only way that atheism made grieving more difficult was that it was hard to know how to respond to people offering comfort. My family and all of my friends up until college are Christians. And by Christians I mean the super religious, super conservative sort (I was home schooled). And none of those people know that I’m an atheist. So it was difficult to constantly have people saying thinks like “he’s in a better place now” “isn’t it wonderful to know that he’s in heaven and free of pain” and my least favorite “it’s all part of God’s plan” as well as always wanting to pray with us. My mother also made the statement “we couldn’t cope without God” several times, and all I could think was that I was doing it without God, and I was doing alright.

It’s difficult to know that I’ll never be able to talk to him again, and there are a lot of conversations that I wish I could have had with him. Unfortunately, I’m only now at a place in my life where I could have those conversations, but he isn’t. At the same time, I’m also kind of glad that I don’t ever have to disappoint him with my lack of belief.

godlessgirl · August 11, 2011 at 9:01 am

@awalk6801 “It’s difficult to know that I’ll never be able to talk to him again, and there are a lot of conversations that I wish I could have had with him. Unfortunately, I’m only now at a place in my life where I could have those conversations, but he isn’t. At the same time, I’m also kind of glad that I don’t ever have to disappoint him with my lack of belief.”

I feel the same way and have thought both of these things many times since becoming an atheist. My father was kind, thoughtful, wise, and intelligent, and he was a faithful believer. I’m sure it would have broken his heart (like it did my mother’s) to know i’d rejected faith, but we could have had those discussions as adults. He died when I was only 19, and I wish he could see the woman I have become today. 🙂

godlessgirl · August 11, 2011 at 9:04 am

@kclendenon “Why can’t you be an atheist and still, like old Thomas Paine, ‘hope for happiness beyond this life’?”

I think holding on to hope for a possible afterlife or reincarnation can take away our focus from living this life to the fullest, most complete extent possible. If this is all we have, shouldn’t our enjoyment and appreciation of its gifts be all the more sweet?

godlessgirl · August 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

I’ve so appreciated hearing your stories and reading your insights, folks. Thank you so much for sharing them!

ldmccarty · August 13, 2011 at 9:13 am

You didn’t “reject faith” you rejected THAT faith. I’m sure you have many other faiths in many other ideas and people.

unskooled · August 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm

I was at the tipping point of atheism when my father-in-law passed away after a long battle with cancer. I can’t really speak to if it was easier or more difficult because grief is always different, I don’t think my grief for my father-in-law would have felt the same as my grief for my mother-in-law even if my spiritual beliefs had been the same. They were different people, we had different relationships.

That being said I was worried that I would be more despondent or have a more difficult time coping but I found the exact opposite to be true. The last days, and especially the last minutes, of my FIL’s life were agonizing. It was difficult to watch and I remember thinking, “No loving god would allow a faithful follower to suffer like this. There is no divine plan or reason.” That thought didn’t leave me cold- it left me relieved. This wasn’t the work of some master plan, this was the order of things. His pain was almost over and he lives on in my husband and my children.

My sister-in-law on the other hand was very angry with god for allowing her dad to suffer like he did. And then she felt guilty for being angry. She wasn’t able to focus on her grief because too many other things were tangled up with it. My husband and I grieved, we talked about what we’d miss, we told funny stories with our kids. And we were glad he wasn’t suffering anymore instead of holding onto anger at some invisible entity for inflicting the pain in the first place.

Jenny · August 29, 2011 at 10:02 pm

I went to a funeral where I didn’t personally know the man who died (it was my cousin’s father; I was there to support her). But it was hard to get through because he converted from atheism to Christianity on his death bed :/ I’m sure you all can imagine the sort of discussions that took place.

Baggs · August 30, 2011 at 12:21 am

I was more close to my grandma and she got Alzheimer’s and being in a poor country with people not being able to afford decent healthcare, my aunts and uncles took her to some quack doctors and that kinda stuff.

My mom was sending money to get her professional help but my other relatives act possessive towards my grandma and were just very irresponsible when it came to taking care of her.

It happened many times before but she would leave the house and not come back for a day or so and they wouldn’t know where to find her. She would later just show up walking around with plastic wraps on her feet cause she lost her flip flops and a bunch of cans tied to her waist all dirty and messy.

One time it happened again and she never came back. That was more than ten years ago.

About five years ago my dad who never bothered showing up was gunned down in front of his apartment because he used to be in the military catching illegal loggers and other criminals.

My grandma was protestant, my dad was catholic.

I believe that when judgement day comes, God will be a fair and good judge regardless of their differing theologies.
God is about saving not condemnation.
They did their best with what little education they had and I believe God looks at their hearts rather than their religious club.

The bible says that Jesus himself went down to the place of the dead to minister to them.

I think it is shallow and narrow minded to think that just because some religious groups require a person to pray the sinners prayer that it means that is the only way to be saved.

As far as I know, Jesus never told anyone to pray the sinners prayer. Have you noticed that?

He just went around accepting people and showing them that they are loved.

People who reject that love will not be forced to accept it. This is their choice.

We who have heard the context of the gospel of salvation are given more and more are required of us.
This is why I believe that the gospel is good news to those who are humble enough to accept Love.
While being the very thing that condemns those who reject it.

Since there wouldn’t be any more need for Christ to minister to those who already know what he did.

This is why I feel bad about people calling themselves ex-christian, because even if they weren’t true converts whose lives were change through repentance after receiving grace, you know that they for the least KNOW ABOUT what Jesus did and willingly avoid it.

I know plenty of them will say “I was seeking truth so I left it”.
Shouldn’t they have bothered to ask questions where they were at?
And when they did, should they have looked for professional help? Or just go with quack doctors like my relatives did?
obviously your parents and grandparents who attend the same things that you do would only know as much as you do.
But how does that stop you from seeking a theologian or even just browsing the internet?

stephdck · September 15, 2011 at 8:42 am

I lost my child 6 months ago. grew up ultra religious to jehovahs witness parents but rejected the cult a few years back due to their hypocrisy and creating divisions among family. anyway, i was totally sold on the resurrection etc when part of jw’s but now im a total atheist having looked in to all rational aspects of our lives as human beings. Losing my daughter compounded my belief that there was no god….burying your lifeless child will do that to you. I dont need to believe she is in heaven to comfort me, i know she has died, i know i will never see her again and knowing this makes saying goodbye more real. Its ugly but its the truth…she isnt floating on a cloud…she’s in a coffin. I hate it…but that’s how it is. I feel ive been able to cope better too because im not constantly obsessing about signs from angels. The god bothering you get from people who are religious is horrendous by the way. Dont you want to see your child again?!? how can you not believe in god? OH BORE OFF…is my general response

anonymouth · September 15, 2011 at 9:53 am

I was raised Jewish (but not very religious) and I can say that the people in my family seem to grieve about as well as I do. I’ve been an athiest since I was about 11, so pretty much all of my adult life.

Anyway, I think Christianity really messes people up when they grieve for a few reasons, mainly this business about heaven and hell, but also the whole idea that God “loves” you and will answer prayers. Judaism doesn’t have those features. There’s a heaven in the mythology but it’s not an afterlife, it’s where God and the angels live. There’s no hell. And the religion is pretty clear that God doesn’t do personal favors to individuals, and prayer is mainly about praising God.

Helpful Words on Coping with Grief | · September 27, 2011 at 8:02 am

[…] more, and get out of the house. Interact and get busy with something that you are passionate about.Grief resulting from the loss of someone, a tragic incident or any other unforeseen event, can be tr…eone, a tragic incident or any other unforeseen event, can be traumatic and even deadly to some […]

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