Death and Grief as an Atheist

30 March, 2009 - Monday

I was taught from a very early age to believe in a heaven, with a god, and the angels playing golden harps while floating on clouds.  Heaven was where the  people we loved went when they died.  Heaven was where you aspired to be.

  • Be good, so you will go to heaven.
  • Don’t be bad, or you won’t get into heaven.
  • God is watching you from heaven.
  • There is an angel from heaven  right beside you, helping you.
  • Jesus is in heaven, and if you are a good girl, you will get to see him when you die.

Grief for a death was consoled by those thoughts.  Grandma is in heaven now.  Grandpa is with all the people who love him in heaven.  Aunt May is in heaven and an angel now.

I was taught to believe in those things, so that when a death came, I could handle the grief, because heaven existed, and I would be able to see that person again.  I didn’t need to be sad, but happy for that person – they were with god now.

That did help me when I was 7, and my grandfather died.  He was so important in my life, and the thought that he was watching over me, the thought that I would get to play with him again, consoled me.

As I got older, and more deaths happened in my family, I utilized that same idea again and again.  They were in heaven.  I would see them again.  It wasn’t so bad.  They were looking down at my tears and unhappy about it, so I should stop my crying. And I did.

The problems came for me when I realized I wasn’t falling for that anymore.  I became an atheist at a young age, and have never rectified the solution to death and grieving.  There isn’t a heaven.  There isn’t a god.  There aren’t any angels with harps playing beautiful music.  There is just a dead body, sad people, and an empty loss.

For a long time, I was in a place in my life where I could put any emotion away, be it sadness, or anger, and let it go easily.  I buried my feelings, deeply.  I could not allow myself to feel, or my life (at that time), would have fallen apart in to a mess of pieces.  So when death came, I just put the sadness, the loss away with the other emotions and feelings I had.  My atheism sustained me then, because I didn’t have to *feel* sadness at a death.  I had buried it.

Then divorce came.  And I finally could allow feelings back into my life.  I’ve had to learn, and relearn, how to deal with them.  It hasn’t always been easy for those people in my life.  I am sometimes too emotional.  Sometimes not emotional enough.  It is a learning process for me.  During this time, I really have not had to deal with death.  The grief and sadness that it threw at me was rather unexpected and strong.  I wasn’t prepared.

Which brings me the point of this post.   An important woman in my life passed away at the age of 73 and her funeral was yesterday. 73 might be old to some, but she was never old.  She was young in her heart, as well as her actions.

I went to the casket and felt like had forgotten what it was I was supposed to do. She looked like she was sleeping – so lifelike.  Her red dress looked perfect. Her badge there beside her.  Pictures of her playing on a video next to the casket, with beautiful music and flowers surrounding her.  Her family behind me, in the first few rows of the church.  There for the mourners to greet, comfort, and be comforted by.

And there I was.  Thinking Fuck. She is dead and I won’t ever have the chance to sit with her out in her lawn chairs, in the heat of an August summer day, in the cool shade of the maple tree. No more being able to listen to her stories or hear her good advice, while sipping orange kool-aid.  I won’t get to tell her news of my son.  I won’t get to get a hug from her again, with the whisper in my ear from her, saying “Everything will be okay.  Take it from this old lady – I know it’s the truth.”

Here is where I am supposed to say that yes, I know I’m not supposed to feel that way.  Because she wouldn’t want that.  Because it is selfish to feel that way.   But screw that.  I AM sad.  I am selfishly sad.  I am selfishly feeling an emptiness inside.

Death is really the one area..the one aspect of having god/religion that I envy.  The ability to not be so sad.  To have that dreamy illusion that you will be with that person again — see that person again.  That the person is in a better place.  That they are with the ones they love.  That they are in some sort of heaven.  That death is just a beginning to another life. And you know for sure, deep down, that  when you die, you will be reunited with the people you love, who love you, and all will be wonderful and grand.

Blah blah freaking blah.

Instead, it’s just Fuck and selfish sadness.

My boyfriend gave me some good advice earlier tonight.  He said, very gently to me, that one alternative was to think of all that a person had accomplished.  That I should not think of how sad, and empty I feel at the loss of this woman, but instead, think of what a great life she had — how fulfilling it must have been, and all that she accomplished and achieved within the time she had.  Think of the jobs she had of which she was so proud.  Think of her children, and how great a family she raised.  Think of what a fulfilling life she had.

Which is excellent advice.

Except, uhhhhhh…. There is that pesky selfish sadness again.

I’m honestly at a loss here.  I don’t know how to allow myself to feel any sort of comfort in her “accomplishments”.  I mean great that she lived this life, and that she did good things, had good children, was a good person…..  But now she is dead and gone from here.  There isn’t a heaven where I get to wave at her while she is surrounded by angels playing those golden harps and her family.  I don’t get to return her silly smirk, as I walk on a cloud towards my own family and friends.

I’m really kind of pissed off that I was not taught how to deal with grief, other than to think of heaven.  Yeah.  That pretty much sums this whole experience up for me.  Pissed off and selfishly sad.

I wonder how other atheists deal with death.  What are the tricks?  What do they tell themselves when they stand beside a casket?  How do they console themselves?

I really wish I knew.

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11 Responses to “Death and Grief as an Atheist”

  1. Dan Says:

    As an atheist the only advice I have for you as regards to death is this: Your grief is a reflection of how much you cared about a person and will miss them. It is shitty, but dealing with it now will make you stronger later.

    The pain will fade with time, but there will always be a sense of loss.

  2. Imagist Says:

    About six months ago I dealt with the death of an extraordinary man who was like a second father to me. He was a devout Christian, and I would have disagreed with him on a good many issues, but unlike most Christians he lived up to the good parts of Christianity. He was completely, selflessly altruistic. If anything good happened to him, his first thought was always to find someone who, in his opinion, needed it more. Even as brain cancer took his motor skills away from him his only concern was whether the people around him would be okay when he was gone.

    When he died, I resolved that some of his kindness would live on in me. It’s not my personality to be as altruistic as he was, but I can do my best. I know he isn’t watching me from heaven. Instead, when I am unsure about doing something kind or selfless, I think, “He would have done this,” and I do it. When this happens, I take comfort in knowing that even though he’s dead, a little part of his best qualities lives on in me.

  3. KC Says:

    Grief is grief. It is that pesky part of life that lets you know that you are still alive. As for those selfish feelings feelings that you have? I say, cherish them. In a normal life, especially when kids are involved, you spend your time giving. Giving to your kids, your significant other and the public in general. In times of death, society gives you a voucher for your grief. Accept it and indulged those thoughts of personal loss. It is time for you to be selfish for a change and keep something for yourself. The thoughts will curb themselves in time, assuming you have a healthy mind, and the loss will just be a piece of the past.
    You can reflect on in, but don’t dwell there, because that life has all ready been lived and it can’t be changed. There is a life in front of you and there will be more loss, and the cycle will continue.

    Life has an ending, that is just the way it is. You can either be afraid and worry about the end, or you can live the story you are at right now.
    Either way the end is the same.

  4. Denise Says:

    As a teenager, I decided there was no god. Now that I am in the second half of life, I have come to believe that what I rejected was the image of god held by religion (as well as much of the dogma), but that doesn’t mean there is no truth in everything that religions teach. I started reading books about life after death, not necessarily from a religious perspective. When a good friend was facing death, we made an agreement that she would try to send me a message from beyond if she continued to exist. I won’t go into the story here, but she kept her agreement, and I became convinced that the essence of who we are continues on after death. I don’t think there are angels with trumpets, or St Peter guarding the gates. But I do believe 100% that death is a doorway, and is a grand adventure awaiting us all. I can’t prove it, anymore than I can prove it’s not that way. But it helps me feel more peace, and less fear. So it works for me….

  5. makarios Says:

    Except for Denise who seems to be making it up as she goes along, I think the others have given you some pretty good advice. Death sucks. It’s horrible. And while your boyfriend means well, trying to ignore sorrow by forcing “nice” thoughts to replace the sorrow often just makes it last longer. You’ve lost some really important people in your life. That hurts – a lot. It’s true that we Christians believe that death is not the end but no one likes to say good bye to good people. I don’t think you’re being selfish at all. I don’t know where you live, but if you’re in a centre that’s big enough, a lot of Churches run grief support groups. It’s usually 10 sessions and it’s for anyone who’s experienced significant loss and are struggling to work through it. It might be worth checking out.

  6. admin Says:

    I want to say ‘Thank you’ to each of you who posted a response to my post. Your ideas, and your comforting words meant a lot. Each of you had something to say that touched the heart of the problem.

    I don’t know yet how I will deal with this issue, to be honest, but having other ways.. other ideas..from the atheist community has really helped me.

    Thank you all

  7. Claire Says:

    Whether atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic or whatever, the death of a loved one sucks. It’s painful. I think that everyone who has posted a comment has offered good advice in their own way. I will add one more thing, since I see at the bottom of your blog that art has been important in your life.

    When I lost my son to a drug overdose, art gave me a pathway through my grief. It doesn’t matter what I believe or what you believe about what death means, either way there is emotional pain and turmoil to work through and art (+journaling) can help to sort things out. My favorite medium is collage, so I collaged everything — my fear, my rage, my sadness, my dreams, my memories, my hopes for the future. Through collage I examined my shredded heart and then figured out how to put it back together again. It took me a couple of years.

    Here’s a starting point: collage your current feelings of anger, sadness and just plain “Oh FUCKness” about it all (just grab a stack of magazines and tear out pics and phrases that feel like you feel). Use a big piece of art paper, arrange the images and phrases and glue it all down. Then do some journaling about what you see, what it feels like, what you hate or like about it. You can even do some journaling dialogue with some of the images – ask them who they are, why they are in your life, what challenge (or possibly gift) they are bringing you. You can also collage the opposite emotion to what you’re feeling – collage how you want to feel. That can give you clues as to how to get there.

    Wishing you peace on the journey…

  8. TorturedSoul Says:

    I’m so sorry the death of my mother is hitting you so hard…but you and she shared times that can never be replaced and I think it is the fear of not being able to have or find that with another that has you so upset. Do not beat up on yourself at all because atheists or not, the pain of losing someone sucks and is hard to deal with. We are human and it’s human nature to want our loved one back and that makes us all selfish…regardless the beliefs. I wish I could help you sort through these feelings and emotions you’re having but all I can say is here if you need or want to vent or talk…and you know I have nothing but love for you!

    Stay well, One love and God bless!

  9. admin Says:

    Claire…

    That is a very good idea — I haven’t done a collage in a while, and I think that would be an excellent way to work through this, in addition to journaling. I started a painting, but had to walk away from it when I realized that it was too raw for me even to continue it. I think a collage is such an excellent idea. Thank you so much for the idea.

    Alfiie/TorturedSoul..

    You are right – I think that is my fear, that I will never have that feeling again — I don’t have that from my own mother, and I think I took what I could from yours, when I could. She was just that person you could talk to that would not judge, or be critical, and never thought her opinion was the only way to go. And I will miss that, and miss knowing that she is here in this world, someplace.

  10. Jen Says:

    I’ve been surrounded by christians my whole life. I lost my mom when I was 15 and was dumbfounded by the selfishness of so called christians. I recently had to fight my step mother who didn’t want to be inconvenienced for two weeks by allowing my dad to come home to die. She ended up refusing to have him burried alongside my mother. All perfectly legal, as his wife, but insanely selfish since she wasn’t his first wife and they had no children together. I say be selfish. It’ll be no less attractive on you than it was when christians did it to me. I say you have MORE right to your selfishness and anger and grief than they have. And I don’t see them holding back or adjusting their self serving demands. Go for it. Give it all you have.

  11. Axxyaan Says:

    From what I read here I get the feeling you are being very hard on yourself. It feels like you are not giving yourself permission to grief, to feel sad. There are no tricks, as an atheist I don’t console myself when a loved one dies, I grief, I feel sad. As a matter of fact people who try to console me, generally make me feel worse. The only thing that helps are people willing to hear the grief and sadness, who can bear it when they hear my story with its grief, sorrow and sadness. Maybe you can find people in your environment who are willing to hear your story with its grief, sorrow and sadness.


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