How Do Atheists Cope with Grief? Part 1: On Death

Bruce Gerencser asked a rather interesting question over on his blog The Way Forward.

"For those of you who are secularists (atheists, agnostics, humanists, non-religious) , how do you handle tragedy and grief? What have you found to be helpful? Not helpful?"

Part 1: On Death
Since my own atheism, I have only had one relative die. My wife's grandfather. 

The difference this time around was that I was able to watch the funeral and customs (he was Shinto) as an anthropologist and a sociologist. It was educational for me.

My daughter, who just turned three, wanted to know where her great Granpa went. We took her to the casket and showed her the dead body.

She became obsessed with seeing it. She wanted to see his body again and a again.

So we got back in line 6 more times.

"Where did he go?" she asked me.

This implied that, even at three years old, she recognize that the "soul" or the mind was gone.

"No," I said. 

She then asked me, "Well, where is he now?"

I replied, pointing at her heart, "He's in here." Then pointing at her head, "And in here. In our memories."

Earlier that week, and the week before, we found a dead bird in the driveway and a dead rat in the park. At the end of the week the ants were eating both of the dead animals and carrying them away bit by bit.

"Will great grandpa come back?"

Mind you, we're still standing over his body, so she is making the connection that he's not here any longer.

"No, honey. He's dead. Just like the little bird we found. And the silly ole rat."

"The ants ate them!" she said with a big smile.

"Yes, yes they did." I chuckled. 

"Will the ants eat Great Grandpa too?"

"No, hon. We're gonna cremate great grandpa."

We went to the cremation service after that and she got to put his bones/ashes into the urn. 

So just by being honest, and going through the entire process with her, she knows that death means you go away.

The way I see it, it is easier to deal with death when you don't romanticize it, when you don't create the false hope of an afterlife, and entertain the lie.

That's why I wanted to be completely honest with my daughter.

I wanted her to know the reality of the situation. Everything else is conjecture. And it doesn't help. Sure, believing your deceased loved ones are enjoying eternal bliss might make you happier in the short term, but ultimately, it sets you up for an even bigger disappointment. That's the nature of false hope. 

I'm not going to lie to my daughter. I want her to be equipped to handle the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be. This in itself gives me solace. Because it is about coming to terms with our place in life, and not wishing things were different so badly that it is easier to delude oneself with fancies of the imagination instead of coping with reality. Religion is an unhealthy way of coping with grief.

Letting go is easier when you don't cling to the fairy tale ending.  


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