Grieving as an Atheist

I know I said my next few posts would be deep and bounce off of my last post where I tried to draw lines between the law, morality, rights and responsibilities. However, in a quick reply I think it might be nice to respond to a post called “Grieving as an Atheist”. This post has a Christian author, but the discussion is concerning itself with a Guardian article of the same name. Tiffany White, the atheist author of the Guardian article, and Andrew Stucker, the Christian author Christian author of the WordPress post, seem to believe that the atheist life is rather bleak.

White confesses that at the death of her friend’s mother she found herself unable to offer the proper condolences; God is with her and she’s in a better place or even you are in my prayers are all dishonest verbiage coming from a person who doesn’t believe in the concepts: God, Heaven and prayers. Stucker capitalises on White’s line “I started to realize that the life of an atheist was a tad bleak.” White qualifies this sentence by saying that, once you get under them, the religious-laden sentiments are no better: “We’re conditioned to say these phrases whenever we’re confronted with a tragedy, but we put little thought or effort into why we say them.” But Stucker doesn’t care, and just runs with White’s use of the word “bleak”.

I went further in my comment to Stucker under his post, by saying that when I hear someone is praying for me all I hear is that someone thinks they have superpowers. It is much more meaningful to let someone know you’ll be there for them, to offer to take them out for a break and, I think most importantly, to remind you to—and perhaps join you in—celebrating the life of the person who died. The religious sentiment of “they’re in a better place now” feels like a denial of the idea that I can and should be grieving. Oh, why are you so sad? She’s happier now than she ever was!

One thing I want to say is that White does not describe a bleak world. White has confused a linguistic limit to expressing how she felt with not having those feelings. White feels no less just because she is an atheist, but she doesn’t have clichés to fall back one; she actually responsible for showing what she means.

If someone you know loses someone, there are things you can say and mean which are more meaningful than our socially conditioned religiously suggestive responses:

  • “I’m here for you.” A friend would rather you were there giving them a hug than 3 miles away offering a half-baked prayer between paperwork and a glass of wine. Find the time to go see the friend.
  • Celebrate her life. Death is tragic, and disturbingly easy to focus on. Don’t do that. Don’t get philosophical about death. Get excited about life. Do you remember that time she told gay-Alan that using Beth as a surrogate mother was “the worst idea I’ve ever heard”. That was the best argument ever! “You’d be a terrible dad; kids don’t want Armani suits. Kids want you to go camping with them. You hate camping. Worst. Idea. Ever” That was hilarious. Or some other such story. My granddad’s funeral was decorated with his little (slightly racist comments), for example, the baguettes had the label “Only good thing to come out of France” and the sausage rolls were labelled “silly sausage”. My point again: remember and celebrate life.
  • “She’d want you to mourn.” A little mourning is healthy. Don’t try to convince friends they are not allowed to mourn. When I die I want my friends and family to have a wake, drink ginger wine (maybe have a cry), and live. Mostly live; if you can bypass the mourning that’s great. But stop moping.
  • Be honest. Don’t pretend she’s alive if you don’t believe it. Go for the hard truth—she’d dead—and let your friend find the strength to come to terms with it. Don’t assume your friend is weak.

As a note to Tiffany White, don’t worry that you couldn’t find the exact words of wisdom and condolence you felt you needed; secular words of wisdom haven’t been socially conditioned to us yet and they don’t easily roll of the tongue. And well done for being on the other end of the phone when she needed you and taking the time to listen.

I am lead to believe that being an atheist is being a part of a community. So, contribute. What else can we say to the bereaved?

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13 thoughts on “Grieving as an Atheist”

  1. Well, this is long, but i enjoyed it thoroughly when i first read it. 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/her 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 him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him 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.”

    1. Don’t delete your post, I like it. Besides, you come at it from a slightly different angle, and we need many eyes against this kind of thinking.

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