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Grief And Atheism


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My older sister Jenny was killed in a car accident at the age of 28 in August last year. I have been an atheist my entire life, and it is something I have always struggled with, and am having a particularly difficult time with now. I know that I will never believe in god or an afterlife, and I feel that this makes the grieving process even more difficult.

Over the last couple of months I have become very afraid of death, both my own and that of those close to me. I have never had much experience with fear before. I have never really been confronted with anything that truly terrified me until I was forced to contemplate the reality of death without an afterlife, or any kind of comfort from a belief in the divine.

I've been to counseling, which really helped with the acute grief and depression I was suffering about six months after my sister's death. I have found a lot of comfort in the thought that she lives on in the effects she had on others, but I find no comfort in that thought when contemplating my own mortality. there are so many things that I want to do that the concept of death as a final ending is almost overwhelming.

I would like to hear thoughts from anyone who has had to deal with loss and for some reason has been unable to find comfort in religious beliefs.

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I want to say I am very sorry about your sister so tragically. I lost mine about 2 1/2 years ago and my husband 1 1/2 years ago. I do have to say I've always had faith but understand your beliefs as well because my son and my grandson are what I think of as agnostics. After my husband died, I was numb and didn't even think of any faith for a long time but it eventually came back to me. It must be very hard to cope with all this knowing how you feel and all I can say is there are very understanding and caring people on this forum and I feel it would be good for you if you continue on here. There are many thought processes here that might be helpful to you. Take good care of yourself, treat yourself kindly and try to stay with the caring people you know.

Hang in there.....Karen B

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I am also sorry for your loss. I really don't know "for sure" what lies ahead...if there is an afterlife...but I would like to believe there is one. I would like to believe that my mom is with my dad and all of their family members. I would like to believe that she is happy and watching over me and my family here on earth. And because I really don't know, I have been content with that and that is enough for right now. I really do "feel" my mom is with me. Whether it is wishful thinking, or her spirit is truly there doesn't matter. I am just content thinking that she might be there. Does anything I said make sense?!!! It truly is a very deep personal thing and I really can't explain it any better than that! Hang in there...

Take care...Lori

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My experience may not address your request directly because I haven't expended any efforts at all toward finding any kind of comfort with religion for over thirty years. Also, not knowing why you're struggling with disbelief after being an atheist for your entire life--strong family indoctrination, cultural pressure, desire for a belief in something, et. al., might make this response a little generic. My evolution from belief to agnosticism/practical atheism had quite the opposite effect on me for the most part. I felt relief. Of course, that was long before I had experienced the death of anyone I was close to or loved. Following the death of our baby eighteen years ago, relief fell to desire--desire to believe as those who could accept these entities that were absolute fiction to me did. I thought that it must be a comfort to hold those beliefs.

You mention that your lack of belief in an afterlife is what is making this particular time so difficult, and not having experienced loss from a believer's standpoint, I can only agree with you, and speculate that a belief that one will eventually be reunited with those who have died does bring relief; I believe it would for me. You no doubt know that this kind of loss is terribly difficult no matter your religious affiliation or belief. (There is an interesting and related thread exploring the ways in which women and men cope with the deaths of loved ones, elsewhere on this forum). Interestingly, your fear of death contrasts with my beliefs related to agnosticism. I recall reading Epicurus' thoughts on the subject to my wife: “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?” We talked about it and concluded that we agreed wholeheartedly. I remember Tanya saying that she felt our lives could be represented by the flame of a candle. Once the flame had died, it was no more. She said that she didn't fear death, and fortunately that turned out to be the truth. I've always read that atheists did not fear death, but I remember telling her that i did fear death--hers. As it happens, my fears were founded.

I hope I'm not overstepping here, but you mentioned that you found comfort in the thought that your sister lives on in the effects she had on others, but that doesn't provide any comfort for you when it comes to your own mortality. I feel much the same way regarding finding comfort in Tanya's effect on other's. However, I don't know whether you don't find comfort because you haven't had the same sort of effect on those you encounter in your life, or there is some other reason. Maybe if you feel like it, you can let us know?

Finally, I get to the crux of your request--how to deal with loss without religion. For me, as I probably mention ad nauseam on this forum, I try to live more like my wife Tanya did. She had a positive, life-changing effect on quite a number of people who were fortunate enough to know and love her. I am trying to carry on as she did, help others as she did--in short, be the kind of person people say things like "she lives on in the effects she had on others" about.

Steve

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Steven...I love how you said that you are trying to carry on as Tanya...a good person to others and making differences in their lives, etc.. My mom was an unbelievably positive person and everybody loved her. She hardly complained and was always interested in the other person and truly loved her life. She would come out to visit me from her home in Ohio to my home in California and always marvel at the mountains or any other natural beauty that was in nature. She would always say: "feast your eyes...it's free!". I am trying to live my life as my mom lived her life. I really never understood her contentment in the simplest things until I got older. Even when she was alive, when I was much younger, I always would kind of laugh at how naive I thought she was by being so positive and looking at the glass half full all of the time. I now look at that aspect of my mom as a gift that she has given to me and to everyone else that she knew.

I love that we are all learning from one another on these forums. Thanks to everyone!

Take care...Lori

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bugabob,

I am glad you brought up this topic. I, too, have no faith, and yet, like Lori S, I don't really know what is ahead for sure, so I hope that Heaven exists and all that. Unfortunately, as time goes on, and life seems to deal me more and more hardship and pain from so many recent deaths, any shred of "faith" I had is getting weaker and weaker. I have always wished I was a deeply religious person, because I think it brings such comfort to those people. But, try as I might, I just never truly believed. I have my own sort of "spirituality" but it is not conventional at all. All I can say is that I hope you find some sort of "belief" (no matter where it comes from or how unconventional it is) so that you can find some peace. We all need that so much. If you do, let me know....I could use some too!

Hugs to you,

Shell

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I "suffer" from a lack of faith also. And when I first started into this painful process, I felt this is where my whole belief system failed me. Those who have faith at least know that their loved one is in a better place and they will all be reunited someday. I didn't have that. But after faithfully following everyone's story here for the past year, I see that it really doesn't matter. Whether or not you believe they are "alive, pain-free and at peace", or just no longer part of our physical world, we are all suffering the same. Those with a fervent religious belief also feel let down by their faith. And they don't seem to be any more comforted during their darkest moments than am I.

As to how you get through this without all that belief...the same way the believers do. One day at a time. You cry and you rage and you wish (pray) fervently for something that you know you will never have again. And you've made it through one more day. Painfully you brace yourself for tomorrow. Then suddenly you've lived through the holidays, his birthday, your birthday, and then the anniversary. And just like all those believers, you are still wounded and hurting so much you wonder how you did it. But you can and you will. And just like all those believers, you are still so wounded you can hardly stand up sometimes. But just like them, most of us have an inner strength that never gets acknowledged. That's my "single set of footprints in the sand". You have yours and like all those believers you can't seem to get in touch with it at this awful time. Only much later will you look back and see what you've accomplished, just as the believers will look back someday and see the footprints of God as they were carried through this night. Our consolation is that we did it ourselves. We can be strong.

As to the fear of your own death, even those who believe don’t have the guarantee that their God will allow them enough time to do all those things either. And since the afterlife is kind of vague about the activities that go on, they only have earthly time to do earthly activities too. Just start doing it all now. Few of us ever get the chance to do everything in life they want. I feel extraordinarily lucky because I not only have done almost everything I ever dreamed of doing but far more. My life has been like a miracle and I am more than satisfied with what I did with it. I am totally unafraid of death. I hope it won’t be painful or protracted but I can handle that too…nothing can be harder than this.

I wish you so much peace but having gone through this I know this offering means so little in the face of your grief. Just keep checking back, watch our progress and let us experience yours. We all want to get better and we want you to get better too.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Once death is experienced close up, it makes a person think about something that was always very abstract. Death is more real now, but it is still something you must do to know it. The unknown is always scary, and since we cannot know death beforehand, our minds try to make sense of it without any actual knowledge of it.

You can belief anything about after your dead without believing in a religion.

Religions were created to fill voids in the minds of people, (and of course used to gain power and control). Religion is not G-d. If you believe in a God

It will exist whether you acknowledge It or not.

A death shakes eveyone up because it changes things. All that was once simple and linear becomes chaotic. It is very difficult for the mind to make sense of this. I suggest that you try to stop forcing yourself to get these answers

at this time. Grief is grief. People die all the time and we really have no definitive reason as to why or when. The burden of sorrow is big enough for your shoulders right now and for a long time to come.

Let yourself grieve your loss. In time sometimes answers do come.

One thing at a time- and remember that this is the way you feel now, and you may not feel this way later. Doublejo

(by the way, I had 4 major deaths in 4 years)

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Dear Ones,

When we are coping with a traumatic loss, such as the death of a loved one, we are forced to begin the difficult process of adapting to what is happening to us. Part of that process is trying to make some sense of it. We search for meaning. Whatever faith we had may be shaken to the core, as the very values and beliefs we’ve held onto all our lives suddenly are brought into question.

Whether sudden or expected, the death of someone loved is an unwelcome and extremely painful interruption of our relationship with our beloved ~ and for most of us (in our culture at least), it not only hurts, it just feels wrong. Intellectually we may know that death is a part of life, and sooner or later it will happen to all of us, but in our hearts and souls we grieve. Sometimes we’re angry that this has happened to us, and we need someone ~ anyone ~ to blame for the injustice of it all. Sometimes the one we want to blame is God, or our higher power, or fate or the universe, or whomever else we think we can hold accountable.

In an earlier post it was stated that Religions were created to fill voids in the minds of people, (and of course used to gain power and control). Well, yes and no. A lot of research has been done around this matter of religion and the part it plays in grief, and I think it’s important to note that for some, religion can offer an effective way of coping with loss. For example, in a new book I’ve just finished reviewing (Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement, David Balk, Editor-in-Chief, © 2007, Association for Death Education and Counseling) Robert G. Stevenson writes about a hospital chaplain named Mwalimu Imara. (Imara was the chaplain who worked in Chicago alongside Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous psychiatrist who wrote the ground-breaking book On Death and Dying). In his work with dying patients and their families, Chaplain Imara noticed a significant difference in those who believed in and practiced what he called authentic religion. People with authentic religion, he observed, used their religion to form their sense of who they were. They used their faith to set and follow their life priorities, to make choices and face the consequences of those choices, and to make sense out of life and death. They found a way to answer those basic questions about life and death – and as a group, they were less anxious and less fearful of death. These individuals were better able to cope with loss and to move through the grief process more effectively.

This matter of religion and spirituality is such an important topic, and I applaud you all for bringing it up, exploring it, and discussing it with one another here. I hope you will continue to do so. I also think you may find this article helpful: Spiritual Reactions to Loss

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MartyT: You made the feelings of anger so much more understandable. The insight of death feeling "wrong" gets to the heart of the matter, I think.

Religions certainly do provide various answers and comfort. People need to feel a sense of security and hope that religions can provide. It is encouraging to know that there are many ways for people to find solice.

Doublejo

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In her wonderful monthly newsletter which I received just this morning, internationally recognized author and grief consultant Elizabeth Harper Neeld writes,

We’ve just posted one of the sweetest photos I think I have ever seen in my life. A friend sent this photo to me perhaps a year ago—I have no idea where he found the picture—and I’ve not had an occasion to share it with you until now. The photo and the piece I wrote about seeing the novelist, Cormac McCarthy, interviewed by Oprah this past week will be on the website throughout the summer. Do check out both of these.

In light of our present discussion about grief, atheism, religion, and spirituality, I found Elizabeth's article to be quite interesting and thought-provoking. You will find it here:

Prayer Talk in the Afternoon

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Doublejo,

I loved what you said here:

"

If you believe in a God It will exist whether you acknowledge It or not.

That's how I've always thought about the whole concept, and find it helps to take the 'fear factor' out of the equation. It reminds me of what "A Course In Miracles" says about really understanding the whole idea spoken about in that book ~ "You need do nothing." Whatever the truth really is, it will be so, even if what you experience is truly and directly relative to what you believe or don't. Yes, it's abstract, but it can help lessen any fears one might have......or drive one crazy with frustration in wanting to KNOW for certain! ;) (another choice one has to make, over and over)

My beliefs have been forged out of staying open to many ideas, in addition to what I've actually experienced myself, personally....which frankly, I'm more prone to put more stock in anyway. I prefer a more substantial 'proof' in the 'final' analysis. I'm definitely not religious in the popular sense of the word, but am what I consider spiritual. In the vein of A.A.'s advice, I try to take what I like and leave the rest, whenever possible, or aware enough about. And I listen to what my 'gut', or inner self/sense tells me, as I try to sort through my various dilemmas, during grief and otherwise.

Good discussion here, everyone.

We must have been cross-posting, Marty.....I just saw that wonderful photo! Oh my goodness.....it melted my heart! And I say again....our furry, or otherwise, fellow brethren on this planet are closer to all things spiritual than most people think! :D TOO sweet! :closedeyes:

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