Grieving Without Religion

Recently, a long-time reader (thanks, Stacey!) sent me an e-mail with a link to this wrenching story, about a married couple chronicling the grief and anger they’ve been feeling since their daughter was stillborn in late 2009. By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in irrational thinking and home-birth woo [see below —Ebonmuse], rather than medicine, and didn’t go to the hospital until well after it became obvious that they should have. The father, Gabe, has written with searing eloquence about how the death of his infant daughter and the near-death of his wife has reawakened his skepticism:

So I ask myself, why did I keep on trusting birth? Why did I believe in a supernatural aegis of protection? Did I think my family was more special than her parents? Really, I never thought about it, except to be afraid of not knowing what might happen or not being able to control it, and so responding to my fear I would prostrate myself further to this way of thinking. It would decrease my self-examination and in so doing give myself a reassuring rush of comfort, like a hit of opium.

…Now I have this space where faith used to be, not at all convinced that it was ever a virtue. I detest the supernatural explanations for things that used to satisfy me, and I miss the feelings that they used to give me. I sit in the audience at my family’s church, which I saw as pleasant and innocuous but not a path to truth before Aquila died, now finding myself powerfully put off by messages everyone else takes as endearing.

If the atheist movement wants to thrive, we need to create a secular community that appeals to people in all walks of life, and to do that, it’s essential that we offer help help and support to everyone, whatever their needs. That’s why I was glad to get an e-mail from Greta Christina about Grief Beyond Belief, a newly formed nontheistic grief support group that’s undoubtedly much needed. (See her post about the launch.)

The Grief Beyond Belief page offers an online support network for people grieving the death of a child, parent, partner, or other loved one — without belief in a higher power or an afterlife. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and anyone else living without religious beliefs are invited to join and participate on the page. Bereaved people in the process of questioning or letting go of previously held religious beliefs are also welcome to be part of the community and seek support.

In many ways, Grief Beyond Belief resembles other online grief support networks and forums. However, religious grief support — including prayer, faith in god, and belief in an afterlife — is not welcome in posts or comments. In this way Grief Beyond Belief offers a safe space for atheists and other non-religious people to share and process the death of a loved one. Recognizing that the death of a loved one sometimes leads to reevaluation of religious beliefs, every effort will be made to make the page accessible to people who are still struggling with these issues. However, the page is not intended as a venue for debate, but as a space for shared compassion and support. While religious believers may participate on the page, they are required to follow these guidelines.

Once a participant has “liked” Grief Beyond Belief, she or he will periodically receive a thought, question, quote or link in her or his News Feed addressing various aspects of grief, often focusing on grieving a death without faith. Participants are also invited to post memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions they would like to share, on which other members can comment. In addition, the page serves as a central location on the web where members can link to writing about grief and loss that is coming from an non-religious perspective. Bloggers are strongly encouraged to post links to blog entries on this topic on the Grief Beyond Belief wall.

Grief Beyond Belief’s founder, Rebecca Hensler, discovered the need for such a group when seeking support for her own grief after the death of her three-month-old son. “I quickly found a network of parents who were also grieving the deaths of their children at The Compassionate Friends (a 42-year-old parental grief support group). But I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept. It wasn’t until an atheist member reached out to me in friendship that I understood what I had been missing.” Hensler soon discovered that she was not the only non-believer who felt a need for safe space to grieve without faith or belief in an afterlife. “I have been particularly moved by the experiences of non-believers who are attempting to heal from loss while surrounded by religious people pressuring them to join or rejoin their religions; at its worst that kind of so-called ‘help’ can verge on abuse.”

The need for faith-free space to share grief and healing has been addressed frequently on atheist blogs, such as Friendly Atheist. (Hemant Mehta. “Are There Resources for Atheist Widows?” *Friendly Atheist*, June 2, 2011.) While a Facebook page may only meet a small portion of that need, Grief Beyond Belief serves to open the door to grieving non-believers seeking community and compassion.

Weekend Coffee: March 28
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Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God's Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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