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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Online resources are nice, but until skeptics have local institutions that offer face to face contact we will remain hobbled as a people.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in religious faith and home-birth woo, rather than medicine, and didn’t go to the hospital until well after it became obvious that they should have.

    One of my kids was born in a hospital, another was born at home. The home birth went a lot smoother. We did a lot of homework beforehand though, and had testing to assess the risk level. It would be nice to have some better birthing options offering a mix of the benefits of home/hospital birth. Some locales are offering better options with birthing centers and the like. Regardless, really sad what happened to this family.

  • ArtyB

    I once had a vivid and lucid dream in which I lost a child that I was supposed to be watching. I was so overcome with grief that I heard myself calling on God to save the child, promising that I would do anything he wanted of me after that. While still in the process of doing this calling on God, I suddenly stopped myself and began to ask myself questions: Why was I calling on God knowing that I was an atheist? Was I, without knowing a subconscious Christian? I couldn’t find any answers to these questions but the one thought that kept occurring to me was that I was calling on God because I felt uprooted and unhinged, that my safe world had been shattered and as such I was grasping, reaching, and looking for something, anything, to keep me anchored and grounded. God, of course, did not resurrect the child, which made me question why I thought he would considering millions of children, with god-fearing parents, die without this God ever rushing to their aid. I knew I wasn’t going to sit at a church and pray but I was stilling looking for something to hold on to. My dream ended with me tying the dead baby to me and then hanging myself because I couldn’t bear the grief. I felt all out of sorts when I woke up from the dream and it ruined my whole day because it depressed me. To this day, I still question how we atheists deal with grief since we don’t have the support system that believers have.
    I believe such nontheistic group is a welcome to those of us who don’t put stock in the “God-does-everything-for-a-reason” crap.

  • karen

    The craziness and anti-medicine sentiments among the home birth and natural birth crowd is huge.

    When I was pregnant 22 years ago, there was a LOT of pressure in the evangelical community to adopt this “science and medicine hamper a beautiful, natural birth” position. It was almost like the most spiritual people trusted god to bring the baby into the world, and those of us with little faith went to hospitals and hired well-qualified doctors.

    I must have been an unconscious skeptic even then, embroiled in the evangelical community, because I thought those people were nuts. And not just nuts but stupid nuts, willing to endanger their children for their ideology.

    The pain this poor father is in is unimaginable, but he gets it right when he says he trusted the “hit” of reassurance he got from the supernatural instead of questioning the wisdom of giving birth at home with a “hands-off” midwife.

    Friends of ours back in the day were involved in the Bradley Method, which is one of those natural birth movements that’s very suspicious of medical “interventions” at birth. They stayed home while premature contractions continued over several days, reassured by their midwife. After the mother realized that the baby had stopped moving for about 24 hours, she finally went to a hospital where the baby was delivered stillborn.

    The umbilical cord had wrapped around her ankle and kinked, cutting off the placenta. It was a horrible tragedy for everyone involved, but I couldn’t help wondering at the time whether it could have been avoided if this couple had established a close relationship with an obstetrician who would have been monitoring the pregnancy closely.

  • http://whatpalebluedot.blogspot.com WhatPaleBlueDot

    Knowing this family personally, please do not allow the comments on this post to become YET ANOTHER garbage debate forum about how homebirth will solve all that is wrong with the world which inevitably will lead to a rehearsing of what this couple must have done wrong that prevented rainbows and sunshine. This is about GRIEF.

    I am myself still working through the grieving process from my father’s death years ago and several subsequent losses. A lot of my blog is about that, including the role that changing beliefs and indeed atheism have in that process. I think the most difficult part is that grief is inevitably a vulnerability in which people attempt to attack you with their ideas of what is best for you. As nonbelievers, this assault takes the form of philosophical digs. I’m really no longer convinced that most people mean well. They simply want to make themselves feel less uncomfortable about the fact that you’ve seen death. “I’ll pray for you” means “I’ll pray I’m protected from death.” “S/He’s in a better place” means “I don’t want to think about the amount of suffering s/he might have experienced and you should stop telling me how sad you are.” Etc. And all of this reminds you that they think you’re a bad person and deserve and are awaiting eternal torment or whatever silly thing their religion happens to assign to nonbelievers. It is that much more uncomforting to be beaten with their probably lack of concern over your loss and with their cold judgment of your worth

  • http://www.ecmama.blogspot.com liz p

    this is the mother in the story you are referencing. you are seriously misquoting my husband and skewing my story for your own anti-religious agenda. i am asking you politely to remove this
    ” By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in religious faith and home-birth woo, rather than medicine, and didn’t go to the hospital until well after it became obvious that they should have. ”

    because it is *grossly* inaccurate. we did not delay transfer because we were praying, and faith (in God) in NO WAY contributed to my daughter’s death. you are insulting me and my daughter by taking my husband’s words and changing them to suit your purposes. Nice way to “support” the grieving…

  • http://www.gabrielpaparella.com Gabriel Paparella

    I disagree with some of what you have said about my words on my daughter Aquila’s death.

    By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in religious faith and home-birth woo

    My own reservations were overcome by the trust that I had in our medical care provider, who as it turns out is unqualified to attend a home birth; all direct-entry lay midwives have insufficient standards and oversight. And as I posted, I also did not regard those reservations as sufficient to reject our midwife’s medical opinion because of certain irrational modes of thinking that I was prone to. Such as a general feeling of trust in nature and birth, for instance. Home-birth woo. Religious faith did not figure into my story, as I had none. My wife was in no position to be making her own medical decisions, but even if she were, her religion would have been quite irrelevant at that time also.

    If you are looking for examples of parents who put their infants in danger because of religious convictions, yes I have heard of this a few times, such as one case of parents in some sort of religious commune who would not transfer to a hospital because the husband forbade it. That can and has happened before, but it was not the case with us. Please correct your post. Thanks.

  • http://www.themamatao.com Mama Tao

    The Family in this story are good friends of mine. They know I am an atheist and I know that they have faith. I can attest that religious faith had very little if anything to do with this death, but more to do with the insane faith that is being passed around in the Natural Birth Community that says birth is not dangerious.

    [I edited this comment to remove a specific accusation of criminal behavior against a named individual. Please don't post legally actionable comments on Daylight Atheism. —Ebonmuse]

  • Tom

    Some people reckon I’m a stoic; I don’t know about that, but even though I mean well and I think I am quite empathetic, I can be rather blunt sometimes. Consequently the following paragraphs may constitute triggers to people currently in a fragile emotional state, although I can’t really warn of anything specific. I should like to think it’s a result of nothing more than an honest desire to make my points as clearly and unambiguously as possible and, consequently, that you can forgive me if this post upsets you.

    WhatPaleBlueDot, I think the problem with religious attempts at condolences (the ones borne of genuine empathy, that is, as opposed to those that really are just another excuse to proselytise) is that they’re trying to do the wrong thing. I’m no expert but grief is, to my mind, a natural process – there are other animals believed to experience it, to some degree – and consequently I cannot help but suspect there are times when it is appropriate in humans, there are times when, simply put, it should happen. But that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant, and our higher cognitive abilities mean we can dwell upon things for much longer (even, in extreme cases, become damagingly obsessed, which is an important exception to the points I’m going to make below); consequently, many people who are grieving need a great deal of help and support to endure it.

    Religious platitudes, like the ones you mention, when you think about them, are not an attempt to provide support during periods of grief but an attempt to stop that grief from existing altogether, even at those times when it is appropriate and natural and probably very psychologically unhealthy not to feel it. (You can sort of see the logic, too – grief is unpleasant, and unpleasantness is generally associated with harm, so the erroneous instinct is to destroy the unpleasantness and hence prevent harm) Many of them, like the “better place” thing, seem essentially to be an attempt to halt grief by actually denying its validity; others, such as “I’ll pray for you,” I cannot really construe to mean anything, when taken at face value, other than requesting that god actually intervene directly in someone elses thought processes to stop them grieving; brainwashing, strictly speaking.

    Of course, lots of people seem to frequently use phrases like “I’ll pray for you” reflexively and entirely unthinkingly; they aren’t really expressing the rather disturbing statement contained in those words, but regurgitating a general-purpose phrase that sounds positive to them – it could be in understandable desperation upon being unable to think of anything rational to say to help those grieving, it could be mere ingrained habit, or it could rather more vaguely just mean “I’ll be thinking about you” – and this last is actually a very good thing, if very poorly expressed.

    Really, that’s all I think one can say to someone experiencing grief – “I understand.” Grief is a very personal thing; consequently it tends to make one feel strongly isolated. Just to know that others know, to some degree, what you are feeling can, I believe, be an enormous help in dealing with this. It doesn’t, as I have said, make the grief any less pronounced, or go away any quicker – and neither should it. It just, hopefully, makes the person facing it a little more able to endure it.

  • RiddleOfSteel

    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 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.

    I am in agreement, because without a robust and accessible non-theistic avenue of grief support, for some people religion tends to fill the void. I notice even when attending funerals for persons who in life seemed not much into religious belief, religion often tends to consume much of the ceremonies. Perhaps if people had more avenues to non-religious support in grieving, the place of religion would diminish.

    I also want to suggest what a powerful hook religion can have through death. The living are often devastated at the loss, struggling to make sense and deal with the grief. At this vulnerable time, the believers show up and propose that the dead person is not really gone, but is alive and in a wonderful place, and will eventually be re-united with the love ones. This is a very powerful influence to continue believing long after the event. And for those who accept this life after death proposal, consider what the atheist is asking. To accept the atheist viewpoint, the believer is being asked in a way, to re-live the death a second time, a second loss if you will, accepting there is to be no reunion, and in fact the loved one is really gone forever.

    I always try to keep that in mind when discussing religion with believers, namely the entirety of what I may be asking of a believer, when I argue for the atheist position. I recall a few months ago having a discussion with two Jehovah Witnesses who showed up at my house. (I often have long conversations with the various missionaries, and I would strongly encourage any atheists in similar situation to reach out to them in fellowship.) Late in the discussion, one of the missionaries shared that her son had died of gang violence, and mentioned how much the church had helped her with the loss, and how she longed to see her son again. I could hear the sadness in her voice. Imagine if I had been acting the smart aleck, letting the missionaries know how foolish were their beliefs through a slick repertoire of sarcasm and ridicule. How nice a situation that would have been. (One of the reasons I strongly advocate for restraint from sarcasm and ridicule when at all possible.)

    In the end, I hopefully left these missionaries with some items to think about (including one item related to Deuteronomy that the younger missionary could not address, but promised to research and return with an answer), and also hopefully they will recall meeting an atheist who did not mesh with some of the negative things they may have been told. But I did not have a good avenue to address this woman’s grief for her son, not at least to counter what the religion was offering, and that is something I have often thought about afterwards. Were there a well known and accessible grief support system for this woman, perhaps she would have turned to it, or perhaps not. But it would be nice for her and others to have more of that option as Ebonmuse and Greta Christina are suggesting.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    For liz p and Gabriel (#6 and #7):

    The part of this post that you took issue with was based on the following passages from your site:

    I feel anger now, and hatred, mostly at myself. Holding my wife’s hand as she had contractions that were too strong, as she had way too much bleeding, not saying, “fuck this we are going to the hospital”. Trusting birth, trusting my midwife who in turn was trained to trust birth. Not remembering my own family’s experience with a critical eye.

    …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. I did that during my wife’s labor. Here’s a cool rag honey, it will all work out. I should have been defending her and our daughter. My family doesn’t need me to think happy thoughts, they need me to protect them.

    I believed that what I wrote was an accurate summary of the way you described your own experiences. I’m surprised to find that you disagree. Let me e-mail you and let’s talk about what exactly I wrote that you object to.

  • http://www.themamatao.com Mama Tao

    I see you have edited my comment. Faith Beltz was found guilty of Failure to Transfer during an emergency that resulted in the death of an infant. It’s a matter of public record and I’d like my comment restored please.

  • anna

    The kindle book Godless Grief, by Cathe Jones, is of interest to grieving atheists. Check it out.

  • LovleAnjel

    I understand why this example was chosen for this post. It was done very poorly and without looking much further into the facts of the case. It ends up undermining the point.

    Let’s all try to keep in mind that atheism and skepticism are not the same thing. One is an religious/ideological stance, the other is a process or method of separating fact from crap.

    Gabe clearly states he is an atheist (the “supernatural aegis” he refers to is the natural fallacy, the belief that anything natural is great and perfect and will never harm you), and it is very clear from all accounts that Liz’s faith had little to do with the choice to homebirth or her daughter’s death.

    It was the case of someone claiming to be a qualified medical provider, with no way for their victims to determine their qualifications, and that provider’s ignorance leading to the death of an infant.

    It’s about quack medicine, not faith healing.

  • monkeymind

    Gabriel, I’m sorry you’re uncomfortable with the way Ebonmuse summarized your post, but I’m glad he linked to it. You are a wonderful writer.

    I think grief can be a bridge across the religious/non-religious divide because even the most devout believer needs human hands to hold and human ears to listen in the hour of grief. Maybe what non-believers have to offer is precisely nothing – no sermons to preach, no cliched pat answers to unanswerable questions, no comforting spiritual lessons to be wrung out of another’s personal tragedy, no expectations of what the grieving person should do or should feel. Human connection, yet a quiet space to let grief take its course.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    FYI, I’ve been in touch with Gabe. The part of my post that he objected to was a reference to them relying on religious faith, which he says isn’t true – I misinterpreted the meaning of what he said about a “supernatural aegis of protection”. I apologize to both of them for any offense that I caused. I’ve changed the post slightly to use a wording that he thought was more accurate.

  • JonathanL

    Death will happen regardless of belief. Religious people find comfort in praying and believing in the immortality of the soul and hoping they will go to heaven. Personally as an Atheist I feel we are but raindrops fallng back into the infinite sea of existence. Do flowers live on or reincarnate? No. They just live and die in the field and we will do the same. When we die, what we think of as our individuality (more or less an illusion that helps to motivate us to survive), will be erased. All our brain cells cease and memories are as non-existent as the day we started. It was at first a little disconcerting to find out we are not immortal as individuals, but then who knows…. we didn’t exist to begin with, did we? I am sure it won’t be much different for me than it was before I was born. One thing, at least according to what I understand, it won’t matter one way or the other. I will be as non existent as the god I don’t believe in, living on in other peoples’ minds only.