I’ve been writing about atheism for some years now, and one of my great joys has been watching the secular community grow and thrive. Once, our main pastimes were debating philosophy on the internet and filing church-state lawsuits. Now we have political lobbying arms, atheist parenting guides, secular student clubs and summer camps, humanist communities and celebrants, and more. We’re getting closer and closer to the ideal of a true secular community whose members offer tangible support to each other at every major stage of life. But there’s one area where I think secular philosophy still hasn’t made its mark.
Thanks to medical science, we’re living longer and staying healthier than past generations could ever have imagined, and we can rescue people from injury and disease that would surely have been fatal one hundred or even fifty years ago. But at the same time, we’ve also come to a clearer recognition of the limits of our powers. The aggressive, paternalistic medical intervention that aimed to keep a person alive at all costs is largely a thing of the past, and good riddance. Instead, we’ve gotten better at dying: more hospice and compassionate care, more respect for living wills and the right to refuse treatment, and more support of assisted dying for the terminally ill.
These are all advances to be welcomed. Nevertheless, I think we atheists still cede too much ground to religion when it comes to death, especially in the area of comfort and support for the grieving. That’s probably the last redoubt that the churches have: too many people believe that religion has some advantage, some special hope or consolation to offer, when it comes to helping people deal with loss and grief. I believe that atheists can cope with death, but there’s a need for more community and philosophical resources for those of us living under that shadow.
That’s why we should welcome the brand-new relaunch of Grief Beyond Belief, an online community for nonbelievers who’ve experienced grief and loss. In this secular safe space, atheists and freethinkers can mourn, support each other and heal without thoughtless afterlife platitudes, exploitative proselytizing, and other unwanted intrusions of religion. GBB was founded in 2011 as a private Facebook group, but its evolution into an independent site will make it possible to offer more services and resources to its members. Here’s what the people behind the site have to say:
Founded by school counselor Rebecca Hensler following the death of her son, Grief Beyond Belief has been operating on Facebook for three years, providing grieving atheists, Humanists and other Freethinkers with spaces in which to share compassion and advice without the uncomfortable intrusions of prayer and proselytizing. From the page’s much-welcomed launch on Facebook in June 2011, to its surprising growth following glowing coverage in USA Today in Spring of 2012, to its expansion to a confidential Facebook support group the following fall, the community has continued to serve the growing secular population’s need for grief-support appropriate for those who do not believe in a higher power or an afterlife.
“When our Facebook Page reached ten thousand “likes” and our support group swelled to over a thousand members,” explains Hensler, “it became clear that it was time to expand to an independent website where we could provide additional resources for grieving nonbelievers.”The website offers a number of features previously unavailable through Grief Beyond Belief’s Facebook-based presence, including:
- The world’s largest collection of purely secular grief-related writing, videos, and podcasts, presented in a library of over 250 links sortable by topic or medium.
- A directory of grief resources, including a growing list of secular and Humanist funeral officiants in over 25 US states and 4 countries.
- A blog, which will feature links to newly published writing, news and other media related to secular grief as well as content written specifically for Grief Beyond Belief.
- Interactive forums in which members can share thoughts, feelings and stories, seek and offer comfort and advice, and post tributes to the loved ones for whom they are grieving.
The forum feature also allows subgroups within the network to delve deeper into shared experiences, such as grieving while leaving religion, or losses in common, such as miscarriage or bereavement by suicide.
The evolution of Grief Beyond Belief from a Facebook-based support community to an independent website marks an important step in the progress of the secular support movement, a step that is not going unnoticed by leaders and opinion-makers in the secular world.
“I’m so glad Grief Beyond Belief is expanding into a website,” says Greta Christina, author of the newly released Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. “The service they provide is so important, and now it’ll be much more accessible to a lot more people. The secular grief library and resource guide alone make the site invaluable. And with the website format, it’ll be much easier for grieving non-believers to talk with each other about specific issues they’re dealing with. It’s a big development.”
Sarah Morehead, the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion and American Atheists’ 2013 Atheist of the Year, agrees with Christina about the importance of Grief Beyond Belief’s mission. “People experiencing the heartache and emotional trauma of loss need comfort, community, and acceptance… not conversion attempts.”
Morehead explains how Grief Beyond Belief fits into the larger movement to provide for the emotional needs of the secular community: “Recovering From Religion regularly refers people to Grief Beyond Belief and we see firsthand how much people appreciate a safe, secular, and caring place to deal with the challenging emotions related to the grieving process. Seeing the concept grow from a social media, grassroots effort to a cohesive resource center is truly fantastic, and we are tremendously proud to support and encourage them at every step.”
The website’s launch on June 19, 2014 has been over a year in the planning, as the project has depended on a small group of volunteers to design the site, collect and input links for the library, and gather contact information for the resource directory. All the while, Hensler, her co-administrator, Nita Grigson, and a handful of moderators have continued to provide safe spaces for grieving nonbelievers on Faceboook and plan for the future of secular grief support.
“I know that the next step is to bring secular peer-to-peer grief support into the real world,” says Hensler. “But for now, griefbeyondbelief.org is going to help a whole lot of people who are grieving without faith feel far less alone.”