Without an Afterlife, How Do You Deal with Grief?

xmasWhen my children were smaller we lived too far away from their grandparents to just pop over on Christmas morning to exchange presents, so we would typically cram ourselves together with all the cousins and aunts and uncles into the grandparents’ place for the whole week of Christmas.  That way, when the kids woke up at the crack of dawn (and not before, do you understand?), all the presents and stockings and puffy-eyed grown-ups with cameras would be right there, waiting for them.  It was equal parts stressful and fun, as Christmas traditions usually are.  But there was one major downside to this tradition for my family:  One set of cousins always got much bigger presents.

Talk about a letdown!  My poor children would wake up and rush into the living room to see what they got, but before their eyes could even find their own presents, they’d see some huge driving toy or dollhouse or indoor playground that took their overly-zealous parents hours to assemble sitting right there in front of the fireplace, taunting our puny little presents.  Inevitably our kids would see the gargantuan gifts and get excited, ever so briefly thinking those were theirs.  But then it would occur to them that they’re looking at the wrong side of the fireplace.  Their presents are over there, taking up far less space and virtually hidden, dwarfed by the sparkling, sound-making childhood-dreams-come-true towering over them.  That moment always put a knot in my stomach because the presents my girls got were usually exactly what they wanted, but their juxtaposition beside the Megatoys from Wonderland always made them look a little sad and disappointing.  To my girls’ credit, they usually adjusted to reality pretty quickly, and we always worked hard to teach them to be happy with what they got.

The kicker, though, was that I don’t think the other kids’ parents could responsibly afford their presents at the time.  I’m pretty sure they actually made less money than we did.  Their presents were likely put on credit cards, or else they were purchased before other things so that—you know how it goes—when the time came to pay for more essential things, those things would go on credit cards because there wasn’t anything left to cover it.  In all fairness, I’m one to talk.  I foolishly whipped out those evil pieces of plastic myself way too many times and I’m still paying for that mistake a full decade later (Side note:  I don’t believe in the devil, but I do believe he invented credit cards).  But Christmas presents weren’t the kind of things into which either I or their mother wanted to focus so much of our precious resources.  That just wasn’t our style.  And we were mostly fine with that, except during those few disappointed moments on Christmas morning.  What would have been perfectly satisfying gifts invariably looked a little pathetic beside those magical wonderlands imported into the grandparents’ living room every Christmas.  If those hadn’t have been there, our kids’ presents would have never looked small in the least.

That’s how I feel whenever someone asks me how atheists deal with grief.  The things we think and the things we say when confronted with painful loss, illness, grief, and death are perfectly appropriate and personally satisfying (well, as much as the grieving process can be).  The main reason people keep raising this issue* is because the kids next to us got bigger toys, so to speak.  Or more accurately, they got pictures of bigger toys, along with promises that soon those toys would be theirs.  When it comes to death and the afterlife and all the promised rewards, the anticipation itself is meant to do the trick even though the things promised never actually come.  You first have to die yourself to get these toys, and unfortunately at that point it’s too late to discover they aren’t really there.  The afterlife is something we made up to make death seem less scary.

How Do Atheists Deal with Grief?

We deal with loss the same way everyone else does.  We mourn.  We cry.  We turn to friends and family for comfort and companionship.  We look for reasons to laugh.  We celebrate the precious memories we accumulated and savor the lingering effect the one we lost had on all of us.  We watch movies.  We write.  We exercise.  We share a drink with friends.  We cry some more.  And we let the passing of our loved one remind us that life is precious because it is short.  If it went on forever it would be far less precious.  We of all people realize that most.  So we savor it.  We milk this one life for all it’s worth.  We gather our rosebuds while we may.  We live as hard as we can, and that’s how we honor the people who are no longer with us.  Their contribution to our lives helps make us who we are, so the best way to pay tribute to them is to live each moment to the fullest.  That’s what everyone does.  That’s how everyone deals with grief and loss, whether they realize it or not.


I see nothing missing in this equation.  I am as satisfied as a person can be with this way of seeing the world.  But some are not so satisfied.  Some want more.  They want something after death.  They wanna do it again.  They want a bigger life.  They want cooler toys.  They want to grow wings and they want their skin to sparkle and they want to be filled with ecstasy, day and night, walking bejeweled roads and living in mansions in the clouds.  They want all their favorite people to suddenly be alive again, healthy, young, and reunited in one place like in the final scenes of Titanic, Big Fish, and LOST.  It’s a beautiful wish, truly it is.  And to hear people like the much-revered C.S. Lewis talk, wishing it to be real must somehow indicate that it is real.  Somehow.  When we are in pain we will tell ourselves whatever it takes to make ourselves feel better so that we can function again.

Personally, I feel no calling to talk others out of their own happy thought lives.  That’s not why I’m writing this today, nor is it why I write anything else for that matter.  But if you’re like me you’ve already had them turn to you and tell you that your toys are smaller than theirs, and don’t you feel like there’s something missing in your life?  Don’t you want more than this life?  Aren’t you dissatisfied?  No, I’m not.  And yes, I see that you’re holding a picture of bigger toys and a promise that one day those will be yours.  But I like what I have just fine, thank you very much.  This one life is all that I’m gonna get.  It is enough.  And the people within it, and the joys and the pains and the struggles and the failures and the successes…all of these taken together are exactly what I need.  I do not require a promise of something more.


By the way, Rebecca Hensler at Grief Beyond Belief is collaborating with Greta Christina on a new book about dealing with grief as non-believers in the supernatural.  Adam Lee gives a great shout out here for the work done by Rebecca and for the recent relaunch of their main website.  If you have thoughts or stories you’d like to share with them, whether positive or negative, please contact them and let them know.  I’m looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labors.


* I say this is “the main reason” people keep bringing this up because there is at least one other reason this remains a struggle for many of us.  Christian communities have spent centuries developing social structures which provide emotional and moral support during milestone moments like birth, death, illness, and marriage (although seldom during divorce).  Freethought communities have a long way to go toward developing those structures, and they meet with strong resistance in places like the Deep South.  For example, most of my Bible Belt atheist friends are closeted, which makes organizing extremely difficult.  But that being said, we’re working on it.  In time we will get better at this.

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  • http://gravatar.com/richardzanesmith richardzanesmith

    Thanks for a thoughtful essay. I deal with similar issues as one involved in Native American traditions like ceremony and wakes and funeral rites. There is nothing wrong in starting a speech with “this is the way our ancestors taught us…” Because our ancestral ways do not require belief, one can more readily perform a ceremony that “sends the deceased on their journey.” Personal belief (or non-belief) is not as necessary as uniting in the traditions that bond us and give us a sense of purpose and tribal distinction. I have had children come up to me after we set a plate for the deceased during a wake, and ask “does (this dead person) really come and eat this?” It is a great time to share and say “its OUR way of slowly releasing them, we feed them and then we send them on their way…” and I’ll say “You won’t see that sandwich there all of a sudden get a bite taken out of it! Its as if she is here with us, and as if we want her to experience the process of leaving us in a peaceful way. Its the only way we know how to honor them and to honor our ancestors who taught us.” One can share a bigger picture in a variety of ways.

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  • http://chandlerklebs.wordpress.com chandlerklebs

    This life may not be as great as the afterlife some have imagined, but to me it is enough. I am comfortable here because I am familiar with it. The idea of having to live another life after I die is actually scary, especially if I ended up in heaven with the Christians. I would rather spend an eternity with people who I can relate to like Christopher Hitchens and Seth Andrews.

  • http://sbethcaplin.wordpress.com Beth Caplin

    Even as a Christian I’ve never used heaven as a way to deal with grief. Regardless of what might be waiting on the “other side” the fact remains you’ll still have to find a way to cope without the person you lost in the life you have now. Good post.

  • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie


  • http://sbethcaplin.wordpress.com Beth Caplin

    It’s a little difficult to wrap your mind around coming from a religion that doesn’t give much thought to what happens after death (Judaism). I think Jesus is worth knowing, but the doctrines that come with him are things I’m still trying to understand.

  • ctcss


    The traditional view of heaven has never figured in my responses to people’s passing, either. In what I was taught, there is no afterlife per se, people simply continue on working out their own salvation (wherever they find themselves) until all of mortality is put off. But that same process can also go on here, as well. So even though I may not be able to experience those who have passed away (nor they, me) I realize that we are all still just working at chipping away (figuratively speaking) that which has nothing to do with God or God’s kingdom. The whole point being to awake to who and what we are as the image and likeness of God.

    Which, as Jesus pointed out, is available to us right now (the kingdom of heaven), if we are willing to seek it wholeheartedly.

    So death, as least I was taught about it, is not so much the issue as is the kind of thinking that accepts death (focuses on its inevitability and power), rather than seeking to put off that false notion of power and ascribe all power to God.

  • Quinsha

    I look at death this way. Once I am dead, either there is nothing and I won’t notice; or there is life after death and I will be too busy to care about being dead. What hurts is when your friends or family die and you miss them here and now.

  • Harold

    A good book on suffering and how to deal with it is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. Viktor Frankl gives a good secular explanation for suffering. Dr. Frankl’s book is a very good book. If you have not read it, you should.

  • http://gravatar.com/mikespeir mikespeir

    As a Christian, I could never have believed the day would come when I’d happily resign myself to the reality that when I’m dead I’m gone. Honestly, though, while I enjoy living and I don’t look forward to the process of dying (it’s often painful), I genuinely don’t dread the thought of nonexistence anymore.

  • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

    It didn’t hurt to not exist before we were born, did it? I figure it’ll be the same way after we die, except that now we will have left our mark on the world in whatever small way we could.

  • mikespeir

    I wish I could recall that quote by Jennifer Michael Hecht; but if I recall, a fair paraphrase would be, “I don’t feel dead now and I won’t then either.”

  • MIchael E

    I think Mark Twain had a point of view that he was dead for millions of years before he became he became alive and so he will just go back to that same state of non-being when he’s dead. If we were truly immortal, we wouldn’t have had to wait for a couple of years after our parents had sex for us to become alive. The reality is that when the projector of life turns off, the movie ends as well.

  • http://physeter42.wordpress.com The_Physeter

    Thanks for sharing. Some friends of mine recently suffered a very hard loss. I was sitting there in the funeral as the priest talked about how they would see the deceased again, how he went up to god, and I just pondered how powerful that message is. Are atheists always doomed to be relegated to the fringes because the lie is more beautiful than the truth? I don’t think so, but it sure makes progress slow.

  • Joyce Rutter

    Great topic! What I have struggled with in recent years is not how to deal with no afterlife for myself, but how to offer any kind of meaningful encouragment to friends or family members who have lost a loved one when the friend is totally committed to the belief in a wonderful afterlife in the presence of god for all eternity.

    On a forum that I belong to, a friend posted a few days ago how she is coping with the death of her husband of 45 years. It is a heartfelt, tearjerker post with every few sentences interlaced with how she knows she could not survive this loss at all if she didn’t have the comfort of God’s promises and the knowledge that she will be reunited with her husband one day. Many others then posted and reinforced this belief with her.

    When I attended the memorial service for her husband, of course many friends and family members were also expressing these same thoughts to her in person. I felt very inadequate next to these people. I could not say anything about God’s love for her and his promises. I could comment about her husband’s life which was very well-lived, and good memories, but such words just seemed to fall way short of the prevailing sentiments that were being expressed in the room and particularly, what I knew she wanted to hear.

    How do other unbelievers handle situations like this? I would love to hear suggestions, as I know I am likely to be in this type of situation again.

  • http://softmoth.wordpress.com Tim Smith

    Joyce, good question. I focus on the person who is grieving, my care for them, and the known facts of a supporting and generous family/community who will be with them while they mourn. I acknowledge the love they have for their lost one, and the depth of that relationship. I honor the pain and confusion, and let them know I accept them no matter what.

    It may not seem as effective as the prayers and promises of believers, but I think deep down it is more honest and therefore has a power to comfort beyond the faith-based assertions.

  • Joyce Rutter

    Tim, good thoughts. Thank you.

  • http://bananafaced.wordpress.com bananafaced

    I hope that dying and being dead is like when you go in for a surgical procedure and they inject the surgery anesthesia into your IV, fade to black.

  • http://empiricalmeta.blogspot.com/ Sam Daniels

    The problem for me is that neither side in this debate knows for sure. Yet both speak of their “truth”. Life teaches nothing if not that personal experience is the greatest teacher, and no one living has ever been truly dead and then “come back” to enlighten the rest of us. So we cannot say for certain one way or the other.

    “And to hear people like the much-revered C.S. Lewis talk, wishing it to be real must somehow indicate that it is real.”

    Most people fear their own death on some level. Many such as myself were brain-washed as children, and so the seeds of doubt (Pascal’s Wager) were sewn and sprouted whether we like it now or not. Lewis thought about this a LOT, and he was smarter than I for sure. I think he was right about this: why people believe matters more than what they believe. It says more about us as a species than any specific belief set or worldview. It tells us something about ourselves. We just have yet to figure out what, apart from the superstition.

  • http://gravatar.com/richardzanesmith richardzanesmiths

    well said Sam Daniels,

    Nobody corrects us when we talk about a “sunrise” (thought here is nothing of the sort) and we all talk to our pets. Some of us speak to our garden plants and don’t think we’re insane. Perhaps at times can make too much out of “belief” and “non-belief” and forget that there is much poetry, mystery and color in life. But course someone could logically explain why color does not actually exist… I find its best to leave my conclusions with soft edges.

  • STSuzy

    Do I want more than this life? Heck, yeah! I would love to have several decades with the youth of my 20’s coupled with the wisdom of my 40’s. I would love to live long enough to see my grandchildren how up and have their own kids. I’m not dissatisfied with my life, I only wish it were longer.

    For that matter, I think it sounds awesome to have a glorified body to explore the universe, experiencing no pain and nothing but happiness along the way. But wishing for all this does not make it real.

    The (most likely) false promises that religion offers those who grieve sound wonderful, indeed. If I found that lies brought me comfort, I’d probably buy in, too.

  • Julie Cable

    I lost my only child, a son, 3-1/2 years ago in a horrible accident that also killed his best friend. The grief was unbearable but I think that would be the case regardless of religious belief. I’m an atheist/agnostic and became even more so after the tragedy. Immediately afterward, I had an overwhelming sense of the complete falsehood of religion and the mythological stories we’re told through religion; it was as if a veil had been lifted and my eyes saw all the delusions we’re told by “authorities” and even tell ourselves.

    What helped me? Early on, I read an article in Scientific American that showed that over 95% of people who lose their children come back to a normal psychological stasis within 1-2 years. That was something I grasped onto as I was rocked emotionally every minute of every day in the beginning. My life isn’t the same in that I’m no longer as patient with organized religion’s proselytizing and indoctrination of children (especially) and other intrusive attempts to control people. On the other hand, I believe in live and let live because today is all we have. Also, psychological counselling and being in communication with others who have experienced a similar loss helped me transition into my new life. I’m lonely w/out my son but death is part of life that must be accepted before we can be truly free.

  • el_slapper

    Side-comment on a side-subject : Banking products are even worse than you think. I speak after working 14 years in the domain(and switching to medical in September). They are designed – and sold – to maximize the amount of money made upon your back. The more you see your banker, the more of your wool will be fleeced. The only thing you need is a payment device(like a debit card).

    You might need a credit for buying a house, or a car(only if you need it for your job), or you might need something safe to storage your savings. That’s all that might be needed. Never go for easy credits, or for high-yield investment(unless it’s your job, as risk is maximum there). “why don’t you buy that cool thing? You just need to take a credit” is the worse advice you may here, concerning your money. I heard it often, though. Still does. Always makes me sad.

    Nice post, BTW. Like always.

  • http://gravatar.com/richardzanesmith richardzanesmith

    el slapper sounds like el spammer….(sigh) always someone selling something

  • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com Captain Cassidy

    I truly wish that I could believe that my mother’s still alive somewhere and finally happy after a life of toil, heartbreak, and hardship. I really wish I could buy into that. She certainly deserved it. But I can’t allow myself that comfort if I don’t know for sure it’s a valid comfort. The idea of comforting myself with a hollow lie bothers me more than the discomfort of thinking I’ll never see her again. If I do, that’s great, that’s fine, I’ll be very happy and surprised and that’s terrific. But if I don’t, then I know I’m addressing her loss in the best way I can now, without relying on false hopes and hollow comforts. And let’s face it… if she’s gone forever, then I will be as well, so it’s not like I’ll end up in an afterlife and grieve her absence. Whatever’s happened to her, will happen to me too. That’s pretty comforting in and of itself.

    It was such a surprise to me to learn that other religions don’t really stress out over the afterlife much. Judaism, as someone’s mentioned, yes, but also paganism and others. It was so shocking to think about having a religious outlook but one that didn’t focus at all over death or whatever’s past it. Like the idea of eating dessert with no sugar in it–what do you mean, a religion where everybody’s not totally panicking about Heaven and Hell? I think this obsession with the afterlife is an outgrowth of Western narcissism, this feeling that the party can’t possibly end just because we’ve left the building. It’s so childish-seeming to me now. It’s a manufactured need that Christianity invented, and then by wild coincidence had a product that’d address that need. If Christianity hadn’t ever ginned up this fear, then I don’t know if people would have come up with fearing it on their own.

  • http://write3chairs.wordpress.com write3chairs

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I just blogged about my uncle’s death, which was traumatizing not only to him but to me as well. Although I didn’t mention religious belief at all, I do have a memorial pamphlet or leaflet (what do you call those) my mother sent as a keepsake. I did not attend the funeral. My “good-bye” took place on a jetty off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. As I stood there noticing the power of the waves and the realizing I’m alive and can experience life, that seemed to be quite enough.

  • http://write3chairs.wordpress.com write3chairs

    Ergh… hit Post too soon. Edit last sentence to be grammatically correct, please. Also, I intended to say the leaflet is sprinkled with Bible quotes and hymns were sung, I don’t remember my uncle as a particularly religious man. Just saying.