Sunday Morning Survey – ‘How Do Atheists Deal With Death?’

“For something so precious and pure, there has to be an exorbitant price. That price is the hole in my heart, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” – George Hrab, ‘The Most Dog’, Non-Coloring Book.

Please send in your commiserations to the Skepticality podcast on the passing of their little mascot and much loved friend, Remy the pugdog.


I was going to write today’s Sunday Survey on something completely different. Mostly because it’s kind of irked me for a while that some friends have been contributors to a particular field for a long time, and I always think they never get enough acknowledgement for their hard work, and so on and so forth.

I was trying to find a ‘nice’ way of putting it, but I know that those kinds of things just end up with people taking it the wrong way… and I even ended up having a group of people target me for bullying the last time I wrote about this kind of subject… and it’s just the kind of thing you need emotional energy to deal with, whenever you think about standing up for yourself. Oh, and not forgetting the slim hope that your initial message actually made any difference to the situation, or just made things worse. Emotional energy that I really don’t have in reserve at the moment, since I’ve kind of been an immune-system shambles recently.

Which kind of got me thinking about resilience. It’s a topic that I did a little research into, about three years ago for someone else’s study into disengagement and academic achievement; what resources do we draw upon that enable us to persevere in trying times.

Then in the space of two hours, I learned of the death of two much-loved pets of two separate groups of friends online – and found myself in tears, reading their owners’ announcements. Which, if you think about it, is an indication that I’m really not up to writing anything on this blog that’s going to create unwanted conflict.

But it did get me thinking about how I’ve lost pets in the past and how I’m likely (looking at the age of my pets and the recent habit of one of them becoming less and less active over the past year) to have to draw upon a number of resources to deal with future loss. Resources that will not include religious belief.

Today’s Sunday Morning Survey. How do atheists deal with death in the face of well-meaning (and sometimes, admittedly, not very sensitive) comments and discussions? 

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • geocatherder

    Death of someone you love, human or animal, is painful. I’ve lost pets, the latest being in January of this year when my wonderful cat of 19 years died of old age. That was nothing, of course, compared to losing my mother in 2003 and my father in 2006.

    In times of stress, I still talk to Mama and Daddy. I’m an atheist, so I know they’re really, truly not there, but it helps anyhow.

    As far as insensitive or goddy comments go, I just thank the commenter — they meant well — and firmly change the subject. Ranting “no, I’m not going to be reunited with them in heaven, THERE IS NO HEAVEN” doesn’t accomplish anything. When all else fails, I say, “you know, grief is really personal, and I’d rather not talk about it. I’m coping.” That usually shuts idiots up.

    I’ve learned that I have to grieve in my own way, that only time will resolve grief, and that I have no choice but to endure the pain along with enjoying the good memories. It’s important to enjoy the good memories, and to share them with people you trust: people who won’t go all goddy on you.

  • Dragoness


    what an intriguing Q.

    when my ex husband died of non hodgkins lymphoma, our 17 yo daughter went through extraordinary grief.

    she traveled with her father’s body to MA to bury him where his family is from.
    she was surrounded by RCs & the platitudes were piled on deep & at one point she (an atheist) called me on the phone & said… “he is in a better place, now mom”.

    i said nothing & merely listened.

    i knew she had to do the grief stages & if saying platitudes was a way for her to cope, then i gave her that room.

    i know most grieving people only want to be heard with an unprejudiced ear.
    i do try to be that “hearing” ear as long as i am compassionate, i can listen well.

    while i was still a born again believer, i suffered horribly from a spontaneous abortion.
    the platitudes were deeeeep, regardless of what i said, they did not hear me & went on piling them up til i started asking, “are you telling me god likes dead babies?”

    imnsHdo, the best thing you can do for those grieving is… listen & be that loving caring hearer, never judging what they say & allowing it to remain within the context of being a compassionate friend.

    they will remember that kindness more than they will remember the platitudes.

    i have never asked my daughter about what she said over the phone & it is not my place to do so.


  • Andrew

    When it comes to the death of I loved ones I usually try to remove the emotions and ground myself in reality, trying to get some sense of what has happened by focusing on all the positives of the person, the good memories, knowing full well that I can’t bring them back. When my father passed away, I don’t recall any words that people expressed to me (it was all a blur!), but whenever I think back I always remember above anything else a couple of people that attended the service, people who my father and I know, but werent close family or friends, and just seeing them has stuck in my mind and leaves me feeling comfortable in my world knowing that other people cared enough by making the effort to be there.I think its good to show emotion though,(better out than in I say)so I wouldnt recommend suppressing how your feel, but I am a male of the species and we tend to do a bit of this. So how do atheists deal with all these ‘special’ comments, I tend to let them have their say (as they seem to do often) like “he’s in a better place”, I’d like to reply “No he’s not he’s dead, we want him back home” but I don’t, I think people say these things as a way of dealing with their own grief, they sense how you may be feeling and relate it back to grief in their life, and possibly it’s helping them more than it is you, but that’s ok as we can’t control what others are going to say so I move on and change the subject.In the end you get to know the genuine people in your life and then there’s the others, perhaps tolerance is the answer.

  • martha

    At present by spending way too much time reading these blogs and occasionally commenting about my father on them. It’s funny, because I just posted this at Greta Christina’s before coming here:

    “Oh, this guy (the guy trying compare GC’s view of love to the previous pope) sounds like my Dad. One Christmas he gave every one of his grown up children a book of JPII’s philosophy and most of them were left in a neat little stack by the door. Is it bizarre to mourn your religious father by commenting about him on atheist bog sites?”

    I don’t even know why I do it. Probably I’m trying not to feel guilty that I couldn’t satisfy his need for me to believe in god.

  • Lou Doench

    When my Dad died, he was hit by an out of control car whilst walking to pick up the Sunday paper, I was surrounded by well meaning Catholics and Lutherans and their peculiar ideas about the afterlife. As the bereaved, and being a lil in shock at the time, I just rolled with it. Getting into a confrontation at my Dads funeral wasn’t going to help anybody. When my cousin talked about how he oped that our two dads were hanging out in heaven, I smiled and quite sincerely at the time told him “thanks, that is a nice thought”. Because it was… The thought of my Dad and Uncle Al sharing a beer somewhere, rather than being gone forever, was a little comforting in that instance. Heck, before we put him in the ground I slipped a Loonie ( a Canadian 2 dollar coin) into his palm, just in case he wanted to buy a beer when he inevitably visited Canadian heaven. The difference between my reaction as someone under a great deal of stress and grief at the time, and the believer is that ten years later I don’t insist on that stress reaction being an accurate reflection of reality.

  • Kylie Sturgess

    The last time I dealt with death was during a very long, drawn out and painful time that went for nearly two to three years and included other ramifications. I think my predominant feeling was mostly anger and resentment, probably because I wanted to distance myself from the situation in some ways and not deal with grief. That’s something that makes me more understanding of how people could be insulted by religious references during those times. Certainly I would, if I was faced with some of the comments that others have received, have reacted inappropriately.

    While in no way was the ending a release, I think that my perspective on what constitutes a life has changed.

  • martha


    I remember the first couple of deaths that hit me really hard and were somehow symbolic to me of how deeply life can suck, how unfair everything can be. That made me intermittently very unhappy for a long time. I have wondered whether I am less upset this time around because I already went through all that or because now, being an atheist, I don’t expect life to be anything other than what it is, or because my father’s death came at a time when it really was the best available outcome for him.

  • Randomfactor

    Lost my wife a few years back and I was somewhat comforted by the fact that she was really, truly gone and not experiencing the hardship her life had come to be characterized by, and that she wasn’t missing out on things by not being here. She just…wasn’t.

    I came to the conclusion that the Christians have it almost right, but no cigar. The comfort is not that when we die, we’ll be with our loved ones–it’s that when we die, we’ll no longer be without them.

    • brianengler

      The comfort is not that when we die, we’ll be with our loved ones–it’s that when we die, we’ll no longer be without them.

      I’ve never heard our outlook so nicely expressed. It’s one I’ll remember. Thanks!

    • dougpaice

      I have to agree with brianengler that was beautifully put

      The comfort is not that when we die, we’ll be with our loved ones–it’s that when we die, we’ll no longer be without them.

      That’s a keeper

  • Michael Fisher

    Good post ~ thanks Kylie for the trouble you go to. I have found over many years that theists don’t handle grief any better ~ they still have all the questions & doubts in their minds ~ their beliefs failed to inoculate them in the end.

    My instinctive approach to loss & grief is to turn inwards, but I know that’s bad for me. So I keep busy & try to help friends. Watch kittens play Have a pint with mates. Don’t bleed all over the floor. Get on with it. That’s me anyway.

  • magistramarla

    When my mother-in-law passed, one brother-in-law loudly proclaimed during the funeral – “I know she’s in heaven – she found Jesus before she died”.
    My husband and I were put out by this, but we kept our mouths shut – it was his way of coping. We both knew that she was almost as much of a skeptic as the two of us, and probably would have been quite upset at her son for what he blurted out.
    That got me to thinking about my own funeral. I haven’t done it yet, but I intend to write a letter with my wishes to be opened upon my death. My husband and I have talked about it, and we’ve shared our wishes with our children.
    I want no religious funeral at all – period. I would rather that they hold a wake at whatever happens to be our favorite hang-out at the time or theirs. I want to donate what is useful to science (I have a couple of rare disorders, so science wants my brain, and they can have it!). My hubby is healthy, so he wants to donate what is useful. We both want to be cremated, and we’ve asked the kids to combine our ashes in one urn and to take a vacation to somewhere that was meaningful to us in our lives to scatter the ashes. Then, whenever the kids vacation in that spot and remember us, it will be honoring our memories.
    Ah, morbid thoughts for a lovely Sunday morning, but it is good to get them out there.

  • Kothos

    Accept it, frankly.

    When my dad died I was well-and-truly an atheist by then, having shaken the Catholic shackles I was raised with.

    I refused to believe he’d gone to heaven, he was in a better place, he was better off dead or that he was suddenly a saint (he was a good man, but he could also be an ars3hole at times).

    The fact of the matter was, he died, and it sucked. I was 22 and my brother was 18. He needed a fair bit of consoling.

    So I had these words for him:
    - he had 18 years with a decent dad; better than some people
    - we’re all going to die, he wasn’t singled out and it’s not unfair
    - since life is short, it’s important we make the most of it
    - dad made the most of his, and passed the opportunity down to us
    - best thing for us, and best for our dad, would be to not squander this gift

    We went through a depressed, grieving period, but eventually, we have managed to make the most of our lives, which hopefully aren’t over yet!

    Personally, I don’t understand why people use religion as a crutch in these circumstances. If I thought I was going to a “better place” I wouldn’t care if I lived or died, or even how. Maybe that’s why so many of the religous are fanatically violent?

  • Debra Womack

    We jut lost my mother-in-law last week. Hubby and I are atheists, the rest of the family is not.

    We attended and participated in the religious services and burial – mostly because it is what she would have expected us to do. Well, and because Dad wanted us to as well.

    After the services, driving back to the church for “repast”, Dad told his son (my hubby), “I know it’s not your thing, but thank you for not saying anything about the ceremony and such.”

    Hubby replied, “I have way more respect for other people’s beliefs than most of them have for my lack of belief.”

    We accepted the platitudes and the “god bless you’s” and moved on.

    Sorry for the babbling… it’s been a long week.

  • Tash

    Thank-you! What an intriguing topic. I’ve been very lucky in my life so far not to have experienced the death of a close relative or friend (not including my cat Freddie2K who I sat with and cried over for a entire day before taking her to the vet “for the last time”). In recent days however a close friend has suffered a late term miscarriage and my grief for her and her partner has taken me by surprise. It is possibly the saddest I can remember feeling. At no stage though have I thought it has any higher meaning. What I do feel is a great sadness that the little baby didn’t get to meet two of the most wonderful people I know. When I think of dying myself (and I’ve had a very “minor” close call recetly) I think of the phrase “we are all made of stars.” That is, that molecularly everything we are made of was already here billions of years ago and will be here still in a billion more. The science nerd in me finds that one of the most comforting and exciting thoughts about death.

  • Aliasalpha

    Well for me I plan to keel over, shut down my brain and apply myself to perfecting the art of decomposition.

    For other people’s deaths it becomes somewhat more complicated. My most recent was my sister, taken down by uterine cancer that ended up spreading through her body till it took down her liver. I watched my strong and vital sister fade away to a blind shell who barely responded to stimuli. Her last meal was chips from the chip shop around the corner since they were always her favourite and to this day even the smell of them makes me fight the memory of mum feeding her tiny finger fulls as if she were a baby on her first solids.

    It was watching that which made me decide that on the off chance we happen to be wrong and there is a god that I’ll spend as long as it takes finding its weakness and then visit upon it such torments that it’ll be begging to be sent to its own hell.

    Hmm I seem to have gone slightly more megalomaniacal than usual, Once I’ve dried my eyes, I might play Batman: Arkham City & beat up megalomaniacs instead…

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I spent all of a December and January doing nothing more than play Portal and Portal 2. :/

      Something about computer games that help megalomaniacs, I guess. :/

      • Aliasalpha

        I like to think they give me a healthy non-destructive outlet for my emotions whilst I process them slowly. Kind of like a reality flow control valve

        GTA4 is a great example, whenever I’m excessively angry or depressed, I load it up, scream around town shooting people and blowing things up and within an hour I’m giggling at the over the top car crashes I get into and marvelling at how pretty the explosions are.

        Good choice on Portal 2, megalomaniacs, slightly different megalomaniacs, potatoes… the game has it all. Hmm, you wouldn’t be interested in some coop would you?

        • Kylie Sturgess

          I would but I fear I’d be so bloody awful at co-op that you’d refuse to read my blog again! :( I’ll stick to posting links to things like this. :)

          • Aliasalpha

            Pfft nah, you dun rite gud lyke wat i do!

            That film was bloody awesome, outstanding effects, did need more GLaDOS (presumably they didn’t want to go through the licencing) but was otherwise spectacular. I always suspected there’d be no real consequences from looking at the operational end of the device

  • carolw

    My father-in-law was in the ICU from March to June. He had open-heart surgery, then his kidneys failed. He came through both of those fine, but then he developed idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is scarring in the lungs that can’t be cured. His wife and my husband chose to discontinue life support. It was awful for my husband. He’s essentially atheist, but has never lost anyone in his family. I’ve been losing grandparents and uncles since I was about four, so I knew what to expect. We got the religious sympathy cards from the religious family members, and took them as nice thoughts. I know his dad’s not in heaven looking down on us. How creepy. He lived a very full life, and I imagine wouldn’t have wanted to exist with machines keeping him alive any longer than he had to. I deal with his passing by remembering his life, and what a clever, funny, loving, tough, smart-ass he was, and seeing how much of him there is in my husband. He lives on when I hear a Boston accent, or see a Red Sox t-shirt or ballcap, or see a father and son together. That’s immortality, not some pearly gates and streets of gold B.S.