How atheists deal with death

A new facebook page has launched that tackles an issue I don’t think we atheists focus on enough: the grief of death.  The page, titled ‘Grief Beyond Belief’, is a simple thing, really.  It’s a collection of non-believers willing to provide solace to those who have lost somebody.

There is an idea amongst theists that, even if their religion is flagrantly untrue (and it is), that allowing fantasy to infiltrate the portions of their brain where reality resides is acceptable in order to stave off the misery of a loved one dying.  In short, they think it’s noble to hide from the fact, pretending that their loved ones are not truly dead.  Perhaps it’s understandable, but it sure as shit ain’t noble.

Anyway, I very much support this page.  Writing about it has reminded me about a post I wrote a little over a year ago in which I talked about how atheists handle death.

We scattered my grandmother’s ashes today.  She was a magnificent woman who denied herself better things to save nickels and dimes, yet never hesitated to eagerly dump thousands of dollars on us.  It is to her enduring sense of selflessness for those she cared about that I owe my education.  She was always happy, exceedingly generous, and very tough.  Even in the end it seemed her primary concern was to be as little a burden to her loved ones as possible.  She was tough, but it was a toughness masked by kindness.  She raised the most amazing man I’ve ever met who, in turn, raised two good kids.

Before when people in my life have died I’ve had regrets.  When Pearl, my first and most influential voice teacher died, I found myself wishing I had worked harder as her student.  I suspect that almost all people have similar regrets when those close to them die, and that it’s simply the best among us who later make up for them.  But when grandma died I had no regrets.  I had gone down to see her towards the end at every opportunity.  I had crawled into her bed, hugged her, and told her I loved her.  I teared up and thanked her for everything she had done to make me who I am.  And I know she died proud of me for all I have accomplished.

There is an oft-asked question by the theist: how do atheists deal with death?  The answer is that we bravely acknowledge that death is just as much a part of life as living. We gratefully remember our loved ones and work to be the type of person they would be proud of in life, and even prouder of in the fullness of our lives. We hug our loved ones that remain and let those who have passed live on in our actions and conscience so that their lasting influence can continue to improve us.

And we cry.

Frankly, we do the same thing as theists without allowing our misery to corrupt our judgment.  I recall how grateful I was for my godless family who was there to support me without placating me and acting as though I lacked the courage to survive my grandmother’s death without some consoling fool’s paradise supplanting my checks against gullibility.  Sadly, not everybody is fortunate enough to have such a family.  I urge everybody to join this page and to be there as a real, tangible source of comfort for those wrapped in the pain of death.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Doug Kirk

    This one made me choke up a little bit…. I may have some sunscreen in my eye

  • Gayle Jordan

    JT, she would be so proud of you! So proud of the voice you have (literally and figuratively), so proud of how you are using your education, so proud of your passion and integrity.

    What a lovely person she must have been.


  • Felice

    I’m very glad this exists now, especially for the younger among us. Unlike the stereotype or many of my godless loved ones, who justifiably fear death and have trouble accepting it (partially because they recognize that it IS a very really end, and inescapable), I haven’t had too much trouble accepting and embracing death as an inevitability that I can handle. That might make it easier on me to deal with death.

    My father’s death, because of circumstances, self-delusion, and a whole host of other reasons, destroyed too much of my world to be easy to accept and move on from. Ultimately, the closest I came to wishing that there was something beyond death was simply regret: regret that he couldn’t have lasted longer to see me graduate, to at least give me more chances to be with him, to apologize, to thank, to give him the love he so desperately deserved and appreciate him for the man he was. I never thought this was possible and, finally, I no longer wanted or needed it to be. He had a good run. I was lucky to be his daughter and be a part of a good, if imperfect, man’s life. No matter how long and grueling the process to get to that point in the grieving process, I think we can all get there without the solace of an afterlife, a plan, or a god to guide us along.

    So that’s one atheist’s experience with death, in exchange for you sharing yours. :) Thank you, JT.

  • Jonathan Figdor

    Very honest and reflective post, JT.

  • Gordon

    I fear death less now. It used to terrify me as a theist. I couldn’t believe in hell and not worry. I’d worry I’d end up there. I’d worry I’d be in heaven and someone I loved would be in hell. Now I amn’t afraid of death at all.