When 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.