Coping with Grief and Loss
"God works in mysterious ways."
"We see through the glass darkly…"
"It simply wasn’t meant to be."
"They’re with the Lord now."
None of these phrases holds any meaning for an atheist. Whether they refer to the ending of an important relationship, or the death of a loved one, these phrases and others like them are often the source of comfort to believers, but will do nothing for those without faith.
So where does an atheist or other non-believer turn for comfort during the grieving process? Where can atheists find a sense of serenity and peace when having their lives turned upside down? The answer is simple, yet difficult: within themselves.
Right now you’re saying to yourself, "Sure that’s easy for you to say. Just wait until it happens to you, and see how easy it is." Well let me assure you that I have suffered both of the worst kinds of loss. In May of 1999 I ended a two year relationship with my fiancée, and in June of 1999 my maternal grandfather passed away. As I write this, both of these things are still very fresh in my heart and mind.
I will admit, there is a feeling of helplessness that I imagine the religious do not feel, with their belief in the master plan. But there is as compensation no feeling that anything was taken from you by a sentient being. Yes, you have lost, but it was purely a fact of life or of biology. There was no intent, no possible malice, no plan you cannot comprehend. I feel that the bitterness of loss is easier to bear when there is no unreachable being to direct it towards.
So where does one find this inner strength, this ability to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps? If you have within you the courage to be an atheist, the strength to face a universe indifferent to you and your kind, and the ability to own up to a single, finite lifetime, then you already have this strength. It is simply a matter of accessing it.
There are many ways to find the wells of strength within you. Some find meditation to be a comfort in difficult times. Others prefer to work out their disturbing feelings through activities such as kick-boxing, or other physical hobbies. Still others will write out their feelings, discussing it through prose, poetry, or fiction. Another tactic is to find support within your personal web of friends and family. Especially those who can share your loss, who understand both it and you. I myself subscribe to the latter two choices.
One of the best things you can do is remember the good times. Recall how you went fishing with your father when you were a child, and how he would have remembered those bonding times before he died. Remember how you met your lover, the spark that flew between you, and the happiness it brought you. Remember, too, that these feelings can be found again, if you but look.
Nothing can stop the grieving process, not denial, not faith, not a lack thereof. There will be tears, and rage, perhaps a feeling of betrayal. There is no way to speed the process, to heal faster than your psyche can. Despite those telling you, "It’s been long enough," despite these same thoughts coming from within you, the grieving process must run its course. You must grieve before you can heal. And only you can truly know when the healing process has begun.
For these reasons, it is important for you to find the way that you yourself can deal with the pain best. Remember that it is possible to get through traumatic times without recourse to the comfort of heaven, or a god who plans your loves and your losses. Remember that this life is all we have, so we must not waste it with regret over things which cannot be changed. There will come a time, eventually, when you can chalk these things up to learning experiences, and remember them when a similar situation presents itself.
There will always be those who cannot understand that atheism can provide the same strength and inner peace in the face of tragedy as religion. These people do not understand that we are all using the same strength; the difference is that they credit its source as being beyond them, while atheists seek within.
In the end, the most important thing is that you find that which can comfort you. What worked or did not work for someone else is immaterial. In times of loss, your most important desire must be to help yourself cope, grieve, and heal. I am of the opinion that atheists, having already shown so much strength in their personal philosophies, are very well equipped to cope with loss. I hope that you will find it to be true as well.
June 21, 1999