Grieving as an Atheist

Religion is never so present or invasive as after a death in the family. People want to invoke god. They form prayer circles. They insist that a preacher speak at the funeral. I wanted nothing of it. After my father died, I heard about nothing but god. People came up to me and said "God only gives us as much as we can bear" as I struggled to stand. They said "He's in a better place" when all I could think was what place could be better than with me and my mother? There was a gathering of hands and communal praying, but I did not lower my head or close my eyes to participate.

I've been an atheist since childhood, well before my father died, and I have remained an atheist after his death. In high school, as we studied Greek mythology, I had the epiphany that the Bible and Christianity and other religions were just like those Greek myths. They were stories people told in order to make sense of the world. I decided those stories were not for me. I derive no comfort from religion. Tragedy did not push me to believe in god. In fact, when I saw my father's dead body in his casket, all I could think in my head was There is no god, this is godless. It was so traumatic to lose my father that I could not comprehend the thought of it being preordained, sanctioned, or intentional. How could my father have been taken away from me? His death only cemented my atheism.

What does it mean to be godless in the midst of grief? It means you have no belief that the dead are in heaven, waiting. It means facing the truth: that they are ash or they are bones in the earth. They are gone for good, and you will never see them or know them again. It means that death is not a continuation of life; death is the end. Death is nothingness. You will cease to be what you were, there is no longer a "you." You go back to the darkness and emptiness that birthed you. Death is unfathomable, it's horrifying. It can't be described or survived or avoided.

This is not an easy viewpoint. It's difficult and it's scary; it offers no comfort. It's also outside the mainstream in a world with billions of monotheists. But it's what I believe and it's important to write about it because it explains the reason why I struggle so much with my father's death and why my grief is so deep. He is truly gone. It's final and irrevocable.

Some might wonder, in the absence of god how do you live? What do you believe? I believe in humanity. I believe in love. I believe in art and literature and poetry and music and cinema. I believe in nature. I believe in memory and writing and protest and activism. I believe in this world right in front of us, this world of horror and sublimity. I have no time for hypothetical, unproven worlds beyond this one. I believe in sensation, in knowledge, in connection, in friendship. I believe this one life is all we are given and I believe that it's filled with too much pain, sadness, and injustice. I believe too many people focus on what might be beyond this life and we are destroying the world we inhabit. I believe in collective responsibility and community. I believe we must take care of one another because we all want to be cared for. I believe you should do good out of a true desire to help rather than to get into heaven or please a god.

If you live in an area that is heavily religious and you are an atheist, you can feel even more isolated in your grief because you can't honestly and openly talk about loss outside of the frame of religion. This was what happened to me after my father died. I don't believe everything happens for a reason. I didn't believe his death served any purpose or had any meaning. I was so lost and so alone and I couldn't speak about loss in the way that it was most truthful for me. It was so painful and it only intensified my grief.

I hope that we see a day when loss is approached in our society in a more complex and sensitive way, that we stop selling people harmful narratives about closure and healing and five stages, that we realize that not everyone is religious and deals with loss through theology. I hope my blog can contribute in some small way to the shift in our cultural consciousness. That's probably a ridiculous thing to think, that my little blog could make a difference, but that's why I share my story--so that others will be liberated from their own silence and shame and will see some of themselves reflected and will know that they are not alone and that their experience of grief is valid.

There is nothing wrong with being an atheist, with seeing the world and life through this particular viewpoint. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Do I struggle with it? Yes. But if I tried to believe in a religion I would not be true to myself and to what I believe. I have held on to my atheism. I have constructed my moral, ethical, and artistic self around it. It is a central part of my life and of my worldview. It's made me grateful for this one life that I have and the time I had with my father. It's helped me focus on the present and on trying to make a difference in the world while I am here. My grief is deep because of my atheism but so too is my love.