It’s always painful when someone you love dies. The loss and the separation inevitably hurt, and it takes time to adjust to the new reality of life without having him or her around. Because this is a recurring thing, society has evolved ways of marking and mourning the loss of loved ones which speak to the beliefs of the still-living in order to bring them comfort in their time of pain. The rituals and metaphors are predictable, which itself is probably meant to be a part of the comfort.
But not everyone is as comforted by the things we say when someone dies. Most of the encouragement people give at times like this centers around a belief that one day we will be reunited with our loved ones after they have passed. Most people I know believe that we get a second life after this one is finished—an infinitely longer one that has no pain or sorrow, only happiness and joy. It sounds beautiful I suppose, even if a little odd to me considering that all meaningful stories I’m aware of have trials and struggles to overcome. I don’t really understand the logic of a struggle-free posthumous eutopia, but they didn’t ask me.
In fact, what people like me think about death becomes immaterial at moments like these because the overwhelming majority of people mourning the loss share the same expectations about life in the hereafter. They will say those things to each other that tend to ease their pain. They’ll talk about Jesus and resurrection and salvation and heaven, all things which they’ve spent a lifetime anticipating, spending precious little time worrying whether or not such stories will bring any comfort to those present who don’t believe in those things.
When someone dies, Christians don’t know what to say to atheists.
A Personal Loss This Past Weekend
This past weekend Amy, my girlfriend of three and a half years, lost her father, and she had to endure the usual parade of promises and preaching that inevitably accompany the death of a Christian. None of the things that people say at times like these are unexpected, of course. We both grew up Christian, so we know the routine. It’s just that it strikes you as oddly hollow once you find yourself on the outside of that symbolic world. We can both remember what it’s like to believe those stories, but we don’t anymore, which makes us feel like outsiders even as we sit in a room full of family and friends.
Someone always has to preach. They cannot resist. The Christian faith banks an awful lot on death, and it draws an enormous amount of its emotional capital from the feelings that surround that inevitability. Most forms of Christianity I’ve been a part of orient everything toward life after death, which means that at moments like these someone has to preach. It’s woven into the fabric of the whole religion. Someone has to get up in front of everyone and use this emotionally vulnerable moment to warn them all that if they don’t subscribe to the narratives they regularly gather to preserve, they will miss out on the benefits promised therein and don’t you wanna see your loved ones again after you die?
Amy said it perfectly after the service was over. We were recounting the things that were said during the service and we acknowledged that all the appropriate things were said, but after all was said and done she remarked:
They kept using the word “comfort.” That word came up several times during the day, but every time the word was used, it was tied to Jesus in one way or another. That’s nice, and I suppose it helps everyone else, but…you got anything in that bag for me?
The answer is they don’t, or at least not very much. Oh, I’ll admit that some of what they said would be meaningful to everyone. I watched hundreds of people file in to hug her and her mother, telling her how much her father meant to them. They treasured their friendship with him and mourned his passing alongside them. They extended condolences and offered to help if anybody needs anything. People from their church and community brought casseroles and flowers and offered a shoulder to cry on, all of which are real ways to help which anyone can appreciate.
But we really do need to work on building our own vocabulary, our own rituals, and our own symbolic tool kit to help each other mark and mourn the loss of our loved ones. We need it for our own assemblies (may they increase in number, and soon), but we also need to do this for the benefit of those who don’t share our own incredulity toward stories of afterlives and spirits and mansions in glory. They need these alternative words of comfort as much as we do, both because we need all the help we can get when we’re grieving and because they need to know what to say to us when they want to help us as well.
The preacher knew neither of us were believers. He knew we have heard the message he was pushing a thousand times. But he had to make the appeals anyway because that’s just what you do. You almost don’t have a choice in his line of work. And you’ve gotta do what brings comfort to the majority of those present, especially the widow herself. I get that, and I support that. It’s just that I would love to see us develop ways to mourn the passing of our loved ones which are meaningful to everyone, not just the Christians in the room. Do you think we can do that? It seems like a need that’s worthy of our collective effort.
Some Helpful Resources
I know there are resources out there. Rebecca Hensler at Grief Beyond Belief has made this a focus of her work, and for years now she has been building an online community of support for people who are grieving the loss of people they love. Greta Christina has recently published a book as well entitled Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God. Recovering from Religion has even assembled a database of licensed therapists who can help people deal with a whole host of emotional and psychological issues and it’s appropriately called The Secular Therapist Project.
Humanist societies of various kinds are developing chaplaincies to help mark a whole host of life passages including birth, graduation, marriage, illness, and death, and I would love to see more humanists invest time into supporting that effort as well. I suspect that over time as we work to build our own ways of speaking about life and death, moments like these can become richer for people like us who believe in life before death. There’s plenty to say about the lives we currently live that doesn’t require positing a second one.
Incidentally, I’ve got a suspicion that non-theists can prepare for their own deaths better than those who have gambled everything on life after death precisely because they’ve resolved to make the most of this life that they can. It seems to me that atheists like myself are always preparing for death in a way because we believe this is the only life we’re going to get. We want to make the most of it, and I suspect it takes away from that when you are taught to believe that you’ll get another one in which things left undone today will get resolved tomorrow.
Perhaps we’ll tackle that more another time.
One last thing I’d like to add: In my last post I related to you my own pain in being excluded from the mourning process due to the wishes of the man who passed away this weekend. Clearly his animosity toward me was great (“You’re a dangerous person,” he once told me), and I suspect the length of its expression hasn’t yet run its full course. But the very same minister who couldn’t resist preaching to us during the service advised that it would be best to include me in the funeral proceedings since I have been a part of the family for some time now. It meant a great deal to both me and Amy, and I am deeply appreciative to both him and to her mother for seeing her way through to include me in the ceremony.
Moments like these shouldn’t go uncelebrated, and I see them as baby steps toward learning to accept people who see the world differently, something very near and dear to my heart at this point. Sometimes people come through and rise above. For that I’m very grateful.
[Image source: Unsplash]