People who do not believe in a divine netherworld face a conundrum: How to grieve for departed loved ones if they haven't gone anywhere?

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To my mind, the most logically pro-life demographic group would be atheists, because they live under the assumption that this life is wholly mortal and nothing comes after except the return of our earthly bodies to ashes and our energy to the ether. So the here and now is everything.

To wit, which earthly human life would seem most dear—one with a supernatural, possibly divinely blissful afterlife, or one without?

Well, there’s no second act in lives lived in the shadow of death’s absolute finality, so one might think nonbelievers would value their life on earth far more jealously than someone who believes that, after they die, they may proceed directly to paradise. In that case, the second act could by far be the best, something to even sacrifice happiness in this life for perhaps.

“It is also okay for you to ‘talk to’ your loved one, knowing full well that they are not there. … As with journaling, ‘talking’ to a person who is not really there can be a very cleansing experience.”

Candace R.M. Gorham, “Death, dying and Unbelief”

Not so with us heathens. For us, life is what it finitely is; we’re convinced there’s zero chance for a potentially better sequel in a great beyond. So, carpe diem (“seize the day,” in Latin) is an appropriate motto for atheists. Not “relax now; seize the next life.”

Living and working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 2000s, I daily noted with alarm how dangerously cavalier Saudi drivers (all men at the time) were as they careered seemingly heedlessly down crowded thoroughfares. Knowing that virtually everyone in the country was Muslim and truly expected entry in Paradise one day, I wondered if that belief may have informed their almost homicidal driving habits in this world.

I was thinking about this recently after reading a piece in The Humanist online magazine written by Candace R.M. Gorham, LCHMCS, the Black American author of the novel Death, Dying and Unbelief, and also a mental health counselor.

Gorham’s book explains that religious nonbelievers grieve differently than believers because they simply don’t believe in true believers’ supernatural touchstones of death and grief, assumptions that remain deeply embedded in majority-Christian U.S. culture.

In her novel, however, Gorham acknowledges the apparent primal appeal of supernatural relief from episodes of misery, writing:

“At times I’ve heard a grieving nontheist say, ‘I still hear their voice’ or ‘I see them,’ and they wonder if they are having a spiritual experience. I think it is a sign that the person is in unimaginable pain. Even those who grew up without religion have been exposed to ideas about an afterlife and other spiritual concepts such as demons, angels, apparitions, and more. It is not uncommon for people who believe in an afterlife to also believe that their loved ones can come back and communicate with them.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable that you, having encountered that way of thinking much of your life, might manifest those same internalized concepts during your time of extreme vulnerability …

“During this time, you are desperate for any connection to your loved one, and, unfortunately for those nontheists who generally want nothing to do with spirituality, those spiritual concepts seem to be our only possible way to connect with our loved one. Therefore, it makes sense that you wish they were still living somewhere in an afterlife, watching over or even visiting you.”

So Gorham urges grieving secular folks not to be too hard on themselves if they occasionally and temporarily grasp at ethereal straws in trying to ease their pain.

“It is also okay for you to ‘talk to’ your loved one, knowing full well that they are not there. If it will make you feel better, tell yourself that doing so is no different than journaling, except you are saying the words out loud. As with journaling, ‘talking’ to a person who is not really there can be a very cleansing experience.”

All of this is to say that believers and nonbelievers alike experience grief. What sets them apart is how they cope with it, how they try to heal.

Gorham contends that most Americans have grown up in a Christianized environment with supernatural fantasies indoctrinated into them from childhood, and that such “received wisdom” often remains a disruptive emotional artifact in even adult nonbelievers’ psyches.

So, she’s saying, indulging in a little fleeting fantasy is OK if it makes one feel better during a trying time, but that eventually nonbelievers, to be true to themselves, must return to reality and the knowledge that paradise is most certainly a myth.

It may not be easy, Gorham writes, for nonbelievers to take a brief walk on the wild, supernatural side, but neither is it terminal.

“Your friends and family may try to convince you that such thoughts are proof that god is trying to reveal himself to you and you may even wonder about this yourself from time to time.

However, whether you are a lifelong nontheist or came to your nontheism after years of study and struggle, you may be uncomfortable with having supernatural thoughts or ‘experiences’ during the grieving process. In those moments, it’s important to recognize that such unwanted thoughts are often simply an expression of the grieving process.”

I’ve often suspected that far more Americans than we imagine doubt that an afterlife exists but cling to the idea because it’s what they’ve always assumed, an embedded carry-over from their religious upbringing. Abandoning that assumption in a time of emotional peril probably seems foolhardy to believers, even nominal ones.

I’m sure even a good many atheists have those same protective impulses in a crisis of grief, hoping against hope for a divine savior to conquer their misery.

But, returning to my original point, I can’t imagine atheists are anything other than more frightened than believers when facing their own mortality anew in the death of a loved one or a personal crisis of health. Because there’s nothing else for our beloved departed afterward and, by extension, nothing still after our own demise.

At least believers have the heart-warming benefit of faith in the hereafter, which, I’ll admit, must be exceptionally comforting.

The problem is, nothing tangible exists to indicate such a realm is even remotely possible, much less actually true.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...