Atheists and Grieving

Without God, How Do You Grieve?

I am having a hard time writing this week.  It is not that I do not have anything to say.  It is more that I don’t really want to write about what I spend most of my free time thinking about: Newtown.  It would be easy for me to write about my problems with many of the comments coming from the Christian Right, for example.  It would be easy for me to politicize the tragedy to serve my own purpose(s).  Today, I don’t want to do that.  I wrote about President Obama’s Speech yesterday, largely because I felt I needed to.  I focused more on what he said and less about the tragedy itself.  In short, I have a lot of thoughts related to my atheism and religion, but don’t really want to share them at this time.  Largely, I want to let people grieve without (much) interference from me.

A few of the people who left comments yesterday (Troublemaker125 and abigskyguy) put forth the notion that the secular community does not have a “go to” idea, line, or speech to deal with tragedies of this scope in the way that religions do.  I agree.  My questions for all of you is what do you say, how do you grieve, how do you “cope” with tragedies of this nature, where do you find comfort in times like this as an atheist?  I want to share my own answer.

When I first heard about the shooting in Newtown, I was stunned.  I could not make sense of the event.  I can’t recall a time since Sept. 11, 2001 that I had such strong emotions.  I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to the victims of other mass shootings, for those too, affected me deeply.  Yet, there is something about an elementary school.  There is something about 6-7 year old children and their teachers who, it seemed, died trying to protect them.  If this story does not affect you greatly, I don’t know what would.

When I think of the children, I can’t help but think of the lives they would have had.  There was so much in front of them.  There was so much that they had yet to experience, both happy and tragic.  Surely, they had some “big days” ahead of them, from sports events, to dance recitals, choir concerts, spelling bees, drama performances, proms, first-dates, first kisses, graduations, first jobs, and who really knows where from there?  As an atheist, I cannot take comfort in the idea that these innocent and beautiful children are with a deity.  That rings hollow to me, and to be honest, is almost offensive—not to me, but to those children.  Where do I find comfort in times of great loss?  I find it in memories.  I try to remember those who have touched my life as they were when they were here.  I try to recall both the good and the bad times that we had, for that is how life is, it is not “all good”.  They live on in my mind and in the minds of those who knew them.  They live on when we get together and the conversation turns to them.  I do not believe that they “go” anywhere.  I do not believe that we have a “soul” or some other immaterial form of being.

What we have is our life.  We have our thoughts, opinions, ideas, emotions, and actions.  These are the things that people will remember us by.  These are the things that will “live on” once we take our last breath.

When I think of those fallen in Newtown, it is not my comfort that is important.  I think of their friends and families and their comfort.  I cannot imagine what they are going through.  If there are things that I can do to help then I will*.   Often people just need someone to listen to them, to give them a hug, and to be there for them.  I find comfort in knowing that their community is there for them.  There is little doubt that the people of Newtown and the surrounding areas are providing those things and more to the families affected by this tragedy.

As an atheist, these are the places that I look for comfort.  I look for comfort from the people around me and from my community.  I look for comfort in the other people who knew the person I have lost.  I look for comfort in sharing stories about that person and in reflecting on my own memories.  I find comfort in having someone willing to listen to me.  I find comfort in a hug.  I find comfort in the solidarity of community of those who feel the same way I do.  When it comes to tragedies like Newtown, I find that I do the same thing.  I find comfort in knowing that friends, family, and the entire community of Newton are doing just those sorts of things. What do you do?

*(I recommend donating to We Are Atheism if you are looking for a way to help.  Thanks to Steve Barry from Left Hemispheres for calling my attention to this charity).

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.

—-John

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8 thoughts on “Atheists and Grieving

  1. Apostate from Lake Forest, CA, United States

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, to me this is such a huge tragedy for the reasons you stated. We live on through the memories of the people we knew and know. These children were here only a short time, they had too few opportunities to make long lasting memories with the potentially thousands of people they could have come in contact with.

    This, in fact is why it's important to live our lives with morality, honor and respect, as an atheist, my only chance to "live on" is through the memories of those I've come in contact with.

    Reply
  2. Grundy from Buford, GA, United States

    I always worry about the survivors, and I wish we had more comfort to give. The assurances of an afterlife feel better to your average mourner than the more likely true words we have to offer.

    It's natural to feel sorry for the dead, but mourning their potential is not much different than mourning the potential of an aborted embryo–something most atheists don't do. Still, I get it.
    My recent post Sylogisming

    Reply
  3. Uzza from West Columbia, SC, United States

    Exploding stars gave rise to the dust that makes up everything, and some of those molecules came together for just a little while to be Chris, my son. For as long as they banded together he got to exist, to live, to experience some part of life, and he knew of love and happiness.

    He became part of me and will be so for as long as I live. In the deepest part of me is a place of honor where I guard fiercely the precious memories of good times he had: laughing at a spinning top, rubbing his birthday cake on his head, hunting Easter eggs on the day he died, running in the park, being pushed in the swing. These are treasures he left behind that I honor and cherish.

    Too soon his molecules disbanded and returned to where they came, to being the stars, the wind, the rain. Before long my molecules too will disperse, and will join his. Life will go on. He's not gone, he's here with me always, in the clouds, in the trees and in the wind. Forever.

    Reply
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