Guest Post: Grieving without belief in God or an afterlife

By Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief

As today is Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of mourning in the Jewish calendar, we freethinkers who don’t have the comfort of “knowing” that death is part of God’s plan and that we will be reunited with our departed loved ones may need ideas on how to grieve given such realities. 

We are very privileged and I am extremely grateful that Rebecca Hensler has written this very meaningful and helpful guest post for us.  Ms. Hensler, who has an M.S. in counseling, has turned personal tragedy into a means of helping others by founding Grief Beyond Belief, a support network for those who are grieving without belief in God or an afterlife. [-FTJ]

I light a Yahrzeit candle for my son, Nathaniel Judah, on the anniversary of his death.  But I have never said the Mourner’s Kaddish for him.  Like many modern Jews, I pick and choose what practices and beliefs to engage with in my day-to-day life and which to omit.  And worshiping God is one I omit.

I was raised a secular Jew.  No one sat me down as a child and told me that; I only put the word to it after learning about secular Judaism in the atheist community.  But looking back, I remember reading illustrated children’s books of Torah stories and recognizing them as myths, singing the blessings on Shabbat and holidays with a sense of thankfulness but not addressing it to a literal deity, talking about God with my parents only as a theoretical possibility.  I remember going to Hebrew school, but answering, when asked if I wanted a Bat Mitzvah, “I would just be doing it for the presents and party.  That seems like a bad reason to do a religious ceremony.”

When it came to the topic of death, no one in my immediate family proposed that I — or anyone — will pass to The World To Come after our lives end.  In fact, the freeform Reform Judaism that my family practiced said very little about death, and nothing at all about an afterlife.

What I gained from this upbringing was freedom from dogma.  I have seen people who were raised in fundamentalist religions struggle to find themselves as freethinkers; I strolled easily into atheism, keeping what I appreciated of Jewish culture and philosophy while shaking off what I had no use for.

But my lack of faith gave me nothing to work with when it came to death, not even a starting place.  Thus in my early adult years, when friends around me began to die, first of AIDS and then of suicides and overdoses, I didn’t have the ancient, well-tested tools with which Jews traditionally and ritually process grief.  It is no surprise that I cobbled together an eclectic assortment of beliefs and rituals of my own from the Pagan and New Age cultures that surrounded me at the time.

I had already given up these beliefs for lack of evidence and accepted my own atheism when, in the forty-first year of my life, my infant son died.

Nathaniel Judah, known to all as Jude, was the tiny love of my life.  Carrying Jude in my womb, birthing him, caring for him in the hospital, holding him while he passed from life, and grieving his death transformed and inspired me.  Two years after his short life, I founded a grief support network for atheists and other freethinkers: Grief Beyond Belief.  Grief Beyond Belief’s Facebook Page sends its daily post – a question, quote or link about secular grief – to thousands of freethinkers, and Grief Beyond Belief Group has over 500 members sharing sorrow and support.

This is how I come to be writing here about the differences between grieving as a religious Jew and grieving as a secular Jew.

Some of those differences lie in the ways we grieve, the actions we take following a death.  Sitting shivah comes to mind first, of course.  An observant and traditional Jew will spend the seven days following a death staying in the home, actively grieving and following a set of rules defining that process.  A secular Jew, while perhaps recognizing the value of devoting time and attention to the act of grieving, is less likely to take part in this formal and constrained ritual of grief.

But there is no reason why secular Jews should not sit shivah.  In fact, in a New York Times column in January, 2012, Bruce Feiler wrote of how his own circle rediscovered and redesigned the ritual with changes that allowed it to meet the needs of a group with diverse beliefs.

“The ‘secular shivas’ we organized had a number of notable differences that proved crucial to their success. First, we organized them for Jews and non-Jews alike. Second, no prayers or other religious rituals were offered. Third, we held them away from the home of the griever, to reduce the burden. And finally, we offered the grieving party the option of speaking about the deceased, something not customary under Jewish tradition.”

There are other actions in which a theist Jew can engage while mourning or on the anniversary of a loved one’s death that are adaptable to secular observance.  For example, those who believe that their loved one’s soul will be judged following death may also believe that that soul can increase in “merit,” if charity is given, psalms are read or Torah is studied in their name.  While a secular Jew recognizes that no soul exists after a loved one dies, he or she may still choose to extend the influence and impact of that person’s life by giving or acting in their memory.  Atheists do this all the time, donating to a secular foundation such as Foundation Beyond Belief, paying to have trees planted or a microloan granted, or contributing to a scholarship fund in the deceased’s name.  For me, founding Grief Beyond Belief allowed my son’s life to lead to something of lasting value despite its brevity.

So we are left with the possibility that beliefs, and the prayers and texts that give voice to these beliefs, are the sole aspects of traditional Jewish mourning that cannot be shared by secular Jews.  Our beliefs regarding what — if anything — happens after death are where we differ most.

The beliefs of religious Jews about death and life after death are more diverse than in many other religions, but most theist Jews believe in some form of afterlife and many believe that a person’s actions during life impact the nature of that afterlife.  Secular Jews believe that when a person dies, that person’s consciousness ends irrevocably.  Thus theist and atheist grief are divided by one simple distinction: the faithful hope for reunification with the deceased in the next world, whatever that means to them; the secular understand and accept death as a permanent separation.

On first examination, the former is obviously preferable; who would not rather grieve a temporary parting than a permanent one?  But for the skeptic, the rational thinker who demands evidence for any belief, trying to hold onto a hope of reunification — when every bit of evidence we have points to the death of the brain as the permanent end of consciousness — requires grieving in a state of cognitive dissonance.  While sometimes atheist Jews may wish that they believed their deceased loved ones are somewhere waiting to rejoin them, they ultimately find other ways of staying connected with those who are gone and of bearing the loss.

Two years of running Grief Beyond Belief has taught me a great deal about how atheists and other freethinkers live with their grief without religion or spiritualism.  For those who are facing grief as a nonbeliever, or who are leaving religion and are concerned about how they will survive a loss in the future without the familiar comfort of belief, here are just some of the secular strategies with which freethinkers heal from the death of a loved one and learn to live with grief:

1. Expression and Empathy

The greatest benefit of peer-to-peer grief support is the opportunity to share your emotions with others who are experiencing the same things and feeling the same way.  For me, this is how online grief support came into my life: reading the thoughts of other grieving parents, writing my own thoughts, and seeing the similarities between the two allowed me to recognize that I was not going crazy, I was grieving.  Furthermore, simply moving my pain out of my head and onto the computer screen helped me process it, feel it, deal with it before it built up and overwhelmed me.  Since we started Grief Beyond Belief’s private closed “Group” on Facebook, we have heard time after time from members that being able to express their darkest thoughts and most painful feelings — and be heard and understood — makes it easier for them to live with grief.

2. Storytelling and Memorializing

One of the kindest things that you can do for most people who are mourning is to ask them to tell stories about the people they are grieving.  Funny stories, heroic stories, romantic stories and tragic stories, they are the stuff of which our memories are made, and we bring our loved ones to life when we tell them.  We also love to hear other people’s memories of our loved ones, or even just to hear their names spoken.

The grieving also find healing through the things they do to honor those they have lost.  A memorial garden or bench; a scrapbook, art project or homemade video; a fundraiser or scholarship; a donation to a hospital or hospice; the possibilities are endless.  Every action taken in memory of our loved one brings that person from the past into the present, giving them a way to continue to impact the world around us.

3. Humanist Philosophies About Death

Many Jews do a whole lot of studying, thinking, talking and arguing about what they know, what they think and what they believe about the nature of the world around them.  Many atheists do too.  Humanist philosophies are those that focus on the human potential for growth, ethical decision making and creativity, and are based in a naturalistic rather than supernatural perception of the world.

There are many Humanist philosophies about death that comfort those who grieve without belief in an afterlife.  Atheist blogger Greta Christina has written a great deal about these philosophies, particularly following the death of her father and her own cancer diagnosis only two weeks later.  In her essay, “Humanism in a Shitstorm,” written in the aftermath of these two events, she sums up many of these philosophies in one paragraph:

“And the secular philosophies of death that I’ve been writing and reading and contemplating for years now… these have been a tremendous comfort. For instance: The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t painful or bad, and death will be the same. The idea that our genes and/or ideas will live on after we die. The idea that each of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that death is a deadline, something that helps us focus our lives and treasure the experiences we have…The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die. The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe. In an unspeakably shitty time of my life, all of these ideas have been a deep, solid, very real comfort.”

Greta isn’t the only atheist author writing on this topic.  Google “humanism” along with “grief” and you will find many insightful and well-spoken writers and philosophers, both amateur and professional, “thinking out loud” in ways that will help you find meaning in times of sorrow.

These are only three of the approaches that atheists have found for surviving and living with grief.  Daily, at Grief Beyond Belief, freethinkers share advice on mourning, often based on their own experience surviving grief without religion.  With thoughtfulness, kindness and rational compassion they have created a community and proven that a belief in the afterlife is not necessary for the grieving to find comfort.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Grieving without belief in God or an afterlife

  1. pamcyt

    Thank you so very, very much for sharing your brave and honest thinking. My brother’s death four years ago left me in — to this day — a highly functional but consuming state of grief. I cannot say his name or look at a photo of him or let my mind rest on a thought about him or a memory for more than a millisecond or the crushing grief shuts me down numb. I was a very believing Jew and my religion had nothing for me, no practical way to understand or process this relentless pain and no real way to make any sense out of this horror. It’s true, I believed in god despite the Holocaust, but my own brother’s death killed all my faith in an instant. It was a traumatic, totally preventable, horrifying death.
    I get that it is all irrational. But it’s all irrational, anyway, right? So now people want me to ‘move on’ to some less pained state. I’ve done everything all the experts say to do. I feel just like I did four years ago. I lead a present, engaged, productive, busy life – working, parenting, full of loving relationships. But I am a ghost.
    Buddhism’s pure acceptance of where I am, and the idea of leaning into the sharp places make the most intuitive sense to me. I’m resigned to this being the way I may feel forever. It just is. They’re just feelings. I’m living a decent life, of benefit to others, available emotionally to those who need me. Do I really need to force myself to push into the pain, his name, the memories? For what? To make others comfortable that I’ve tried everything? To find some relief? So much pain for so little relief? Is there relief? What would that even feel like?
    I don’t understand the folks who are able to remember so vividly – to call on those memories for comfort. I so wish I could be like that but my brain shuts down fast like a steel trap any time I even picture his beautiful face. There. Just did it. I’ve read about ‘complicated grief’ and I’m sure I sound just like somebody in that. I don’t believe I’m honoring him by being in pain. I don’t believe it connects me to him. He certainly wouldn’t want me to feel this way. But he’d want me to be honest and be real about where I’m at. I’m deeply engaged in my life and the people I love. And yet. And yet I’m writing this.

    Reply
  2. Rebecca Hensler

    Pamcyt, I’m glad you wrote. your story is very sad and moving; I’m so sorry about your brother.

    Not being a psychologist, I can’t say whether or not this is complicated grief. It sounds like you are functioning ok when you aren’t thinking about him, but that you have not managed to integrate the loss into your life. And since thinking about him at all hurts so much, when you do, it totally shuts you down. Which means that you can’t enjoy any of your good memories about him, which is one of the ways we can live healthy lives with our grief. I don’t think it’s a good idea to just keep living with it this way without seeking help. Maybe try looking at some of the information on this page: http://www.complicatedgrief.org/. Ultimately, I think therapy will help.

    Be kind to yourself, Pam.

    Rebecca

    Reply
    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Pam, thanks so much for opening up and sharing about your own tragedy and challenges. I’m saddened to read about the untimely death of your brother and about how difficult the grieving process has been for you.

      I too am not a psychotherapist, and so I really hope you keep looking for the right one who will help you get to the point where you can think about your brother and remember the good times and all that he brought to the world during his time here without having such thoughts cripple you emotionally.

      In addition to the excellent resource Rebecca just provided, if you’ve had trouble finding a therapist who leaves out his/her religious views, you may want to try the Secular Therapy Project (http://www.seculartherapy.org/). They’re still a young project, and so their network of therapists is still not as large as it needs to be, but perhaps they happen to have a therapist in your area who could help.

      One thing should be clear, though: Everyone who has read your comment is rooting for you.

      If you’re so inclined, please keep in touch and let us know how you’re doing.

      Wishing you true comfort and consolation,
      FTJ

      Reply

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