Not long after my father died in 1996, I came up with the title for a book: "Grieving Futures." I did not have any idea what the book would be about, or when I would write it, or why it would matter. I had the title, and for many years, that was enough.
It seems an odd way to go about writing a book, I am fully aware of that. And yes, I eventually wrote that book. But what captured my interest from the start was the phrase itself: Grieving Futures. It's why I held onto the idea for so many years before I acted on it. The phrase fit how I felt about the deaths of my parents, and I clung to it because cluttered up among the letters was the idea that my grief was real, and important.
Atheist grievers tend to be treated, or talked about, as if our feelings of grief are somehow more transient than what other people experience. When I tell people I run a blog on atheist/non-deist grief and mourning issues, I often get blank stares. It's as if people honestly believe that atheists don't grieve, as if the absence of religious faith in a supernatural being exempts us from the emotional turmoil of loss.
I think the idea that our grief is in some way less real is born out of the perception that atheists aren't doing anything with our grief. Since we don't pray, or observe religious rituals, or talk about seeing our loved ones again in an afterlife," people think that we're not emotionally invested in the loss we have experienced. When I tell people I'm an atheist mourner, their first reaction is usually to ask me "so what do you do?"
Which really means, "how do you deal?"
The varied religious ceremonies that mark death across the many human cultures testifies to the fact that there is no one set emotional arc to grief. What they also show is that we have desperately tried through the millennia to find some kind of system to both celebrate the life of the deceased and offer support to the people who mourn them.
Tried, and tried again, because no one solution solves every problem, not in the real world, and certainly not in regards to grief.
What such traditions tend to do well is establish rituals for mourning, giving the family and community a way to bond over their loss. But while mourning is important and part of the grieving process, it is only a minor part. What makes people ask me "so what do you do?" is that they think my lack of obvious mourning traditions indicates a lack of grief.
Confusing Grief with Mourning
Grief and mourning are often used synonymously, and in common usage interchangeably. What really made a difference in how I reacted to people who questioned my grief was to realize that, in general, they are actually two different things. Grief is how we respond to loss at the personal level, the hurt and the pain and despair we feel; mourning is a reaction to death at the cultural level, involving funerals and other traditions. Crying yourself to sleep at night is grief, while wearing a black ribbon/arm band is mourning.
This is, admittedly, not a hard and fast rule, but when people ask me what I do I tell them honestly that as an atheist, I have no mourning traditions that I follow but that I grieve deeply and painfully. If they press I will talk about the years I wore a small black ribbon on my clothes every day, or the donations I've made to feminist organizations in my mother's name. It's not my job to reassure them that, yes, I both grieve and mourn, but I find that I gain a lot more understanding from them by clarifying these things.
This is why I encourage grievers to not be afraid of creating their own rites or traditions. Mourning is a valid practice, and as atheists/non-deists we can create ways to memorialize our dead that emotionally resonate with us and our family. A theme you will find I hit on a lot is that our freedom from religious doctrine allows us to empower our own (new and old) traditions.
Back to the idea of my book title, Grieving Futures, which gave me something to lean into when I found myself marginalized in mainstream grief/mourning communities because of my atheism. People offered to pray for me, and it's hard to say "no thanks" without coming off like a jerk. There is a time and a place for that confrontation, and a grief support group is not it. Often I would fall back on "well I'm an atheist, but I'm sure my parents would have appreciated it" which generally (but not always) went over well.
But when I talked about grieving for the future that I would never have with my parents, by which I always made clear I meant the life I have now as opposed to an afterlife, people listened. They related to that, past the "faith language" that put so many barriers between us. Talking about how my parents never met my husband since I met him after they had died, and how I would never get to share my favorite movies with my mother (who was a big movie fan), or travel with my father (we had plans, before he died) got people talking about their grief outside of religious conventions.
That wasn't really my goal, of course. However, it was important. It was something I had in common with other grievers, and grounded me by letting me know that while I was a rare bird, my grief was not abnormal.
I think a lot of grievers ask "what do you do?" because they are also scared that maybe their grief isn't correct somehow. A lot of grief counseling, I've found, revolves around the idea of letting the person who is grieving know they aren't alone, and they aren't crazy. Add being a marginalized atheist on top of those very normal feelings, and it's easy to get carried away feeling isolated and, yes, completely bonkers.
But we all are grieving futures. That is, truly, the human condition of grief, not simply facing the loss of a person we cared about, but all the chances we ever had to share our life with them. Atheists/non-deists don't cover that gaping wound with hopes of an afterlife or belief in a supernatural reason for our pain, which further marginalizes us from grief support networks that we might otherwise reach out to.
Yet we feel the same. We feel it deeply and, sometimes, cripplingly. It doesn't have to be isolating, though, not the way it seems sometimes. We are all grieving futures, and by understanding that and relating openly about that loss, we can support each other.
Photo Credits: James Cridland