I will never forget the first time I heard my friend was gone. I had gotten a message on Facebook, and it contained a three word message saying he was dead. I didn't believe it at first. He was 19. I had just seen him recently, talked to him, chatted with him. I was sure if I texted him, he would answer and say it was a mistake. I never recieved a text back.
Of course, as is the first stage of grieving. I was in denial over him being gone. I refused to believe. Yet, as I moved on to the other stages of grief, I began to look at my friends still in the denial phase, and had a realization. My religious friends never moved past the denial stage. They never could accept that he was gone, and they will always cling to a part of him that simply no longer exists.
If you ask a religious person where their lost loved one is, you will be told they are in heaven. To them, death is not a goodbye, but a temporary separation. They get comfort from knowing their loved one is still with them, and there is no need to move past the first stage of grieving, because the deceased is not truly lost.
For an atheist, death has a much more permanent ring to it. We know there is no heaven, and we know our loved one is truly gone. While many of us would love to think we would see our loved one again, and that the dead live in a paradise free of suffering, we simply cannot believe it. So while your religious friends pray and sing hymns about heaven, how does an atheist cope with death?
According to the Kübler-Ross model, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
This stage involves the process of learning of the death. Whether seeing it, getting a phone call, or getting a three-word message, hearing of a death is always a shock. "This can't be true." "They must have made a mistake." "I just talked to him last week!" These words and more will be floating through the mind of a griever in the denial stage. Our brains do not want to comprehend the tragedy of a loss. As someone who needs evidence, this stage often lasts up until the wake for me. It is hard to accept the loss of someone until I see them motionless in the casket.
I don't often stay long at funerals. After finally realizing my friend is truly dead, I find myself getting angry. I become a child again in my mind, stomping my feet and having a tantrum. This isn't fair! You aren't allowed to do that! You're supposed to be here! Why would you leave everyone like this? This stage is often the hardest for me to contain, as no amount of pillow-smashing or rock-throwing seems to help. I often find myself lashing out at friends, family, and anyone who makes the slightest move towards me.
As an atheist, I'm not always sure about this stage. For the religious, often they will try making deals with their deity to bring their loved one back, or for just one more conversation. I have always classified this stage as being when I have thoughts of wishing this nightmare was just a dream, or wishing I could turn back time. While I have no one to bargain with, sometimes I will beg in my mind to not let this be real.
This is the ugly stage. This is the crying-in-your-room-at-two-in-the-morning stage. This is the stage where you cannot seem to stop thinking of your lost companion. You will look at pictures for hours, go back and reread every word ever said between you in texts and messages. You will call his voicemail just to hear his voice. You will break down multiple times in one day, and feel as though you're drowning in pain. You're lost, and you feel hopeless. How will anything ever go back to normal? How can I just 'move on' from this?
After a time of crying spells, slowly you will notice the days don't seem as dreary. You can laugh again without feeling guilty. You can think of your memories of him and smile through your tears. You see the sunshine again, and feel the prickle of rain on your skin. As the days slip by, you gradually notice yourself crying less and smiling more. Your loved one is gone, but you are still managing to find some joy in life, even if you are still sad.
The Grieving Process
There is no time limit for how long these stages last, nor a requirement to go through each one. I have known people to completely skip over some of them, and others linger in one for years. Each person grieves differently. Some people may find it comforting to go sit beside the grave for a spell and reminisce, whereas for others this may hinder their emotional progress. As an atheist, it can be easy for one to feel alone when grieving. Your religious friends and family will be muttering reassurances of heaven and saying they still feel your loved one with them. They might say he sends them dreams, or he sent them a sign he is alright. For a non-believer, these reassurances can feel alienating and isolate an atheist if he is the only non-religious person in the room. Unfortunately, some zealots might choose this vulnerable time to try and bring you into the folds of a religion. As a result of this, I often choose to grieve alone.
How To Deal With Death as an Atheist
Here are some general tips on how to get through this hard process, especially if you choose to go it alone.
Know what is best for you.
After a death, in the following days you will need to make some important decisions. Will you attend the wake? Will you go to the burial? Will you stay for the whole wake, even if it is religious? For some, like me, attending the wake and funeral is a good way to make your mind understand and process the death. For others, it is a nightmare-inducing spectacle. How will you feel seeing your loved one in the casket? Will it help you, or do you think it will make your feelings worse? How would you feel about seeing your loved one buried or seeing his ashes spread? These are the questions you need to ask yourself. Everyone is different, so don't let anyone bully or force you to go to the wake or funeral if you don't feel it is good for you. You can say goodbye in your own way, it is not a requirement to attend services, and it is no one's place to judge you for it. It is in no way disrespectful to your lost companion, nor is it anything to be ashamed of if you cannot attend.
Find somewhere to vent.
If you get hit as hard as I do by the anger stage, you should find somewhere to vent. Whether to a friend who is understanding and patient, or to a diary or blog, it is good to have somewhere to get it out. If you are not the writing/talking type, find something that helps relieve your stress. When you are pulsating with anger, what helps? Do you need to stock up on ammo and visit the shooting range a few times a week? Do you need to paint some pictures to distract yourself? Do you need to just go for a drive and belt out your favorite show tunes? Whatever works for you, make sure you give yourself time to do it.
Be understanding and patient with yourself.
As I said earlier, there is no time limit on grief. It doesn't matter if you don't feel you were close enough with the lost person to grieve for them. It doesn't matter if you simply cannot make yourself do anything for weeks on end. Your grieving process is important. Don't listen when you or others try saying, "Get over it." It is not that simple, or easy. Don't put pressure on yourself and add more stress. If you need to cry, then cry. If you need to shout and break plates, then do so. If you need to lay in bed and stare at the ceiling all day, then do. Losing someone is a horrible thing to go through, and it wrecks havoc on the mind. If you feel you are not able to handle the death, please consider seeing a grief counselor for strategies and suggestions to help you cope. If at any point you feel suicidal, please tell someone as soon as possible or call your local emergency services.
Give yourself a routine.
If you fall victim to a depression phase, you may find it hard to get motivated to do anything. Going to work may seem like an eternity. You might also not have enough energy to make a meal, take a shower, or even just brush your teeth. Unfortunately, as adults, most of us don't have the option of taking off work or school and just letting the grief take its course. We are often forced to work, study, and care for children despite feeling hopeless and not seeing the point in anything. If life has lost its luster, you may find getting yourself in a tight routine can help. Our subconscious likes knowing what is going to happen next. So if you wake yourself up at an exact time every day, get ready in an exact order, and go about your daily business in a tactful way, you may find it easier to "go through the motions" without having to think too much about them. If you need time off of work, however, please do not feel bad for taking it.
Somehow, you need to say goodbye. You can do this at the wake, or years after the actual death. It is all in your own time, but it is a good idea to have some sort of way to signify that your loved one is gone, and it's time to say goodbye. Many people do this at the funeral, as seeing a casket lowered into the ground or ashes spread has a sense of finality to it. However, some people don't view this as goodbye, or may not have gone to the funeral. Perhaps you can light a candle and blow it out, say his name one last time, delete his phone number or email from your contact list, visit a grave or the site where they spread his ashes. The way you do this should be personal, and it can be in any way you like. There is no time limit for when you have to do this, but it is a good way to help your mind finally accept the death.
Even as a non-believer, you do not have to go through death alone. Reach out to friends, relatives, or even people online to help you through your darkest times. Allow yourself to be helped, and seek out resources on how to cope if you feel as though you are not. If you are not comfortable talking online, and there is no one you are close enough to open up to, you can find a grief therapist or a meetup group where a safe environment to talk about your feelings and opinions can be established.
Even though your loved one is gone, you can still honor the memory by taking full advantage of the life you have left. We only get one. Make it as great as possible.