One of the most profound difficulties I've encountered in writing about atheist grief is capturing the emotional landscape we live in as we mourn without using language that is religiously coded. Words such as "soul" and "sacred" and "spiritual" are heavily weighted with a long history that mostly originates in religion. It's not that secular discussion can't redefine the words in a "take back the language!" way, but in an emotionally charged realm such as grief these words are often just another trigger. Even the word "funeral" brings to mind religious ceremonies.
I attempt to redefine the words, sometimes, but I acknowledge that no matter how good my intentions, some people simply prefer to close the door on language so closely aligned with religious traditions and texts.
We do have options and I use them a lot: sad, anguished, depressed, lonely, frustrated, angry, devastated, destroyed, profound, numb…the list goes on, and they are effective words.
However the lack of a way to fully describe our internal turmoil without resorting to religious-themed language illustrates how overlooked atheist grievers are, I think. I can write the phrase "Novocaine for the soul" and everyone knows implicitly the feeling I'm trying to describe, but it's frustrating because personally I don't believe there is such a thing as "soul", just self-awareness. "Novocaine for my self-aware emotional state" somehow doesn't have the same ring to it. Even something as simple as "my heart was broken" is nonsensical when taken literally; and when perceived as a metaphor suggests that there is a "heart" outside of our "head" that can be broken.
We forge on ahead despite this, read between the lines and adapt our interpretations to reflect our experiences. The power of language is in the flexibility of experience it reflects.
When Words Don’t Connect
I'm never fully satisfied with that, though. I vividly remember buying C.S. Lewis's classic personal reflection on grief, A Grief Observed, which everyone I knew recommended to me. It was (and remains) the "go-to" text on grief, and I don't think anyone can read it without being touched by the heartfelt philosophy of emotional pain that Lewis explores. However, as I paged through the book at Barnes & Noble (on Colonial Dr., in Orlando…it was my haunt for many years) I knew it was a half-measure for me. Lewis, as most people know, was a theologian and a devout Christian.
His words are powerful but pull on language and concepts that are meaningless to me. My higher power is coffee, okay?
There is a stumbling block in the mainstream discussion of grief these days, which is the assumption that everyone will relate to ideas of an afterlife, and God, and an externally-spiritual (supernatural) life purpose. I've been writing about atheist grief for over two years, and I still stumble over the block, and I'm not even among the majority of atheists who are deconverted. What religious symbolism I picked up came from popular culture — Christmas specials on TV, movies about ghosts — but nonetheless is still ingrained.
In the end, though, everything comes back to emotions. And perhaps that's the "alpha and omega" of why these issues are so hard to address (I'm sure former Christians are amused by what I did there). If nothing else, grief is a profoundly emotional state of being, an intersection of love and anger and despair. What does it feel like for an atheist to grieve? The same as it does for everyone, which is to say, it feels terrible. It's awful. It's painful.
A New Language of Grief
What I would rather see in our community (in that any group of atheists/skeptics might be called a community) is a more open discussion of the emotional aspects of life — being an atheist does not mean casting our feelings into a sea of unknowns or “the unknowable.” Religions try to provide concrete answers and structures for people to rely on, especially in bad times such as when a person dies and we are in deep, deep mourning. They provide hope, often, in the form of promising an afterlife. They talk about "soul" and "spirit" and "eternity."
As an atheist mourner, I personally don't need that, but what I do need is recognition that grief is important, and emotions are not logical. There is no "thinking your way out of grief," so many atheists chose not to think about it at all. But it has left a gaping hole that swallows up those of us who are unwilling and unable to find solace in religion, but are also unable to find solace anywhere that isn't dripping with superstition and religious terminology.
I am quite sure that there are many who feel that this isn't provenance of atheism, which should simply remain the refutation of religion and spirituality. I am also quite certain that I don't want other atheists telling me how to grieve. But I think that it is important for us, as atheists and skeptics, to step up and start talking about these issues if only to begin creating our own language for it. I don't need to share your exact flavor of atheism/agnosticism/skepticism for us to share the weight of grief and mourning together. We just need better ways—better words, better terms, better language—to do that, which we will only discover by trial and error and effort.
Photo Credits: Quinn Dombrowski