Can atheists fully cope with tragedies/loss?

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chlomarj's picture
Can atheists fully cope with tragedies/loss?

Recently I have been confronted with the inevitable fact that my grandma, who raised me and shaped me to be who I am, is going to die from cancer within the next few years. This has forced me to realize that I need to be able to fully cope with this fact, or I don't know how I'll go on. I've been talking with friends and family about how I don't believe in any sort of higher power, and I'm worried that I won't be able to fully cope with loss because of this fact. Everyone I've spoken to has basically said that belief in a higher power allows them to go on and to accept the tragedy and loss that they've experienced. This leads me to believe that if I don't believe in a higher power, I won't be able to deal with my grandmother's death, and it's got me worried. So I'm turning to my fellow atheists to ask you my question: can those who do not believe in a higher power fully cope with loss, or is belief in a higher power necessary for this to happen?

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Sapporo's picture
The feeling you have is the

The feeling you have is the realization that there will be a time when you and a loved one will no longer be alive at the same time. Belief in a higher power and/or an afterlife is not meaningfully going to change that feeling.

I think the pain of your prospective loss that you now experience and your worries about a loved one experiencing pain and also themselves worrying about you will could well be worse than the loss itself: perhaps that is not a helpful thought.

Other than that, I can only emphasize the importance of family and friends and ensuring that you enjoy life. And of course make great use of the time you have left together.

CyberLN's picture
I think the key is in whether

I think the key is in whether you view her death as a loss or not. Death is certainly an ending. But have you really lost? You have forever changed in the knowing of her. Changed for the better because of her. That’s not a loss, Chloe, that’s a you get to keep forever. Focus on that.

xenoview's picture

You can cope with death without the lies of an afterlife. Life still goes on after the death of a family or friend.

algebe's picture
@Chloe P: can those who do

@Chloe P: can those who do not believe in a higher power fully cope with loss

"Higher powers" were invented for people who cannot fully cope with loss. I've seen a few of my loved ones die during my 66 trips around the Sun. It's always hard, crippling sometimes, but you won't find genuine consolation in a fairy story . You can't really start to move forward until you face the truth. Those people might have gone, but they live on in their descendants, and in the memories of the people they've influenced. That's far better than all the sugar-coated lies peddled by parasitic priests and preachers.

I don't know how Christians can cope with the nagging fear that their loved ones might be suffering in hell. As an atheist, I take comfort in the fact that all suffering ends at death.

Mutorc S'yriah's picture
I have coped with the death

I have coped with the death of loved ones, by accepting the reality. I realise that I cannot wish them back, and that to do so is futile and emotionally upsetting. Each time I lose perspective on the reality of their having gone, I mentally bid them goodbye all over again, a symbolic acceptance of reality. And my goodbye is said in acceptance that their departure has been permanent.

I also have the memories of the persons when they were alive, and how lucky I was to have them then. I can relive the good times and the character building which my relationship with them brought. The memories remain, even though my friend/family member is gone. I know that coping with this loss can be made worse by how I think, so I have planned how best to think, to both retain what was good about knowing them, and to live in the reality that is.

Best wishes to you, Chloe.

Mutorc S'yriah

P.S. I just realised that you are currently dealing with the process of your Grandma dying from cancer. That must be a problem of a different kind for you. I think that how you must be coping with watching your Grandma die, must be strongly affected by how she herself is handling that. You don't mention how things are currently.

I lost a loved one, (my sister-in-law), to cancer just as you are and she made things much easier by being her good old self throughout, and not getting morose or morbid right to the end.

David Killens's picture
I am an atheist and I just

I am an atheist and I just went through two deaths of people close to me. In fact, two days before christmas I gave an eulogy.

Life is finite and every moment is to be cherished. We all die, it is how we live our lives is what matters. Because once your loved ones are gone, that is it, they are gone in every sense of the word. Show them every day and in every way possible how much you cherish and love them.

Personally, I believe that my ability to cope is stronger than a theist. Of course I feel the crippling emotions of loss. But I also have many wonderful memories and knowing that I told them I love them. That allows me to move on.

Religion is a false crutch, believing in something that is beyond our experience.

arakish's picture
@ Chloe

@ Chloe

I lost me wife and twin daughters 20½ years ago. I survived the ordeal. May not have handled it the best I could have. But I am still here. Yet, sometimes I wonder why I have never been able to suicide even though I suffer suicidal thoughts several times every day. Probably shall for the rest of my life. I have also lost me father and me father-in-law since then. Also lost me grandmothers since the deaths of my family. However, the hardest one to deal with was me wife and twin daughters. All the other deaths pale in comparison. I shall always remember the scene in which King Théoden says, "No parent should ever have to bury their children."

I cannot help you much more than if I can survive the deaths of me wife and twin daughters, then you can survive the death of your grandmother. As Algebe put it, I take comfort in that all suffering ends at death.

Also, you can look at it as I do. I am going to live forever. Physically, my body and its constituent elements and compounds are simply going to be transformed into something else. Thus, physically, I shall live forever. My mind, my soul my spirit, etc., etc, not so much. It ends when my physical self ceases in its capability to continue living. And I have no problem with that.

Besides, who would want their mind/soul/spirit to continue on forever? The first few thousand years would be fun, but afterwards it gets totally bummed-out boring after having done everything, said everything, had every possible conversation with absolutely everyone else. It would get so damned boring that even I would become a new Satan just to break up the monotonous boredom. Ever heard of "Q" in Star Trek: The Next Generation and in Star Trek: Voyager? If not watch Star Trek: Voyager Episode 18, Season 2 "Death Wish."

Also watch this video by Thomas Westbrook @ Holy Koolaid @ YouTube. Video: “Why Is Heaven Bad?” URL:

I would go completely wonko if my mind/soul/spirit were to exist forever. I would eventually want an end. Thus, it gives me pleasure to know when I die, it ends. 70 to 100 years is long enough for me. At maximum, maybe a thousand years. No more.

I took the deaths of my family horribly. Mainly due to the fact that they were so much closer to me, my heart, and my soul, and my spirit (take your pick, or all four), than anyone else. Also, their deaths occurred way too damned early in my life. Thus, I spent years just getting to the point of finally accepting I have to go on without them. I also think the reason I do not commit suicide, although I do have suicidal thoughts several times every day, is because deep down I know that would be the ultimate form of dishonor to them. The best way I can honor me wife and twin daughters is to keep going on, telling others of the ultimate tragedy I suffered, yet have survived for so long afterwards.

Hang in their, Me Lady. The journey forward is not so dark.


Sky Pilot's picture
Chloe P,

Chloe P,

"can those who do not believe in a higher power fully cope with loss, or is belief in a higher power necessary for this to happen? "

We all know that we will die. It is very difficult to actually visualize our own deaths. I'm sure that you have seen other people die but their deaths have not affected you the way that you anticipate your grandmother's death will. If you grandmother has been experiencing pain and suffering she will most likely welcome the relief that death offers. That has been my observation from having seen a lot of people die from prolonged illnesses. IMO a quick death is much better than a long one. No one wants to be dependent upon others for their basic comfort and necessities.

If you want practical advice it would be a good thing if your grandmother has made out her will and named her executor. That person should know all of her wishes and know all about her financial matters, such as debts, routine bills, real estate and insurance. The person also has to think about the fneral arrangements. Depending on where you live the person should should also familarize himself/herself with the probate process (read the internet for an overview). It can be complex and time-consuming, especially if the person is in a different location.

The best emotional advice I can offer is from the Bible but it is not religious. It is practical for you as a survivor.

Sirach 30:21-23 (CEB) = 21
"Don’t let grief take you over,
and don’t distress yourself on purpose.
A joyful heart means life
for a human being,
and a person’s rejoicing
provides long life.
Distract yourself, cheer yourself up,
and keep grief far away from you
because grief has destroyed many,
and there’s no benefit in it."

Sirach 38:16-23 (CEB) =
"My child, let your tears flow for the dead;
as one who is suffering terribly,
give voice to your sorrow.
Lay out their bodies in accordance
with their wishes,
and don’t neglect their burial.
Let your crying be bitter
and express your sorrow fervently,
and make your mourning
worthy of them.
Mourn for one day or two
so that there can be no criticism,
and then be comforted from your grief.
Too much grief can lead to death,
and grief in one’s heart
will sap one’s strength.
Grief also lingers in misery,
and the life of the poor
is a curse upon the heart.
Don’t give your heart over to grief;
stay away from it,
remembering your own end.
Don’t forget that there’s no coming back;
you won’t do them any good,
and you will hurt yourself.
Remember their sentence,
because it’s yours also:
“Yesterday it was I, and today it’s you!”
When the dead are at rest,
put their memory to rest,
and be comforted for them
when their spirit has left.

Sirach 41:1-4 (CEB) = "How bitter, death,
is the thought of you
to those who are at peace
among their possessions,
to those who aren’t anxiously distracted, who prosper at everything
and still have the strength
to enjoy good food.
Your sentence looks good, death,
to a person who is needy
and lacks strength,
who is extremely old and anxious
about everything,
who is not compliant
and whose endurance has failed.
Don’t fear death’s judgment;
remember those who came before you
and those who will come after you.
This is the Lord’s judgment for all beings:
Why should you reject
the good pleasure of the Most High?
Whether ten or one hundred
or one thousand years,
there’s no arguing about life
in the grave."

Nyarlathotep's picture
I'd just add that the belief

I'd just add that the belief you will live forever with everyone in some magical fantasy land after your death isn't exactly what I'd call fully coping.

b_rye's picture
I'm sorry to hear you're

I'm sorry to hear you're going through this. My dad died a few years ago and I found "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius very helpful through the whole ordeal. It wasn't exactly "comforting", but it did put things in perspective, kind of like how arakish puts it when he says your physical constituent pieces will go on. We are just another state of matter, to the best of my knowledge. When anything happens, we should try not to perceive it as "bad" because nature has allowed it to happen, so it was in line with the natural way of things. "Man's Search For Meaning" is also a good one that provoked a lot of thought for me.

There's nothing truthful someone can say to make the death of a loved one seem all rosey and great because it's not. It's tragic and hurts, but loss is a part of life that we all have to deal with if we live long enough ourselves to experience it. It's morbid but true. You either feel the pain of loss or others feel the pain of losing you.

I hope you can recover soon and not let it impact your life in a negative way. There is no divine law telling you to grieve a number of years, and grieving in an unhealthy manner will not make you feel better. It's like drinking your sorrows away - it just makes you feel worse. The longer you let yourself be a wreck over it, the more it eats away at the one life you have. Do you want to make the rest of your life revolve around your grief and then just die depressed, not having really lived in all that time? If you go into the situation expecting that you can't cope, then you won't be able to cope. But I'm telling you that you can. All you need is to work at changing your perspective. You can remember your grandmother and cherish her memory AND still be happy in the rest of your life. A loss does not necessitate an endless flow of tears, and it only makes things worse.

Cognostic's picture
Chloe P: Fascinating

Chloe P: Fascinating phrasing of a question. (I love your name by the way.) If you only stop to think about what you are asking and how you talk about it, you can find your answer. Here is a big tip for you.... People do not respond to events. People respond to BELIEFS about events. What you believe about your grandmother's passing is everything. Change your beliefs and you will change your world. This is called the A, B, C's of Rational Thought and you can read more by looking it up on the Internet.

Let's start with a look at reality. Whenever someone close to us dies, it is a "TRAGEDY." We are "CONFRONTED" and being "FORCED" to live with this "FACT." (Does that sound right to you? Really?)
It IS NOT a fact.

I fully get that you are sad about the FACT that your grandmother will die. All grandmother's die. (That is not a callous statement. It is a fact of life.) That is what grandma's do. Some die of cancer. Some have heart attacks. Some rot away in nursing homes as senility and health problems destroy every aspect of who they once were. I saw a grandfather die of diabetes and gangrene poisoning over a five year period. They cut off his hands, feet, then legs, one arm, removed his testicles, and finally after 5 years of suffering and pleading to be allowed to die, he died. The TRAGEDY WAS THAT THE MEDICAL SYSTEM WE HAVE IN AMERICA KEPT HIM ALIVE FOR 5 YEARS. LIFE was the TRAGEDY not death.

How you are thinking about your grandmother's death is everything.

There is an activating event. A: Your grandmother, who you love, is dying of cancer.

You then have some beliefs about this event: B: It's a horrible tragedy. It's not fair. Why my grandma? How can I cope with this loss? (Please take a hard and serious look at your beliefs. Write them down and then look at what is real. How REAL are these beliefs?

Because of your BELIEFS you experience direct consequences. C: Anger, Frustration, Black and White Thinking, Awfulizing, "This is a horrible situation."

IN REALITY: People die every day of cancer. There are more dead people on this planet than there are living people. Everyone dies. What is our responsibility to those we love who are dying? How does running about seeing death as a TRAGEDY when it is so incredibly common, solve anything. Your emotions are attached to this idea of "TRAGEDY." "It's horrible, awful, tragic, unfair, etc...... " No! It is "SAD." It is "UNFORTUNATE." It is certainly not something CONFRONTING YOU but rather something that you would rather not have to deal with and yet you find yourself in the position of having to deal with it.
You do not HAVE to deal with it. That is a LIE you tell yourself. No one is doing anything to you or forcing you or confronting you with anything. You are CHOOSING to deal with it because you love your grandmother. IT IS YOUR CHOICE TO DEAL WITH THIS. You are not being confronted. It only feels that way because you do not know what to do. So think about it. If you were dying of cancer, what would you like your grandmother to do? There is no CONFRONTATION HERE, there is an opportunity for love. There is an opportunity for understanding. There is an opportunity to help someone in a time of need. There is an opportunity to face what is real in the world and simply deal with it without all that emotional baggage you want to carry around. People die, it is a fact of life.

A healthier belief system might be..... (You will still have to find your own. This was something like mine when my grandmother died.)

A: Grandmother is dying.

B: I am sad and I want her to know how much I love her. I want her to experience as little pain as possible. I want to be by her side. I want to treat her the way I think I want to be treated when I die. I know all things and everyone die and the best the living can do is show them love and care for them.

C: I feel sad. Miss the passing of my grandmother but always remember her in my heart and I am so glad I got to spend my final days supporting her.

Cognostic's picture
Chloe P: I want to talk

Chloe P: I want to talk about the whole "Higher Power" bullshit separately. How is "belief in a higher power, actually dealing with anything?" Belief in a higher power is "running away." Belief in a higher power is "avoiding the issue."

For the person dying. "It's in God's hands." I don't have to think about it. I don't have to worry about it. It is not up to me. God has a plan. Soon I will be by his side in heaven. Is this not just a way to impersonalize death. It is a way to ignore what is going on.

For the significant others. "Well, its all in God's hands. He has a plan. Everything will be okay. Grandma will go to Heaven." Bullshit explanations that allow us to avoid the fact that death takes us all. It is a "feel good" pill that the religious take so that they can avoid facing facts. It is a fairy tale we tell one another to feel better. How are they coping with loss when every time grandma gets mentioned in the future the response is "She is in heaven now." It is an avoidance of loss. It is an avoidance of emotion. It is an avoidance of death. It is an avoidance of passion and love. It is an avoidance of the reality of life.
It is how people who avoid things deal with death and dying. The rest of us, mourn our losses, accept them, and move on with our lives while knowing full well that our turn will come at some point in the future. Death is a part of life. It is not separate from life. It is not some event that happens to us. It is a part of the process of being alive.

Sky Pilot's picture
IMO the basic emotion that

IMO the basic emotion that people feel when someone close to them dies is anxiety about being left alone. The closer you were to the person the greater the anxiety. Do you really care when someone dies who you were not close to? Not really. But when someone really close to you dies you can go into a panic because you are faced with the loss of a meaningful relationship and you have no idea how you will cope with the new reality. It is comparable to what happens in a romantic breakup or divorce. Even children don't experience the same degree of loss as each other when they lose a parent. One will feel it more than the others. It's like smashing your thumb. I know it hurts but I can't feel your pain, I can only feel my own.

TheBlindWatchmaker's picture
I've never considered the

I've never considered the going to some sort of mysterious 'paradise' as 'comforting' in the slightest.

For one thing, what is paradise to one person for example is entirely different to another.
My fiancé loves going to hot tropical places for our holidays, whilst I'm drawn to the polar opposite (pun intended).

But when it comes to coping I just ready myself with the facts that the person passing or that has passed would not want me to suffer or struggle and that it does not benefit me to do so.

Therefore I attempt to be happy and remember those who have gone from my life for all of the good, funny things that persist in my mind.

SecularSonOfABiscuitEater's picture
Sorry to hear about your

Sorry to hear about your grandmother Chloe. It's must be tough. I lost my grandmother to breast cancer. It's not easy.

I will say that the time I spend with my loved ones, makes me feel confident that our connection never truly dies and this gives me the closure that one seeks during the grieving process. You have time with your grandmother now. When you're with her, be with her. Be present. Forget your phone, forget social media, forget your problems, forget the Atheist Republic. As an atheist, I know death exists and I value the days we get to live and enjoy one another. Just be present and devote your time to her and when her time comes, You will have no need to feel regret.

Cognostic's picture
Much more eloquent than I.

Much more eloquent than I.

Tin-Man's picture
Outstanding, SecularSOB.....

Outstanding, SecularSOB..... Simply outstanding.... *respectfully tipping hat*...

NewSkeptic's picture
Not much to add to what

Not much to add to what others have said here. I will point out that although my father died nearly 30 years ago, I still see him all the time in my dreams. I don't completely discount this as I do spent a significant amount of my life sleeping and in those dreams I see him, hear him, and have conversation about things that we never experienced in awake life.

Time eventually numbs the pain and memories remain.

LogicFTW's picture
@Chloe P

@Chloe P

Nylar already neatly summed it up, but I would like to add:

Who says religion solves it for religious people I see plenty of religious people that deeply mourn the loss of close ones as well.
While I am not aware of any exhaustive studies, I seen no indication religious people are any happier or sorrow free then non religious people. In my own small sample size of people that I know, I would say the opposite is true, where the more religious people are they more overall depressed they are.

I feel like I would be more depressed if I was religious, the various religions vaguely define an afterlife and heaven concepts, but no clear concise logical path. It is not as easy as picking one religion randomly that allows you to be forgiven for all sins and then be forgiven. How does that work? Can I sin, murder rape and kill all I want but then seek forgiveness on my deathbed and all is well I spend an eternity in heaven? No of course not, that is ridiculous, and very dangerous concept to everyone's health and wellbeing (including my own!)

If I was religious and believed in that crap I would be forced to wonder if I will make this "heaven" constantly, and if my family and friends would go to heaven too, sounds like a constant state of fear to me.



▮          I am an atheist that always likes a good debate.          ▮
▮   Please include @LogicFTW in responses directed to me.    ▮
▮        Useful list on forum usage. A.R. Member since 2016.      ▮

arakish's picture
@ Logic

@ Logic

Damnit! Where is that 1K Agree button? Very well said.


David Killens's picture
"Who says religion solves it

"Who says religion solves it for religious people I see plenty of religious people that deeply mourn the loss of close ones as well."

IMO grasping at straws in a futile effort to evade the inevitability of death is common on almost all religions. Theists do not properly prepare or train others in dealing with death. They invent this fantasy world where they live forever and everyone is just too happy hugging and singing kumbaya.

Spectre of Marxism's picture
> can those who do not

> can those who do not believe in a higher power fully cope with loss, or is belief in a higher power necessary for this to happen?

Its entirely possible to cope with loss without faith in a higher power. The first necessary step is to accept the transient character of all things; everything that has a beginning, has an end. Pain is not borne out of a lack of faith in higher power, but rather, from lack of awareness of this fundamental law of transience.

This doesn't mean that one should become indifferent towards loss of life, tragedies, etc. No, no. That would be socio/psychopathic. But one should be compassionate, and appreciate your fellow man while you share the fleeting existence that you do; be good to your fellow man, be the best that you can be for others as well as for yourself.

The theist copes less, in my opinion. He delegates his sorrow to a higher power of his own conjecture, he transforms it out of his mind, without ever processing it, without ever dealing with it, expecting that the person they lost in fact never died. That's cheating, not coping.

Tin-Man's picture
Bravo, Spectre!.... *clapping

Bravo, Spectre!.... *clapping*.... Bravo!....

David Killens's picture
Life is not copy and paste.

Life is not copy and paste. Life is one shot.

arakish's picture
I am stealing this one, with

I am stealing this one, with attribution, for my list of favorite quotes at AR.


dogalmighty's picture
Life and Death, are part of

Life and Death, are part of all living things that we know of. Living things on this planet, eventually die, and have been doing so long before religion was invented. If you are atheist or theist, you will eventually die. If religious, you may take solace in an afterlife story...which people think helps you with grief of others death...It may also prolong the grieving and other emotions.. If atheist, you do not believe in an afterlife story, thus not having to deal with religious baggage that is tied to someone's just realize everyone dies, and remember who that person was while living. IMHO, religion doesn't aid with my experience, being religious, prolongs grieving and the feeling of loss and longing...for a long time. If atheist, you think about death briefly, and come to the conclusion that, the persons death doesn't matter, their life does. I have these views as prior to becoming atheist, I was religious.

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