Quote of the Day: Secular Grief by Greta Christina

atheism death

When someone we love dies, it can intensely undermine our sense of stability and safety. Our lives have been changed forever, generally by forces we had no control over—and it can feel as if nothing’s in our control. It can feel like the ground under our feet, which we once thought was stable, has suddenly gone soft. Our sense of being able to act in the world, and of having some reasonable expectation of what the consequences will be, can be deeply shaken.

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This feeling can be especially strong if the person who died was someone we were exceptionally close with and who had a large presence in our everyday lives, like a spouse or a partner or a child. It can be especially strong if they were someone we knew for all or most of our lives, like a parent or a sibling. And it can be especially strong if the death was unexpected, like an accident, a sudden illness, or death by violence.

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Typically, religion teaches us to cope with these feelings by denying them. It tells us that, no matter how insecure we may feel, in reality we’re completely safe. The people who have died aren’t really dead—we’ll see them again. Their death hasn’t actually changed our lives permanently. In fact, the next time we see them it’ll be in a blissful place of perfect safety. (There are exceptions—many Buddhist teachings, for instance, focus on the inherent impermanence of existence.)

The opposite is true for nonreligious and nonspiritual views of death. Nonbelievers don’t deny this experience of instability. So instead we can try to accept it, and find ways to live with it.

The reality is that safety isn’t an either/or thing. We’re never either entirely safe or entirely unsafe. The ground under our feet is never either totally solid or totally soft. Stability and safety are relative: they’re on a spectrum. We’re more safe, or less safe.

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Coping with grief and moving on with it doesn’t mean that the ground feels entirely solid again. It means that the ground feels more solid. It means we feel more able to make plans, more trusting that our actions will have consequences that are more or less what we’d expect. We still understand that things can come out of left field—terrible things, and wonderful ones. We can go ahead and make plans; and make contingency plans in case those plans don’t work out; and do risk-benefit analysis about possible actions and possible outcomes; and accept the fact that a sudden wind could rise up and radically change everything.

There’s no such thing as perfect safety. That can be difficult to accept. But it can also be a relief. Imagine an existence where there are no surprises, where everything happens exactly as you expect. It would be tedious to the point of derangement. It would be sterile. It would be isolating.

When we let go of the search for perfect safety, it can be frightening and upsetting. But it can also be comforting. Letting go of the struggle for something that can’t be attained, and letting go of the guilt or resentment when we don’t attain it, can be a relief. It can even be liberating.

The fear that grief can bring on, the anxiety about an unstable, unpredictable world, is still frightening. And none of this philosophy makes that pain or fear go away. But it may make that fear more manageable, less overwhelming, and easier to accept.

— Greta Christina, The Humanist, Secular Grief, and the Loss of Stability and Safety, June 28, 2016

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