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How Do Atheists Handle the Death of Their Loved Ones?

calvin and hobbes death

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected. 

Texas Born & Bred asked:

I am in my sixties. In the last 2 or 3 years, I have attended the funerals of several close relatives and friends that were younger than me. One cousin that died was very close. We were each other’s best man at our weddings. My very best friend in high school died. Several friends my age or younger are struggling with serious health problems.

So death often captures my attention. I am a Christian (what kind? – barely Christian) and I am constantly reminded in church, Sunday school, and bible studies of the glory that await us once we die. That would be nice and does provide comfort. But my problem is that the ones I cared deeply about that have died were not the church-going type. And that is discomforting. Life is not fair.

I took a stroll through an older cemetery one day and could not help but notice the large number of headstones of babies. Back in the 1800s, it was common for children to die in sickness outbreaks. One headstone was simply marked “Wilson babies”. What a horrible thing to go through! But the parents struggled on. They still had crops to work and cows to milk. Their faith must have provided a bit of comfort in such a gut-wrenching time.

How do atheists handle the death of loved ones? Is their grieving process the same as believers who expect to see their loved ones again someday in heaven?

This is a great question. For Christians, when death takes a loved one, they have the promise of comfort from Jesus and the hope of being reunited in Heaven someday. Let’s face it, atheism can’t offer life after death, nor is it all that comforting to think that you’ll never see your loved one again. Yet, knowing there is no life after death can and does motivate atheists to live life to its fullest. If I had one piece of advice to give it would be this:

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Someday, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.

Death is quite personal, and how we respond is too. Unlike the Christian who is expected to put his faith in Jesus and claim the promises of God, the atheist must meet death head-on without any buffers or feel-good beliefs. When death takes a loved one, that’s the end. What’s left are the memories made over a lifetime. While I can’t speak for any atheist but myself, if Polly died before me, I hope I would, in the midst of my grief, revel in our shared experiences. We’ve been married for almost forty-two years. We’ve raised six wonderful children, and are blessed beyond measure with thirteen grandchildren. We have had all sorts of experiences, both personally and together. We’ve each stood by the hospital bedside of the other, fearing that we would never see each other again. Our marriage has been tested and tried, yet we have endured. That said, if either of us died today, our testimony would be, it’s been good. While I can’t imagine living one day without Polly, I know life will go one whether I can imagine it or not.

How would you answer Texas Born and Bred’s question? What sage, witty advice would you give to atheists facing the death of a loved one? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    As an unbeliever, I lost my parents to the illnesses of the old. It was extraordinarily difficult, but I can’t imagine it would have been much easier if I’d been a believer. The extra pain came from having to deal graciously with all those wonderful people who were determined to comfort my by assuring me my parents would be in heaven waiting for me with open arms. It takes a whole lot of effort to get through day after day of dealing with such people.

    Mama died in 2002, and Daddy in 2006. I’ve spent the intervening years trying to resolve our relationships, and that’s part of the grieving process, too. Mama and I weren’t close, and I needed to deal with the guilt of a difficult relationship. Since her death, I’ve come to understand her better, and to forgive myself for my own part in the difficulties (which is damned hard). Daddy and I were extremely close. I missed him horribly for a very long time. There I struggled with the what-ifs of being his final caregiver; what if I’d done X instead of Y, would it have made his life better/longer? That was hard to get over, and took some therapy. Now, with both my parents, I tend and nurture the good memories and let the bad ones fade away. It’s taken awhile, but it’s working.

    Finally, both deaths remind me of my own mortality, and that my time is limited. I need to be able to say on my own death bed, “I did enough.”

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    At least you don’t have to worry who you will see or won’t see after you die.

    We all go to the same place: where we were before we were born.

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    I know it sounds awfully twee, but the ending of the show ‘Lost’ really got to me. All these people who went through so much together, reached personal potentials they wouldn’t have otherwise, became ‘family’ – ended up together in some sort of afterlife together. Reunited in a peaceful place, whole, safe, and happy again.

    It just gutted me, because as much as I’d like for that sort of thing to be true, I don’t believe it is. And even if it were, I wouldn’t want the ‘god’ of the bible to be involved in it at all. Just people I’ve always loved, reconciled in peace no matter what happened here in this life.

    It’s no longer any fear of hell. It’s disappointment that comes with the doubt and disbelief that we all can be reunited in forgiveness of EACH OTHER, not relying on forgiveness from something that isn’t real.

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      Jada, I can relate to your connection to “Lost.” I never watched it, but the movie “Ghost” had a profound effect on me when I was still a christian. The final scene where the main character went to a place where he was surrounded by loving people who were waiting for him made me wonder, “What if the afterlife is like that? What if there really is no heaven or hell, just a comforting place of peace and love?” I began to think that maybe the Bible wasn’t the ultimate authority on the matter…and pretty much led to the erosion of my belief in the Bible as an authority in general. Actually to me it’s comforting to believe that the end is the end, even if I won’t see my loved ones again. It seems self-centered to insist on believing otherwise, as if my loved ones just CAN’T be taken away from me forever. But there are always the memories…

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        I hadn’t thought of that scene in a long time, Angiep, but now I do remember feeling the same way. Growing up in ‘the faith,’ there were so many things I just accepted without thinking, even while finding most all of it senseless. When the time came that I could no longer live with the cognitive dissonance, I realized what the bible was telling us ‘heaven’ really was: An eternity of worshiping this batshit crazy deity. I realized it had nothing to do with me or anyone I loved or . . . anyone at all. It wasn’t about deity ‘loving’ any of us. Not anymore than ‘love’ was the point of those three times a week I was required to go to church. That was pretty much when it was over. Where’s the ‘hope’ in any of that nonsense?

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    Recently had a young cousin die in a tragic accident and all my family can talk about is how they assume he was not “saved” and how awful it must be for his immediate family (who they clearly also judge as not being “saved”) to go through this “without any hope”. It makes me want to gouge out my eyes and I hope they haven’t said any of this bullshit to his parents. To me, it is almost comforting to know that no, god didn’t have anything to do with it, not did he fail to prevent it. It isn’t fair, but life isn’t fair. And that’s ok. It’s comforting to know that bad things do randomly happen to everybody, some just get more luck than others, and it isn’t some magic justice from the sky trying to send a message.

    (Also gotta love my family using the opportunity to send me “loving” emails about how I don’t know when Jesus will be killing me, and I won’t have time to fix things after he does. They literally do not understand that I do not believe any of that bullshit to be true. They literally cannot conceive of it. Because I really am just rebelling because I want to sin. But I just send the emails to the trash rather than engage. Glad I don’t live nearby.)

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    There is no Hell to fear. That is enough.The greed to live forever entails a selfishness I am glad not to have (I have my own forms of it, to be sure). Hopefully life provided some times of pleasantness to call into mind – for all too many this is not so.

    Calvin and Hobbes is just great. Philosophy leads to different places when done with full and empty stomachs!

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    Aram McLean

    For me it’s the not-knowing that keeps me going. Yes, probably we just cease to exist after death. But hey, maybe not.
    It’s enough.

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    You know, the day my dad died was the day I realized I didn’t believe in an afterlife. I realize that the last time I saw him alive will be the last time. Honestly, if I had believed I don’t think it would have been any easier to accept such a sudden death. My mom is a believer and I don’t really think it made it any easier for her. The worst was actually having all the people come to the house to pray with me and talk about heaven and then some even expressing doubt and worry about his final destination. I really did prefer spending time with my secular friends during that time.

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    Appalachian Agnostic

    Not believing has not made it any harder to deal with death. It may even be easier. My Christian family members are constantly agonizing over who is saved and who isn’t. For them, it all comes down to believing the correct doctrine. It is insane. In their minds, the saved could have lived lives of good or lives of evil as long as they chose the correct version of the God story. Apparently, God only likes people with a certain kind of intellect. Death really isn’t that much more of a mystery without all that gobbledegook. Either way, nobody really knows what happens.

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    I remember my grandma’s death and how at the funeral everybody was quite happy, almost like a church social: Grandma was taken directly to heaven, you see, to be with her preacher husband and she had been wishing for this for some time. Christianity allows us to dump all our human feelings into the trash and to smile a bright, knowing smile. Oh death where is thy sting? Why, it doesn’t sting so badly at all with a good shot of triune belief! Nevermind that one’s humanity is harmed by this denial of natural human loss, grief. Nevermind that some of us who do not share the woo have fewer loved ones around us to share our grief. Believing makes it harder to feel honestly because it is designed to warp feelings into woo world.

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    My mom died just over 5 years ago after battling years of breast cancer. There just weren’t any more treatments that her body would respond to, so she got the rest of her affairs in order and tried to get as much pleasure in her final months as possible, doing things she liked. She and I had a complicated relationship of competition (who was smarter, prettier, more well read) and a competition over her parents with whom I lived from the time I was 3 and chose to live with them instead of her. I didn’t know until a few years before she died that she had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and that shaped her life dramatically – the low self esteem, escape into books, always needing a man’s attention (and eventually she found one she could bully instead of being bullied herself). It sounds like she was a bad person, but she wasn’t – she was actually very sweet and caring, but she and I had a competitive, complicated relationship, and she couldn’t handle that my younger brother wasnt as academically driven as she and I were, do she wrote him off as lacking intellectually (they actually worked through that when he was older).

    When she died, I was no longer Christian but hadn’t worked out that I was an atheist. We had the whole evangelical funeral because that’s what she wanted. We had a “homegoing” celebration and invited her friends and family. We played out the charade.

    I miss her every day. We used to correspond a lot through email as neither of us was a phone person. I think if fond memories and try not to think of the contention. I am glad her suffering is over.

    One day I will die, but I don’t fear it. I hope I don’t suffer or die violently. But I don’t fear judgment in an afterlife, which is actually comforting because as an evangelical Christian I could never be 100% certain of salvation despite what they tell us. It’s comforting to know that one day I will cease to exist ex except in the memories of otbers, and eventually not at all, perhaps as a name in a genealogy if someone cares.

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    dale m

    Whoooo boy …. a delicate one. I’m different than most atheists. I have no problem with “gods” or an “afterlife”. Only with religion.

    I believe man is destined to become a god.

    A religious “afterlife” to me means absolutely nothing. An extension of this life through Time travel is completely different. There is no math that rules out Time travel. The 7 paradoxes of Time travel disappear when using String theory.

    Take a walk outside. Look up at the heavens. We R looking backward nearly 10,000 years. If we achieve light speed, we may be able to visit the stars within 25 light years of us at best. Beyond that communication breaks down. It requires building wormholes just to communicate.

    But building a wormhole IS IN FACT constructing a Time machine. It is at that point, we begin our gradual transformation into gods.

    Relativity ceases to work with wormholes or anything smaller than an atom. It works everywhere else with extraordinary precision. So something is amiss. Time travel becomes possible ONLY if Nature is greater than 4-D. All the advanced math that was ever been done suggests strongly that reality is 11-D.

    So yeah. We don’t need a religious afterlife if reality is 11-D. It’ll simply be a given. So. What’s the problem? It’s faith in the scientific method.

    I really loathe atheists who lock arms with religion and declare unanimously that “science can’t save you!” Oh yes it can! If we only try!

    We may all feel the same emotions when someone close to us dies. Some leave it up to a higher authority to do something about it. Not me. I am content to believe that there R still those when given the opportunity one day, will push the very boundaries of science and technology to make our wildest dreams a reality. I won’t, I can’t give up those dreams, even if religion has. The track record of achieving the impossible is on our side! Whereas religion dropped out of that race thousands of years ago ….

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    I would appreciate to know what would you say to whom had done all the contrary of what you recommend to do through life. How do you think it could be rationalised and stopped the feelings of guilt, of thoroughly having wasted life, of having never be up to one’s “super-ego” demands, and the feeling of never had been congruent enough; what could had been be the point of a life like that so when death would be already too near bitterness and regret would nopt fill up all the last life space left.

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Bruce Gerencser