How does a person cope with grief when they don’t believe in a higher power or the afterlife? This was a question I was forced to confront recently, after losing a close friend.
Some people turn to food, drugs, and/or alcohol to bury their pain; which, is not physically or mentally healthy, or something I would do, anyway. Nor, do I believe in God or, consequently, that my friend is floating on a white cloud and we’ll meet up again someday—something I heard a lot of from well-meaning friends. Stunned, and in mourning, I struggled for days without any of the traditional comforts available to most people.
While I understand the powerful placebo effect which a belief in the afterlife provides to many people, this is simply not an option to ease the pain for those of us who have no such belief. The normal platitudes do not soothe atheist grief, because they ring false in our ears.
Part of the pain was caused by how suddenly my friend was taken. He was a healthy, middle-aged man, who exercised and drank moderately, if at all. Less than forty-eight hours before his death, we stayed up late talking—one of life’s little coincidences I am very thankful for providing—and he told me how great he was feeling lately: more energy, improved mood. A blood clot changed all that; and he never regained consciousness so that his family and friends could tell him how much he meant to us, and that we were all pulling for his recovery.
What I did realize, was that I was grateful for the memories and the time I did have with my friend; especially that last conversation. I recognized and acknowledged that, along with all his other loved ones, I was in pain and that I just need to be with that pain for a while. I chose to let the pain remind me that I was still alive, that I can reach out to other friends in my life and say the things left unsaid with those already gone.
I appreciate that this strategy might not, and probably will not, work for others; but, it might just help one or two other like-minded people who find themselves in this situation. Atheists, despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, are not evil people and we feel pain just like everyone else. When thoughts of an afterlife in the company of a benign deity will not provide consolation, then, maybe, the realization that we had those brief moments of friendship with those who touched our lives in the first place, might bring some comfort. Because, that’s all that life is, a series of moments.