Sunday, October 4, 2015

Separation of Church and Grief

If you know us, you probably know we're both atheist.  We were both raised in pretty typical North American Christian belief systems (Catholic for Chris and Methodist for Elizabeth), but in adulthood we both stopped believing.  It wasn't because anything traumatic happened to make us "lose our faith," it just happened as a result of questioning the world around us and applying critical thinking to all our beliefs (religious, moral, etc. - no sacred cows).

Being an open atheist in the United States is not nearly as scary as in many other places in the world, but it's also not commonly accepted.  People assume something happened to make us "turn away" or they think we'll "come back" someday.  We didn't and we won't.  We're not mad at the Christian god (or any other gods).  We just don't think they're real.  It's more than a bit patronizing when people refuse to accept this about us.

The impact organized religion has on the world is far-reaching and complex, and this post isn't really meant to get into any of that.  For now, we just want to talk about how atheism impacts our grieving process.

We wouldn't say being atheist makes grieving more or less difficult, but it certainly makes it different.  We'd never judge what bereaved parents (or others) go through with regards to religious beliefs, but these sorts of differences can make connecting hard.  It's so ingrained in our culture to offer prayers and talk of heaven when loved ones pass away.  This brings comfort to many, but not to us.  If anything, it makes us shut down emotionally and we can't connect.

Most of the time, offers of prayers come from a place of love.  But to a person who doesn't believe in a god or gods, it can be perceived quite differently.  Some people go so far as to say they pray we'll find god.  That comes across as aggressive and completely unsupportive.  It's better to just say you're thinking of us or of Obie.  People who remember this (especially religious people) truly make us feel loved and supported, because they are taking time to offer us the support we need rather than the support they habitually give.

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory
We almost titled this section just "Heaven," but to us they are inextricably linked as concepts.  In some ways, I think we have an easier time with grieving because we aren't worried about where Obie's "soul" resides.  No part of us believes he's in purgatory with other unbaptized babies.  Just like no part of us believes any of our departed loved ones are burning in eternal hellfire.  Oberon is simply gone.  At rest.  Neither his soul nor his body exist anymore, similar to before he existed.  The one difference is his impact on our lives continues.  We loved him intensely for his whole life, and we will try to honor his memory for the rest of ours.

On the other hand, religious people can fall back on the idea of reuniting with loved ones when they themselves die.  This is a nice thought, and it's one we don't get to have.  When people talk about imagining their loved ones (and sometimes even Obie) running around playing in heaven, we withdraw.  It's similar to fantasizing about Obie having a life totally out of step with the one he had.  It may be nice to think about, but it isn't real and ultimately doesn't bring us true comfort.

It's Just Us
A lot of grief affirmations have to do with leaning on god or trusting god's plan.  We don't believe there is a plan, other than the one we make.  We didn't do anything to deserve Obie's medical problems, and we weren't meant to learn some cosmic lesson.  We can only move forward from here, knowing what we know and accepting what we don't.  By the same token, we don't have a supernatural being to rely on to make things OK.  We have to make things OK.  By telling our loved ones what we need, by supporting each other, by taking the steps we're ready to take, and by accepting it when we're not ready.  No one is going to save us, and there's no guarantee that what we want to happen will happen in the future.  We have to decide whether to move forward in spite of that.  It's scary, not knowing what will happen, but ultimately we think it's better.  We know there's only so much we can control, but we should do the best we can with what we have.  We won't wait around and hope things will work out, because there's no universal power taking care of us.  It's on us.

More Thoughts On A Grand Plan
With this subsequent pregnancy, things are going well and we are hopeful.  But we don't believe that we "deserve" this baby or that now it's the "right time."  It was the right time for us when Oberon came into our lives.  We didn't lose Obie for a reason, we didn't get pregnant again because it was the "right time", and no matter what happens with this pregnancy - it isn't a "grand plan."  It is what it is, and we'll have to do our best whatever happens.  Families who go through multiple losses do not have bad timing.  Families who go through no losses are not more deserving or more ready.  Sometimes, bad things happen.  Sometimes it's a direct result of action taken or the environment, and sometimes it's random and out of anyone's control.

Since so much of the support for the grieving is tied up with religion, we thought it was important to share a few secular resources we have found.  Online groups are easier to find than real life ones, and that can be both a benefit and a challenge.
  • Compassionate Friends - This group has no official religious affiliation.  Of course, it is a meeting of local bereaved parents and siblings, so there are people from all faiths and no faith.  Each chapter will depend on the people in it.
  • Grief Beyond Belief - This is a specifically faith-free support group.  They have a public facebook page, and also a private group for the grieving to have a safe space.  This is one of the only places we have found where no one offers default prayers or the common religious-inspired tropes discussed above.
  • Baby Loss Support for Agnostic and Atheist Moms - This private facebook group was recommended by members of the Grief Beyond Belief group.  It's definitely got a different tone, as the members often post memes and not everything is grief related.
We hope these resources may help others, like us, who grieve without religion.

McWay Falls in Big Sur, California

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