Book Excerpt: On Death, Dying, and Disbelief

Attending the Women of Color Beyond Belief conference for the first time, I did not know what to expect. New to the secular community, I appreciated having a space to draw on my experiences as a secular woman of color. By far the most meaningful event I attended was Candace Gorham’s event, “On Death, Dying, and Disbelief,” based on her new novel. I had never considered how as a secular person, my grief process might be different than what is conventionally taught within our society. Like many things in the United States, the grief process is extremely enmeshed with Christian beliefs of heaven and god. I had often neglected my own grief processes, unable to understand how our belief or non-belief had a direct influence on it.

Coming from an extremely Catholic background, things like “they may have passed, but take solace that they are in heaven” or “they are in a better place” were commonly interlaced in my family conversations about grief. Through this conference event, I learned the importance of learning and practicing secular grief and coping skills as they aligned with my everyday beliefs. This book, written by mental health counselor Candace Gorham draws on her expertise as well as her secular beliefs on how to cope with grief. This is a must-read for any atheist processing grief in a religious world.

—Margie Delao, AHA Policy and Social Justice Coordinator

This excerpt comes from “Tip 1” of On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, available for purchase now:

At times I’ve heard a grieving nontheist say, “I still hear their voice” or “I see them,” and they wonder if they are having a spiritual experience. I think it is a sign that the person is in unimaginable pain. Even those who grew up without religion have been exposed to ideas about an afterlife and other spiritual concepts such as demons, angels, apparitions, and more. It is not uncommon for people who believe in an afterlife to also believe that their loved ones can come back and communicate with them. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that you, having encountered that way of thinking much of your life, might manifest those same internalized concepts during your time of extreme vulnerability.

It is okay that you might wish there is an afterlife when you are grieving. You do not need to feel ashamed or silly about having such thoughts either. During this time, you are desperate for any connection to your loved one, and, unfortunately for those nontheists who generally want nothing to do with spirituality, those spiritual concepts seem to be our only possible way to connect with our loved one. Therefore, it makes sense that you wish they were still living somewhere in an afterlife, watching over or even visiting you.

I have a friend who is currently grieving the death of a lover and she and I talk regularly due to our shared understanding of this unique pain. She asked me about my thoughts on the afterlife and whether I wished Tim was in one. I explained that, yes, there had been times I wished he were in a heaven, but I do not dwell on those thoughts because I do not believe in heaven. For me, the thought of an afterlife does not serve a purpose or bring me comfort. It does not make me uncomfortable either. However, for her, it brought her moments of comfort. So, I supported her in her ability and need to simultaneously carry those contradictory beliefs so that she could experience occasional relief, even though she articulated her full belief that there is no heaven. I think she found comfort in knowing that I had had the same experience, which helped normalize her own thoughts, and that I was proof that such a feeling was temporary.

It is also okay for you to “talk to” your loved one, knowing full well that they are not there. If it will make you feel better, tell yourself that doing so is no different than journaling, except you are saying the words out loud. As with journaling, “talking” to a person who is not really there can be a very cleansing experience….

It can also be helpful to verbalize all of the things you wish you had said or could say to your loved one. You most likely carry a ton of regrets, and there are probably a million things you wish you had or had not said. Although your loved one is gone, there is something healing about getting those words out of your brain and out of your heart….

Have you ever had an argument with someone, then later thought of all kinds of comebacks, points, and counterpoints you wish you had unleashed? How did you handle that? Most likely you replayed an alternate version of the conversation over and over in your head a hundred times or called a friend and told them all the things you wish you had said. Then what did you probably say after you vented like that? Whew! I feel better now. That’s because saying things out loud, even when we cannot say them directly to the target, feels good….

You will experience every emotion on the spectrum. You will go through all the stages. You will contemplate and ruminate. You will fantasize and romanticize. And having grown up in a society that places high value on supernatural experiences and entities, the afterlife, and spiritual exploration, it is reasonable that you will find yourself thinking about these things as well. Your friends and family may try to convince you that such thoughts are proof that god is trying to reveal himself to you and you may even wonder about this yourself from time to time. However, whether you are a lifelong nontheist or came to your nontheism after years of study and struggle, you may be uncomfortable with having supernatural thoughts or “experiences” during the grieving process. In those moments, it’s important to recognize that such unwanted thoughts are often simply an expression of the grieving process.