Secular Grief, and the Loss of Stability and Safety

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. And this can feel paralyzing. How can we know how to act, what is even the point of acting—scheduling work deadlines, making plans with friends, taking care of our health—when our world can be completely shaken by something that’s out of our hands?

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.

But it can even be true if the death was entirely expected, and had been expected for some time. When my father died, he was seventy-nine years old; he’d been in poor and declining health for many years; his decline had been accelerating; he’d been put into home hospice care. His death was even something of a relief, as he’d been suffering for some time. And yet, for quite a while after he died, I felt like the world was a dangerous, unpredictable place. I felt like I was bracing myself, constantly looking over my shoulder for the next monster to jump out of the shadows.

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. If we’re in immediate mortal danger with a dozen guns pointed at our head, we could still survive and escape to safety. And no matter how safe we think we are, there’s always some danger: if we’re behind triple-locked steel doors with security guards in a gated community and have $10 billion in the bank, we could still get hit with an earthquake, or get a genetic illness we knew nothing about and for which there’s no treatment. (Or an asteroid could hit the planet.) And, of course, there’s no preventing the aging process and the fact that someday we are going to die.

We can’t be perfectly stable, or perfectly safe. And we don’t have to be. We just have to be stable enough, and safe enough.

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.

An unpredictable world is a world where a stranger can crash their car and kill your best friend—and it’s also a world where a stranger can help when your car is broken down on the side of the highway. It’s a world where a beloved spouse can suddenly get sick and die—and it’s also a world where you can fall in love in the first place. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness, “The unexpected is what makes life possible.” A life of absolute certainty is no life at all.

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.