On Death, Dying, and Disbelief
BOOK BY CANDACE GORHAM
PITCHSTONE PUBLISHING, 2021
As humans, most of us—especially after the last couple of pandemic years—have experienced the loss of a loved one. As humanists, we know how difficult it can be to grieve as a nontheist in a world that is designed for the religious. Many of the rituals our society uses to mark the end of life are built around belief in the afterlife, and that can leave nontheists feeling stranded and alone at a time when they especially need support. Candace R. M. Gorham offers that support with her book On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, published last year by Pitchstone Publishing.
When my mother died (much too young), I was still a believer. I had already stopped regularly going to church, but I believed in god and the sentiments that the people around me uttered were actually comforting: “She’s in a better place,” “You’ll be together again someday,” “She’s looking down on you.” I knew the rituals and they worked for me.
Twenty-five years later, when my husband died (again, much too young), I hadn’t found humanism yet, but I definitely considered myself a nontheist. Grieving was different this time, and I needed to find new ways to mark his death and find a way to live without him. I wish I’d had this book then.
As a licensed mental health counselor and a former ordained minister turned atheist activist, Gorham is uniquely suited to write this book. She also draws on her personal experience with grief. As she writes in the book’s introduction,
The ten tips I offer in this book were selected based on common questions and conversations I have had with nontheists and are things that have helped me personally. In this regard, I combine my personal awareness of issues unique to nontheists with my professional expertise in mental health counseling, and I try to address this deeply personal subject with the tenderness of one who can fully commiserate with the target audience.
And she succeeds. The book is deeply personal and yet still applicable to the reader’s own situation and experience. The chapters are organized as ten tips, and each one begins with a poem written by the author when she was coping with her own grief.
On my own journey from religion to nontheism, the idea I found hardest to let go was that loved ones who had died were in some other—better—place, where they were somehow watching over me. I held on to that idea tightly after all my other religious beliefs had fallen away. In fact, I held on to it for quite a while after I called myself non-religious. Gorham’s first chapter deals with just that concept, and how to reconcile a sometimes deep desire to believe that a loved one is still with us with our understanding that there is no heaven.
There’s a lot of important advice included about taking care of yourself physically, psychologically, and emotionally. There are the basic things, of course: eating, drinking, sleep, exercise. But there are also tips about things you might not think about in the midst of grief, like the importance of establishing new routines to help you move forward.
Gorham also includes information about when to seek out a therapist, the beneficial possibilities of medication, how to identify when grief has passed into a danger zone of potential self-harm or pathology, and the healing qualities of nature to help create a “restorative environment.”
And there’s a whole chapter on the need to “Cry. Cry. And then cry some more” which the author describes as “the most cathartic activity I have ever done.” Since humanists tend to like science and evidence, Gorham details, for instance, studies that point to the beneficial hormones and proteins that crying produces, along with the stress-relief and cathartic effect of the physical act.
In the same chapter, however, she reminds readers to “embrace the times when they are not crying” and find moments of enjoyment in the midst of grief. After all,
As a nontheist, you very likely do not believe that your loved one is watching you from the great beyond. So, it is not like they are there judging the extent of your grieving. And you are not competing with friends and family to see who can grieve the hardest and longest.
One powerful chapter is Tip #8: Do something in their honor. Gorham sets out several options for rituals that one can create to remember and memorialize a deceased loved one. In some humanist circles, “ritual” can be a bad word, but many people do feel a need to mark an important loss. As Gorham writes,
As nontheists, we might not like the word “ritual” because of its close ties with religion. However…synonyms include custom, fashion, habit, pattern, practice, and second nature. As you can see, a ritual is certainly more than just a religious activity. Rituals are extremely powerful tools that, when controlled and properly applied—as opposed to letting them control us—can provide the most healing of all of the activities, tips, actions, and recommendations I discuss in this book.
Her suggestions range from “Visit the Gravesite” to “Complete a Project.”
This is a compact book at just 152 pages, and its structure is perfectly suited to dipping in to find just the right tip for where you are in the process of grieving. With a final chapter devoted to advice for people who want to support those who are grieving, the book covers a lot of ground.
Everyone will find sections of the book useful to them. For instance, Gorham stresses the restorative power of nature, but not being an “outdoorsy” person, that advice doesn’t really speak to me. Instead, the sections that resonated most with me were Tip 8 (on ritual) and Tip 9 (on crying), described above. For others, it might be the opposite.
For me, the best passages are the ones that remind the reader that, though we must grieve, grief is not all there is:
You are alive and you must keep living. If you wake up crying, cry while you are getting dressed, cry while driving, cry when music is playing, cry anytime you are alone, cry in the shower, cry in bed, cry at meal time. If you cannot help yourself, then cry, cry, cry. However, it is also absolutely critical that you let yourself experience joy whenever possible….When you are able to break free from its hold and peek your head above water for even ten minutes to breathe the pure air of laughter and smiles, you must take it in as fully as you can.
Most importantly, Gorham stresses that each journey is unique and each person grieving is on a different timeline. The most repeated advice in the book is to be patient with one another—and yourself.