How do you grieve when you’re a non-believer?

How do you grieve when you’re a non-believer?

This a question I hear often, right after I reveal I’m an atheist when asked about grief. Actually, I don’t like the word atheist, it always sounds so divisive. I prefer the term non-believer. I just think it sounds nicer.

Let me elaborate.

– – –

Christmas Mass had just ended, and I was waiting outside for the rest of the family so we could go back to the hotel. My aunt R, who is my aunt by marriage, found me after a couple minutes.

She lost her mom many years ago, so we started talking about how the first holidays without them sucked, and she gave me plenty of good advice.

Finally, she told me she didn’t understand how people who don’t believe in God are able to grieve properly. I didn’t say anything, just nodded.

“I can’t bear the thought of never seeing my mom again,” she said. “How do atheists deal with that?”

I kept quiet, changed the subject. My family, with the exception of my sisters, has no idea I’m a non-believer.

– – –

I figured out I wasn’t religious when I was 12 years old. I kept it to myself, of course, because I was attending Catholic school and my family was very involved in the church. My mom was also a teacher at a private Catholic school.

It’s not something that happened overnight, it was slow-burning, a thing that grew until I came face-to-face with that fact that I really didn’t believe in God, or an afterlife.

I struggled with it. Did it make me a bad person? I thought I was confused.

My crisis got worse when I came to terms with my queerness (or bisexuality, if you want to label it), at age 15. I thought that maybe I didn’t want to believe because I knew the church would never accept me.

I looked into other religions, but the feeling remained the same.

I just didn’t believe. Once I accepted it, I felt relieved.

– – –

My mom raised us with an open mind. She told us we should respect other people’s religions, because everyone is raised differently. She was a devout Catholic, but she didn’t think her religion was the only way.

I still remember when I told her I was a non-believer. It wasn’t that long ago, maybe four years or so. It was harder for me to come out as an atheist than it was to come out as a queer woman.

My mom was devastated. She didn’t care about my sexual orientation, but she couldn’t believe I wasn’t part of the church, ANY church, anymore.

After being speechless for a few minutes, she took my hand and said, “You’re a good person. I don’t doubt that. I need to process this, but I can’t and won’t change your beliefs.”

I know she struggled with accepting my atheism up until she died, and sometimes she would ask me questions, and I gave her answers she didn’t understand.

She was somewhat relieved that my atheism didn’t come from a place of anger or bitterness. It is just a thing that is part of me, but doesn’t define who I am.

– – –

While mom was battling cancer, I would often sit with her and read her the Bible or pray rosaries with her. She would thank me for doing so, because she thought it was a hugesacrifice for me to do something I didn’t believe in.

But it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. My mom found comfort in religion, in God, in Jesus, and I was grateful for that. Her faith helped her cope with her pain and struggle, and I will always appreciate that.

With religion, my mom coped with the thought of dying. Without religion, I coped with the thought of losing her.

– – –

The day after mom died, we had a memorial mass for her. It was absolutely packed, there weren’t enough seats for people inside the church, and it was all oh-so overwhelming.

My sisters and I were sitting right in front of the altar. Everyone came over to give their condolences, and then it happened.

“God needed another angel.”

I don’t remember who said it, it’s all a blur, but I remember glancing at my sisters and seeing their faces. One of them looked absolutely furious, and the other one started crying.

Later that day, one of my sisters said, “You heard that, right? Well, I need my mom here, not somewhere else!”

I told them that they meant well, that it is something people say to comfort those who have lost someone, but they weren’t having it.

It was the first time I felt absolutely lost, and didn’t know what to say.

Until today, my sisters are still struggling with their faith. I know that most of that struggle is due to the shock of losing mom, and that’s okay. Maybe in a couple years they’ll find their way back to the church, or find another church, or maybe they won’t go back to anything.

That’s fine. I’ll be there to support them no matter what they believe.

It’s particularly hard to feel this way in a devout, conservative family. We don’t talk about this with my mom’s family. They don’t know how my sisters feel about the church.

It’s better this way.

– – –

How do you grieve when you’re a non-believer?

I think you grieve just like anyone else. You deal with the fact your loved one isn’t around anymore, you cry, you scream, you get angry, you hurt, you laugh.

The only difference is that you accept you’ll never see them again.

In my case, I’ve decided to devote my life to advocate for cancer patients. That’s how I cope, that’s how I grieve. I try to do my best at creating awareness for colorectal cancer screening and prevention.

This is the best answer I can give anyone; I’ve found a purpose that works for me.

But back to the “no afterlife” issue.

I don’t think my mom is truly gone. She lives in me, in my sisters, in all the people she met. I honor her memory every time I can, so she lives through stories, anecdotes, and photographs.

Her energy hasn’t gone anywhere. I still can, and always will, feel her in my heart.

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