Dealing with Grief After Forsaking Religion

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    Michelle Varni

    I was wondering how different atheists/nonreligious folks deal with grief, without the comfort of a belief in an afterlife. I’ve been having issues with this lately, and I’m wondering if anyone had suggestions.



    Hi Michelle,
    As with any sort of grief there are stages…they do not necessarily go in this order, and they can go back and forth for weeks, months, or even years, depending on a number of factors.

    Here are the basic 5 stages. Sometimes there is more, depending on who you consult, but I think these 5 (personally) sum it up nicely…

    1. Denial and Isolation.

    You may have times when you still think you believe or that it is real, and deny what you are thinking about atheism. You may isolate yourself from friends/family, etc…Denial is a way to protect your emotions, and it’s normal for everyone.

    2. Anger

    You may be angry and people, institutions, or even directly at God. You may be confused about being angry at something or someone. You may be angry at the church you went to, or your parents if they raised you a certain way, etc…

    3. Bargaining

    You may try to make a deal with God like, “If you’re real, show me a sign,” or something like that. It’s a way to postpone the inevitable that you may ultimately be feeling inside.

    4. Depression

    You may be depressed about the realization that there is no afterlife, or that you believed something for so long for which there is no evidence. I struggle a lot with this in realizing that I wasted pretty much my entire young adult life believing a lie, and got married under an assumption about a god that didn’t protect me or make me happy. This is a stage I still am going through for a number of reasons. Don’t let yourself get stuck here, but when you are here, recognize it for what it is and be OK with the process. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you need to feel.

    5. Acceptance

    You will eventually start to realize that you have a beautiful life to live. You will be stronger for it and you will enjoy every day as much as you can. You will start to see things through a more scientific and curious lense, and it will cause you to constantly ask more and more questions that your religious friends and family may never even fathom. It will give you a wisdom you didn’t even know was possible. You will come to understand that this is truly your one and only life, so you may start to make goals differently. Instead of pining for an afterlife you will look forward to making THIS life better, whatever it takes.

    As far are your actual question about how to deal with it, it depends on where you are at in this process….Are you feeling like you’re depressed? Not to be too personal, but just asking so I can better offer more pointed advice….



    Also….Michelle….You’re not forsaking anything. You’re learning to think critically and think for yourself and form opinions about the world based on what YOU truly think and feel. There is nothing to forsake because religion is a human construct that was at one time useful for our survival….but it no longer is….It taught you to feel guilty. That guilt is only strengthened by the culture that we live in and the impossible demands placed on women. Especially here in the U.S. We’re never good enough no matter what we do. Or am I the only one who feels that way?

    How long have you been an Atheist?


    Michelle Varni

    I think that I’m just still working through the whole idea that there is no Heaven, and there’s no Hell, but particularly, no Heaven. That was always what I was told growing up—that they were in a better place, that God was taking care of them, and there were angels keeping them company—, and I felt better because of those reassurances.

    You’re not the only one who feels that way. I feel that way too, in different ways when it comes to different situations.

    I’ve been coming out of my shell just over the past few months, and I went from being of an agnostic mindset, to a atheist mindset, a while after that. I’m not really “out” to too many people, due to nearly everyone I know being in some kind of faith system.



    Do you think it’s the mourning of heaven itself? Or the realization that loved ones who have passed are gone?
    When I first joined Think Atheist, a childhood friend of mine had lost his mother. He shared this video and it stuck with me..maybe it will help you:



    What do you think would happen if you told the people you love that you are an Atheist? How do you envision they would react?


    Michelle Varni

    I think it’s a mourning of my loved ones who have passed, and mourning that I’ll never see them again. The main reassurance I received after someone or something died, was that I would see them again in Heaven someday. It was reassuring to imagine them looking down at me from Heaven, like an angel who was watching over me, waiting for when I would join them. It’s realizing that the people I never met, whom I thought I might have been able to see in Heaven again where there was eternal peace, just died, end of story. It’s realizing that those I cherish who are still alive, will also one day just die, and that will be the end of that. I’m not too worried about not going anywhere when I die, though. I just fear that I’ll come to the end of my days and realize I spent too much time preparing for a second, eternal life, and not enough time actually making my life count for something in the here and now, when it really matters (mattered? I lost my sense of tense somewhere in the middle of that sentence).

    I think people would be shocked and surprised. I went through a real Jesus-y, preachy stage, and that’s when I went as far as to get rid of nearly all of my secular music and only listen to worship songs. I was a part of the worship team at the last church I attended, and I was one of the most energetic members. Some people might think this is just a phase, even that I’m like this because I got mad at church or God, or something along those lines. I’ve been baptized three times; have been a member of three churches; went to Vacation Bible School and helped out at VBS; was a worship team singer, have gone to Christian camp, and I pursued personal Bible study quite seriously. I have also, on more than one occasion, been called a “church mouse.” For me to come out and say that, after all of that, that I don’t believe in any deity, might be a little too much for some people in my life to comprehend.



    I totally hear you Michelle! Yep. I never used the word church mouse to describe myself…but…I was a missionary. I was a teacher and a leader, in both English and Spanish. I was very devoted to my faith for YEARS. I stayed with a man for a long time because I thought, “God hates divorce.” I understand the mourning of lost time…

    As far as lost relatives….mourning that you will not see them again…

    There is another way to look at it. It is to say that each and every person that you love and have lost has added something of value that is worth remembering to YOUR life. And like the video above says, they DO return to the stars. We are made of star dust and we return to the stars. You ever seen the Lion King? LOL….(I have a kid) there is a scene when they are looking at the stars. It’s like ancestors looking down on you. It’s OK to feel that comfort, but the REAL legacy is in the person that YOU have become because of them. They do live in your heart. There are only a few people who I consider reside in my heart like that. I carry a piece of them with me always, and the strength and knowledge that they have imparted on me, I in turn impart onto my son. Onto friends. Onto conversations like this one. There are pieces of wisdom that I’m sharing with you know that other people shared with me at one time, so they have given something to me that I can turn around and give to someone else. That is power. That is beautiful. And it’s more profound than the Christian version of heaven. In the sense that wisdom and love passed on, that allows the cycle of the Universe to continue, which does mean that those who you have loved and lost live forever, just not in the literal sense you always thought, but in a more beautiful sense….Just look at the stars tonight and you’ll see….


    Simon Mathews

    Hi Michelle, I agree with @bellerose. The idea of Heaven is one way of dealing with grief and some people do find it effective but I think it has its problems. It’s one of those concepts that as soon as you start to analyse it issues reveal themselves. Just one example is: Let’s say you have two people who are basically good people and will both go to Heaven but they don’t like each other (a personality clash, say). Presumably for each of those people their Heaven would not have the other person in. Does that mean we each have to go to our own Heaven? If so, what is the inclusive set of people who are there with us, etc, etc.

    The point I am trying to make is that whilst Heaven is superficially a nice idea it doesn’t bear up to scrutiny and therefore I personally do not gain any comfort from it. It is a false comfort, rather like saying it’s ok because after someone’s dead Santa will look after them and give them lots of presents. It’s a nice idea but not much real comfort.

    As Belle says it is actually more comforting to think of things in terms of the “Circle of Life” (I’ve also got kids). This type of thinking is more comforting because it corresponds with reality. It is a harder frame of mind to get into than the idea of Heaven but hard work often yields good results.

    I respect you for having released yourself from the “preachy” phase you went through. There’s no shame in it and you will probably find you have a better perspective than a lot of other atheists now.


    Ron H

    I suppose there must be something wrong with me. At my age I have lost a lot of family—4 grandparents mother father, all of my aunts and uncles and several cousins.
    I have rarely felt grief, nor have I shed many tears. And no I don’t feel as if it is all pent up ion me waiting to explode. So what is wrong? I don’t know if anything is wrong, and yet I see others around me falling apart when they lose a loved one.


    I was talking with a friend recently when “Imagine” by John Lennon started to play in the background. I told him that Lennon had the lyrics the wrong way around and that they should be “Imagine there is a Heaven, it’s not easy if you try”.

    It is because the religious mind-set is so embedded within society that even some Atheists don’t notice it. Moving from an outlook based on faith and dogma to one of reason and critical thinking takes time. It is not a simple process for we have to invest time and energy into educating ourselves and sometimes need to relearn how to think without “god” clouding our thought process. We have to be alert to old ways of thinking confusing us (if we were religious) and spotting them for what they are. We need to be able to say “That is how I used to think because of indoctrination”.

    There are many big questions to be asked in life and they require meaningful answers. The biggest has to be what happens to us when we die. Religion offers to solve this by claiming all we need to do is believe that Allah or Jesus is real. Religion never has to prove this of course. It is the cornerstone of all faiths.

    By saying the words “I am an atheist” to yourself and contemplation of what that means if no small thing. As we contemplate death and what “The End” means we come to terms with our own mortality. To believe we are somehow different to other species, all of which we are closely related to, is escapism. As Atheists we do not have that comfort. We are not on our knees in the midst of the great delusion. The reason most people of faith have little tolerance for Atheists is not that we do not believe what they believe. It is having to entertain the possibility that we might be right! The journey of discovery into gaining insights into the reality of only living once is a journey towards becoming a stronger person.
    Atheism is the more mature position.



    My father died in Feb. 2013 after I had cared for him on a daily basis for a little over a year. My dad was beloved by all of his children. A great guy who always gave Christian love (I’m not a Christian, but he was) and was generous to a fault without ever asking for anything in return. He was that other kind of Christian who is seldom talked about here. One of the good ones.

    When he died, it was after a lot of suffering and humiliation (I had to clean up after his occasional “accidents”), so I was glad for him when his time came.

    Like my siblings, we deal with his death by simply remembering him and his goodness. He died shortly after turning 93, so it’s not like he didn’t live a long life.

    We know that the same fate awaits us all. We also know that weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth won’t bring him back. Instead, we simply remember him and his goodness and try to treat others as he would as a way of paying tribute.


    Dang Martin

    I think that I’m just still working through the whole idea that there is no Heaven, and there’s no Hell, but particularly, no Heaven.

    It sounds like you might need to grieve the loss of your religious beliefs. There’s a great audio book by Julia Sweeney called “Letting Go of God.”

    I have never been a believer, ever, and did not go through any religious indoctrination, so the idea that someone has to let go of this is completely foreign to me. She details how she went through various stages of emotions while transitioning from a Theist to an Atheist.

    I found it to be fascinating. You might find it both fascinating and very helpful.

    As for what happens when we die, or where we “go,” I don’t think anyone really has any answers on that. I view death as returning to the state I was in before I was born. Do I remember it? Was there any heaven or hell, torture or pain, or bliss? No.

    It was an eternity of time before I was born, and it will be an eternity of time after I die.

    How long is that? Close your eyes for one second, and then open them. There. That was eternity.

    Dealing with the loss of a loved one is still difficult, because it’s still a loss. People tell me that they’ll say a prayer for me, and I just say, “Thank you,” and avoid anything resembling a debate. If they get preachy, I ask them to stop.

    What I try to do is remember who they were. I’ll play the music they liked, dig up old pictures, or get with others who knew them and share stories. I try to replace mourning their passing with celebrating their living.

    I hope that some of this was helpful.


    Dang Martin

    PS: That quote feature didn’t work out well for me [Windows 10 / Chrome]. Only the top line is a quote. Sorry about that.

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