I have been thinking a lot about grief lately, mostly because a month doesn’t go by where it doesn’t come up and I am asked to help minister comfort to someone who is grieving.
Whether it is the loss of a loved one or the loss of a dream, we humans grieve. It is a natural emotion and a natural part of life. We can’t escape it. So it makes sense to have some sort of framework through which we can make sense of our grief and learn to cope with it.
Those of us with natural philosophies reject supernatural approaches to grief. I don’t believe I have a soul that will transcend my body. My body and my mind are so integrally connected that it is ridiculous to think that my thoughts, which are biological in origin and caused by electro-chemical reactions in the gushy space between the nerve cells that make up my brain, might somehow continue to be thought despite the physical medium in which they occur dying.
However, as I am a fan of science and like to watch science shows. There is some hope that some part of my thoughts might survive via quantum entanglement, but I’m not counting it.
Regardless, I, at some point will die and I will cease to exist. As a Humanist and naturalist I have made peace with that fact. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that in the meantime, as I live my life people I love will die before me and I will be forced to come to terms with the fact I will no longer have the pleasure of their company. And that makes me sad. And in some cases, not just said, but filled with grief.
Grief is Extreme
Grief is one of those extreme emotions. It’s actually more like an emotional explosion that occurs in the brain that overwhelms it. Grief comes with anger, depression, frustration, stress and more. All of which on their own are WAY
more pleasant to experience than the combination of emotions that constitute grief.
At this point I am firmly convinced that a Humanist approach is the best way to deal with grief. Here is why.
1) It is natural. We don’t deny death. We accept it. It happens. Nothing you can do to stop it or change it or wish it away. Why is this beneficial? Because when you don’t deny death, you can’t avoid it, which means, you have to deal with it. Grief is so painful that most people will do just about anything to avoid it. But avoiding grief isn’t the same as dealing with grief. A Humanist chooses to deal with grief directly.
2) We have no one to get mad at. Death is one of those things that just happens. When you have a naturalist approach, you don’t have someone, like a god, who you can blame for causing it. Why is not having someone to get mad at beneficial? Because, displaced anger is very common with grief and it is again a way to avoid grief. It doesn’t help us come to terms with it. It just funnels our grief into an irrational anger. If we can just get mad enough, perhaps death will be reversed or delayed or something. Again, this is avoidance behavior and it doesn’t help anyone.
3) We aren’t afraid of grief. Grief is a natural human response to overwhelming loss or sadness. As intense as it is, it is still just an emotional response to stimulus. And like all emotional responses, it will ebb, flow and change on it’s own if we let it. We don’t have to be afraid of it, we just have to allow ourselves to experience it. Why is this better? Because again, people spend so much time trying to avoid grief that they never just allow themselves to experience it and deal with it and move on. Instead, they stay in a sort of grief limbo – too afraid to just experience the emotions so that they can get on with life.
4) Our focus in on the here and now. One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Camus who said, “There are words I have never understood, such as ‘sin’. For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” There is a tendency among people who believe in an afterlife to put their hopes and dreams into thinking about that after life. After all, when living gets tough, it just seems easier to give up and hope for a better life. The natural approach is better because focusing on and hoping for an afterlife means you are giving up on this one. You aren’t going to try to heal, you are just going to suffer and wait until you die so you can be happy then. As a Humanist, there isn’t much that gets me mad but this sort of fantasy thinking.
5) We are focused on living. Yeah, we are sad. Possibly overwhelmingly sad. Heck, I was so depressed after losing a child that getting motivated to do anything was a hassle. To be perfectly honest, I just didn’t care about life for a few months. I was just going through the motions. However, intellectually I knew that my ennui would pass. If I was going to keep on living, and I certainly intended to, I might as well try to make the best of it. So, I allowed myself to grieve and allowed myself to find happiness whenever my mood swung round the other way. For a while I swung between caring about life and not caring. But again, I had a long view of what was happening. I knew that eventually the periods where I cared would outnumber the periods where I didn’t. It makes no sense to live but refuse to live fully. The point is that I kept going because I was focused on living and that required me to relearn how to live. Think of this as having a goal to strive for when all other goals seem pointless. This is the most basic goal we can have. And sometimes it’s all that keeps us plugging along when the going gets tough. You don’t have to wait to be happy. There are constructive things you can do now to cope with your grief, but you have to want to cope with your grief and get through it to a better place. Accepting grief is a necessary first step, but it is only the first step. Then you have to deal with it and learn how to cope with it. Belief in an afterlife hinders that process.
How do you cope with grief? What do you tell yourself to keep yourself motivated to get through the experience?
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5 thoughts on “Natural Grief: A Humanist Perspective”
I agree with so much of what you said in your article about grief. Jennifer my Mom passed away about four months ago, and I've been grieving that loss ever since, but it gets easier to deal with her passing as time goes on. Mom was close to 81, so I knew that she was not going to live much longer, but death is so final that it just hurts not having her around. She was a strong believer in her faith of Chistianity. I don't share her beliefs, but I tried to respect her beliefs although at times it was a challenge. I tend to believe all of religion is just a man made thing to control people, and I might add that it does a damn good job. At any rate that was a fine article.
I'm so sorry for you loss Larry – I'm glad my writing resonated with you.
My problem is that on some level I don't think of my husband as dead. He was actually my ex-husband. We had been together for decades since we were kids, got divorced, and then reconciled years later. He was disabled, then became very sick. I took care of him. Despite his poor prognosis, his death was devastating. I know death is natural, yet it felt like a failure. I saw his dead body, yet part of me doesn't accept that he's gone.
It's been two years. I miss him every day. I kept a journal during the long 19 months he was institutionalized. Read it nearly every day. Perhaps not wise, but it comforts me. I keep a present journal as well.
The good side? I am more tolerant of religious people than I used to be. Death is very, very hard. I think that, yes, religion evolved to control people, but it's far more fundamental than that. It exists because it's hard to die and probably even harder to accept the death of someone who you not only love but who made your life enjoyable, meaningful, and sometimes just plain bearable.
I enjoyed the article and hope someday I will get to the point you have gotten to, Jennifer.
Laura – if you are still having problems coping a couple of years on – you should probably seek out the help of a professional counselor or psychologist who specializes in grief support. You will be glad you did.
It’s not that someone that believes in life after death gives up on this life, but it’s understanding that this life is not our final destination.