Unapologetically Atheist

Where nonbelievers can talk freely
Where nonbelievers can talk freely
Illustration for article titled Grieving without God: What Is it Like?

A year and a half ago, my grandmother's back hurt and it turned out her spine had been fractured...by the cancer in her lung.

In my head, it was always a given that my grandmother would be around for a long time. She's relatively young (in her early 70s) and until recently, had no life-threatening health conditions. She's socially active and an overall happy person. She helped raise me and my brothers after my father died, so she's more of a parent to me than a grandparent. I'm not ready to lose another parent...


By the time she started treatment, it was too late to have any hope of remission.

After unsuccessful radiation therapy, she found out she qualified for a new drug that could potentially extend her life. A year ago, her PET scan showed that drug worked - her tumors had vanished. This drug allowed my grandmother to live at least a year longer than expected.

Because of the hard work of scientists and physicians, I was granted the privilege of spending another year with one of the most important people in my life.

Not only did I have more time with her, I had more quality time with her. For the most part, the drug restored her to her previous level of functioning. She went from needing a walker and spending most of her day in bed to being able to travel, eat to her heart's content, and receive big hugs without it hurting her back.


She's lived to see one more Thanksgiving, one more birthday...she got to see her granddaughter finish her PhD. I dedicated my dissertation to her...I couldn't think of anyone more deserving. She was by my side during the most hellish parts of graduate school and I will think of her every time I look at my diploma.

Even when she was at her least healthy, she remained overwhelmingly positive. She lived her life as though she weren't terminally ill. It was easy to forget that she had stage IV lung cancer.


But we knew that the drug would eventually stop working. Her latest PET scan results showed that the cancer is now in her liver. She had to throw up today. She has no appetite, no energy...my grandmother is dying again.

The gift that science has given her and her loved ones is nearing its expiration date. I was able to put my grieving process on hold and now I must prepare myself for the end.


The last time I experienced a significant loss of a loved one was nearly 20 years ago, when I was 10 years old. My father died by suicide and we thus did not have the opportunity to say goodbye.

I was raised Catholic and the idea of God was implanted in my brain at such a young age that I relied on God to cope with my grieving process. I not only talked to God, I also talked to my father because I was lead to believe in the afterlife.


Looking back, it wasn't my belief in God or that my deceased father was reachable by prayer that helped me cope. In fact, these religious beliefs made the grieving process far more complicated than it had to be. Using my cognitive resources to talk to God and my father sapped energy away from potentially more effective forms of coping, such as emotional support from loved ones or engaging in meaningful leisure activities.

Using God as my grief counselor was counterproductive because I was in actuality talking to myself. Believing that my father was in heaven and that I could still communicate with him made it harder to move on.


Religion will be an inevitable part of my formal bereavement process. My grandmother is Jewish and her funeral will be at her temple. My mother believes in God. So does one of my brothers. I'm not sure about my other brother, but if he is an atheist, he's not vocal about it.

This will be the first funeral I will be attending as an unapologetic atheist. While everyone else is praying to their God, I will be taking comfort in the fact that my grandmother will never suffer again...I will be seeking emotional support from sources who will actually help me, such as a therapist or a caring friend...I will announce my grandmother's passing on social media and ask not for prayers, but for donations to charities that fund cancer research so that other people may have more time with their loved ones.


Grieving without God in my way will facilitate my healing process.

I would love to hear about your experiences with grieving as an atheist - please share in the comments.

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