Grief Beyond Belief

Rebecca Hensler

Caretaking, the most traditionally feminine of roles, was not the way I expected to enter a movement. I’ve been an activist my entire adult life. And yet, I find myself joining the uprising of unbelievers not as a firebrand or organizer but as founder of a community of comfort and compassion.

Grief Beyond Belief (GBB) is an online grief-support network—currently simply a Facebook page—for those who do not believe in any god or any form of life after death. Within this community, members share the struggle of mourning the death of a loved one without the false comforts of heaven or spiritualism—and safe from the intrusion of other people’s religious beliefs. Had GBB existed in the fall of 2009, it would have been just what I needed.

I was raised a secular Jew, interpreting the Torah as mythology rather than gospel. In my teens and twenties I developed my own cobbled-together brand of spirituality; in my late thirties I dismissed it for lack of evidence. By the time I became pregnant with my son Jude, I had let go of spirituality entirely. I made no move to return to faith when I learned at almost five months that Jude was growing inside me with congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect that left him with a one-in-ten chance of survival.

Friends and family offered to pray for him, and I let them—to a wide variety of deities: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, pagan. But I knew that if my son survived it would be due to the extraordinary medical care he received and his innate will to live, not to the intercession of any supernatural power.

Doctors, nurses, and medical technology gave us ninety days with our son. Those days were filled with terror but also with the joys of feeling my baby’s hand holding my finger, seeing curiosity in his eyes, watching him recognize cause and effect in the swaying of his favorite toy above his hospital bed. Then, on September 7, 2009, his tiny lungs unable to supply his growing body with oxygen, Jude died in my arms.

I don’t remember much about the weeks that followed. Our family held a secular memorial with the friends who had fed us and supported us and rooted for Jude throughout his short life. I returned to my job as a school counselor. I worked through the days and I cried at night.

Three months later, I discovered online grief support. It was, so to speak, a mixed blessing. A daily Facebook post from The Compassionate Friends, a mainstream parental grief-support organization, gave me a few minutes every day to be with my own grief, to write about my sorrow, and to discover how many bereaved parents shared my feelings—from my dread of the drugstore baby aisle to the soothing warmth of hearing Jude’s name spoken. At the same time, I found myself alienated by other grieving parents’ constant talk of being reunited with their children someday. I had no patience with credulous stories of signs from beloved sons and daughters. Every time a mother referred to the day her child died as his or her “angelday” brought me one step closer to the obvious conclusion: what I really needed would not be found through mainstream grief support.

“I’m thinking,” I told my friend Greta Christina one evening, “that maybe I should start an online group just for grieving atheist parents.” She said it was a good idea. Atheist bloggers had been writing recently about the question of how to support those in the atheist community who were mourning. She suggested that I think about expanding the idea beyond parents to other grieving nonbelievers.

While I knew that made sense, I also remember thinking, “I’m not trying to serve a community. I just want a place that doesn’t exist. I want it badly enough to build it myself.”

But I recognized the need, and not just in people who already identified as atheists. If anything, it was even more raw in those who had been believers until the death of a loved one—often a particularly unjust-feeling death, such as the death of a child or a death by homicide—compelled the rejection of faith. For those new nonbelievers, especially those surrounded by religious friends and family members, the support of other grieving nonbelievers might ease the transition to rational thought despite the overwhelming pain of bereavement.

A year passed before I had healed enough to help others. I spent the spring of 2011 wres­tling with the details of creating a space that would welcome a range of nonbelievers, from lifelong atheists irritated by the slightest intimation of an afterlife to lifelong Christians struggling to let go of long-held faith in God and heaven.

On June 19, 2011, with invaluable support from atheist bloggers, GBB went online as a Facebook page. In eight days, over one thousand people had “liked” the page, some simply to show encouragement but many to seek support. They posted moving tributes to dead loved ones and frustrated rants about the ways believers made grieving harder for them. Commenters re­sponded to the former with prayer-free sympathy and to the latter with sympathetic anger. People were actually using the space for the purpose for which it was built: to take care of each other. One year and 3,800 “likes” later, they still are.

But building a sound structure without blueprints isn’t easy; I never know where cracks will occur. Abuse and evangelism are the easy problems, solved with the “Delete” button. Sometimes it must be explained that faith-free means no reincarnation, no psychic communication, and no spirits as well as no heaven or angels. While I feel compassion for the “not religious but spiritual” who feel equally unserved by mainstream grief support, GBB remains free of mysticism as well as mythology. More difficult are the moments in which the needs of those struggling with the temptation to believe in some sort of afterlife conflict with the needs of those who require the absolute absence of such ideas in order to feel safe.

When GBB began, the majority of members, having learned about the page through atheist and humanist websites, identified strongly as nonbelievers. When an article about the page ran in USA Today, awareness of faith-free grief support spread to a much wider range of people.

Following its publication, a painful situation arose. A father, in agony at the death of his beloved son, began posting about his obsession with a theory of quantum physics he believed might allow for his son to still exist somewhere in the multiverse, an idea both scientific-seeming and comforting. However, for a widow who had been participating on the page for months, this man’s posts verged on evangelism; at GBB, she sought complete freedom from any concept of life-after-death. Had the conflict been about anything other than the most painful experience in either of their lives, they might have engaged in an interesting debate about the border between belief and science. As it was, even with my best efforts at mediation, neither felt the sense of solace and safety that GBB was created to provide.

Under the best of conditions, mutual grief support still has its limitations. Ultimately if our community is to address the “complicated grief” of some losses, trained secular grief counselors will be required. Not just counselors who leave questions about faith out of their practice, but counselors who incorporate research-based knowledge, secular humanism, and the successful grief-management strategies of other nonbelievers into their practice. If secular grief counselors are not available outside of certain urban centers, we must find ways to make sure that training in secular grief counseling is available. At the very least, we can increase awareness of the needs of the growing secular population at hospital and hospice-based counseling programs.

One of the future goals of GBB is to help those who are grieving find professional support by providing a directory of secular therapists as well as secular support groups and secular funeral officiants. Thus, in the future, GBB will grow beyond Facebook to establishing its own independent website, including discussion boards and a blog, as well as this directory.

In the meantime, we will take care of each other, learning along the way that the growing secular support movement requires not merely the absence of comforting mythology but the presence of rational compassion.

Atheist and skeptical writers, speakers, and scientists already excel at making logical arguments and pointing out fallacies. Now we must learn to listen as well as we speak, to comfort as well as we dispute. In this way, as a community, we are beginning both to better address the emotional needs of those within the atheist world and to provide what Greta Christina calls a “safe place to land” for those leaving religion, including those whose rejection of religion involved death or loss.

And something new is happening at Grief Beyond Belief. In the past two months, members have started posting links to new Facebook pages and groups they have formed. “If you’re tired of being told ‘It’s God’s plan!’ then this page is for you,” states Coping With Illness & Disability, Without Faith. Another page offers “Secular Support for victims of domestic abuse.” And a grieving mother has founded a warm, empathetic network in the group Baby Loss Support for Agnostic & Atheist Moms.

It’s just what I needed.

Rebecca Hensler

Rebecca Hensler majored in political activism at Brown University and earned her master’s degree in Counseling at San Francisco State University. She works as a middle-school counselor in the Bay Area. Following the death of her infant son, Jude, in 2009, Hensler founded the online secular grief-support network Grief Beyond Belief.

Caretaking, the most traditionally feminine of roles, was not the way I expected to enter a movement. I’ve been an activist my entire adult life. And yet, I find myself joining the uprising of unbelievers not as a firebrand or organizer but as founder of a community of comfort and compassion. Grief Beyond Belief (GBB) …

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