“So what do you people feel at times like this?” It was my grandfather’s funeral, and in one form or another I was asked this question several times—“you people” being of course the polite way to say “atheists.” My family members were genuinely curious about whether a lack of belief in souls and gods made the process of grieving easier or harder to bear. What I told them, and what I believe, is that being an atheist makes no difference at all in what and how you feel but all the difference in how recovery from tragedy unfolds. It is a tale written in chemistry, available to anybody willing to put some of his or her cherished self-conceptions aside, and it offers some beautiful insights into how interconnected we truly are.
Why does the loss of a loved one, either through death or separation, hurt so much? The simple answer is that other people are drugs—of the best kind, mind you. Without them, our minds, quite literally, start to disintegrate; everything that gives us a sense of meaning withers away. That’s not just a flight of romantic excess; it is actually what happens on a biological level if we are removed from the mind-altering chemistries of sustained companionship.
From our infancy, our parents set the pattern for how these systems of mutual chemical support work. When we are separated from our caretakers, a whole host of chemicals floods our brains, prompting us to cry out for our parents’ return. In particular, the anterior cingulate, dorsomedial thalamus, and periaqueductal gray regions, all of which are tied to the processing and registering of pain, light up in a frenzy, making the absence of a loved one feel like physical pain. Even as adults, stimulation of the regions involved in this childhood-separation response causes us to feel a sense of indescribable loneliness and misery. For a child, it is only relieved by social interaction, with being touched and talked to and cared for.
When that happens, our brain is flooded with those endogenous opioids that our hardest hard drugs work so hard to mimic. Crucially, however, simultaneously released oxytocin and brain prolactin dull the worst effects of those opioids, allowing us to take prolonged and deep satisfaction in human contact that can last a lifetime.
When we grow up, we still feel the quiet rush of oxytocin from physical contact, and the presence of loved ones still triggers those brain opioids that give a gathering of old friends its particular warm glow. But we develop other systems as well: anticipatory neural systems that allow us to experience pleasure from other people even when they aren’t physically around. These systems and their unique chemical components are beautifully laid out in Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven’s The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. Their effects can be found in the pleasure we take in knitting a cap we know a friend will love or in organizing twenty people to surprise a relative on his or her birthday. It’s the same system that gives you pleasure just thinking about a refreshing glass of ice water on a hot day, regardless of whether you have one at hand or not. These are the feelings that our body uses to motivate us toward accessing the good things of the world, toward food and friends, laughter and sex. And there are few things that keep that system constantly humming like a relationship that inspires us to find ever new ways of pleasing another.
But what happens if we are cut off from this crucial source of social healing—say, if a trusted and beloved friend or lover is removed from our lives? The grief systems of separation kick in, just as they did when we were children, with the crucial difference being that our caretaker isn’t merely in another room but is in fact gone forever. When we’ve been robbed of the person who might make us feel whole again, stress sets in, and the dismal chemicals of that particular state start throwing their weight against us. Our hippocampus gets bathed in cortisol, which is all right for short periods of time, but if the stress lasts—if the mourning is deep—its presence starts killing off neurons and depleting our reserves of alternate happiness-inducing neural compounds. The hippocampus, source of our very memory, gradually erodes under the onslaught. We retreat into ourselves.
But chemistry isn’t done with us yet; those same pathways of grief slither into our anticipatory systems as well. The small daily pleasure of setting an extra place at lunch or calling our friend into the room to watch a funny YouTube bit is lost to us. There is nothing left to excitedly anticipate from that departed person, and so a major dopamine-producing source of daily color and motivation is simply cut out from under us. The chemical resources that sustain our get-up-and-go motivational systems dry up under cortisol’s withering attack, so not only are we miserable from the lack of those warm fuzzy chemicals of contentment that the other person’s presence and touch gave us, but we can’t even engage the systems that make us look for new ways to find beauty and satisfaction in the people we have left.
It takes a long time for this massive chemical structure to right itself so that we can accept our loss on a molecular level. Some people never recover—their loss is too great; the other person’s part in their day-to-day feelings of loving comfort is too profound to be overcome in months or years. We see the same thing in the children of negligent parents, whose lack of attention to their babies actually rewrites those children’s brains on an epigenetic level, making it physically impossible for them to enjoy the fruits of a trusting and balanced relationship later in life. There is no greater testament to how much we touch each other’s lives, how much we depend down to our very atoms on the presence of other people, than the cascade of chemical misery that their absence sets off.
There is deep and profound beauty in that fact, which religious approaches to death can only ham-fistedly approximate. As atheists, we don’t have to be ashamed about fully feeling the pain of loss; we don’t have to wonder if we are affronting God’s plan by wishing with all our being for the return of those who have passed. We don’t have to stoically pretend that everything is all right and that our loved ones are in a better place. Death is not all right.
Those we choose to love are our anchors to sanity itself—they are the preconditions of any happiness worth the name. “God has a plan” is the scantest of bandages on their loss and an expression of the gravest underestimation of what we mean to each other. Better by far to recognize how much another person is wrapped up with us, his or her presence soaked into our cells, and let ourselves feel the full depths of disconnection as tribute to what was a life beautifully lived together than to paste over as quickly as possible living memories with the Pollyannaism of paradise.
And when we start at last recovering from our loss, as new pathways of friendship and trust expand and thrive in our brains, perhaps we can take a look around at those people who live still, who love us, and who know that we are inside of them, thoughts of us tapped into the source of their basic capacity to be happy. Maybe we shall be a little kinder to everybody we know as a result, aware of our stewardship of their joy and the capacity of passivity to do lasting harm.
This, then, is the comfort that we atheists have to offer others, as well as ourselves. A loved one is gone and will be seen and heard no more. But that stomach-churning mourning that we feel from the moment we open our eyes until we fitfully collapse into a restless s
leep is our final testimony to his or her place in our lives, our assurance that we brought some good into each other’s days. In a universe stacked absurdly against us, we found each other and built in each other’s presence a small place to call home for a while, and no number of sacred words spoken from a vain and attention-starved book can possibly match the beauty of that fact. We refuse to impose Jesus or any other celestial watchdog between us and the person we loved, forcing us to see our loved one as a ghostly shadow through that intervening theological construct. We want to see these people fully as they stood in our lives and feel the full force of our loss, and only then do we know that we are doing them and our shared time together justice.
And if, by observing how much a single human can penetrate into the inner world of another, we become a little less worried about our own demise in the process, well, that’s not a bad thing either.
Panksepp, Jaak, and Lucy Biven. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.
Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Boston, MA: Belknap Press, 2011.
Dale DeBakcsy is a regular contributor to The Freethinker, The New Humanist, Philosophy Now, and American Atheist magazine. He is also the writer and artist for the weekly atheist web comic The Vocate and is the coauthor, with Geoffrey Schaeffer, of the graphic novel Light Opera and Heavy Consequences and the upcoming A Collective of Unconscionables.