On Helplessness

There is a lot to unpack in philosopher André Comte-Sponville’s long essay, “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.” I have not, in fact, even finished reading it, but I’ll post a review of it when I do. (Spoiler: it’s going to be gushingly positive, highly fangirl-ish review. I love this book.)

But there is a lot to unpack in it, bon mots of brilliant insight that had me (at the bar of my favorite restaurant, no less) hopping up and down with excitement and exclaiming, “Yes! Exactly!” a lot. My bartender was amused.

What really grabbed me was that right out of the gate, Comte-Sponville tackled grief and mourning (this guy knows the way to my heart, for sure).This quote in particular has stayed with me: “Far more real, far more painful and unbearable is the death of loved ones. This is where atheists find themselves the most helpless.”

When people ask me about care-taking, grief, and mourning, they often hedge around the question “what was the worst part?” but it’s obvious that is what they want to know. I think because they often want to prime themselves for the experience, in hopes that being prepared for it will somehow make it easier to live through. It won’t, but that’s beside the point, because my answer generally confuses them: the worst part is the helplessness.

You stand by in horror when you watch someone slowly die, or stand transfixed by shock when informed of a sudden and unexpected death. Then they are dead, and there is nothing you can do. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing you do in the future will change what has happened.

Like an infant child abandoned in the woods, you are profoundly and terrifyingly helpless.

I have written before that I never once entertained ideas of an afterlife – not even on purpose, it just never occurred to me until other people mentioned it (“they’re happier now”; “you’ll see them again someday”…these consolations were mostly awkward for me, and confusing). So it was with a deep, yawning horror that I saw and understood how helpless I was during my parents’ deaths, because there is no consolation to an inevitable and permanent ending that cannot be successfully delayed or derailed or avoided. Death is, after birth, the most permanent human condition.

Ironically, during this time I was deeply involved in the Episcopal Church, mostly at my mother’s (surprise) urgings and my father’s approval. I was a lay minister, even. I prayed often. But it was empty of anything meaningful for me, despite my attempt to “find God” that seemed so important for other people. I was entirely sincere in my participation, but it was a lackluster experience. It gave me no answers, provided no solace, offered no hope. When I did pray, it was mostly for strength that never seemed to come. I was weak and devastated and helpless in the face of deaths I could not circumvent.

Not long after my father’s death (a year and half after my mother’s) I gave up on church and prayer. I would, ten years later, go on another “search for God” that was lot more organized and just as pointless, but in meantime I was dealing with a sense of helplessness that overwhelmed me, with no relief in sight other than depression. Depression is pretty awful, but I will say this: it does an excellent job of numbing your emotions. Oh, the good ones too, no doubt; joy, love, passion, excitement, kindness all get taken down in the same storm as grief, anger and helplessness. But it was the only reprieve I got.

Which is the backdrop for my reading that line from Comte-Sponville’s book. He is talking specifically about atheists like myself who are often sanguine about our own future death. Get a group of atheists together, and the one thing we can agree on is that we all fear dying but not death. I’ll die, that’s fine, that’s how it goes, here’s to hoping it’s not particularly painful. Whatevs.

But the same cannot be said about the death of loved ones, where we are left heartbroken and bereft by the permanent departure of someone who was an important part of our lives. What to do? What to do???

That is the essence of helplessness, I think, that desperate plea “What to do?” We must do something or go crazy, but there is nothing to be done. Religions do perform some service through the application of ritual (prayers, funerals, remembrances), and of course most deists believe in a version of carrying on in some way, even Buddhists (via reincarnation) and Jews (albeit without much fervor).

But not so, for us.

So, we stew in our helplessness. I dug out of it years later and after a nervous breakdown, which I truly don’t recommend. I’m not sure what could have prevented that catastrophe, but I’d like to think there was something. Therapy worked wonders in the end, but only when I was ready for it. There was no book or theory or practice that I ever found to help pull me, a “devout” atheist, out of my pit of bleak helplessness.

I don’t have answers for that conundrum. There is no point to prayer or rituals if you have no underlying faith in the framework they are a part of, which I learned through first-hand experience. Empty gestures just move air around.

I have not finished Comte-Sponville’s book, although a quick glance through proves he is adroit at asking the questions but hesitant with answers, a fine tone for a skeptic to take in my opinion. Perhaps these are things we must all simply power through and the key is not to find solutions but to learn to ask the right questions, each to answer individually on our own.

Which leaves me wondering what my questions would have been, 20 years ago.



I’m here to talk about Dr. Who.

That might seem an odd segue for a blog about atheist grief, but last night when I was chatting with a friend, both subjects came up and I was spellbound. Why? Because in the end, both Dr. Who and grief are about personal regeneration.

This started when my friend J. was talking about her friend, whom we’re going to call British Steve. So the idea really tracks back to him, which is no big surprise when you think about it because British Steve is, as you may have guessed, British. His comment to her was that grief  recovery is a lot like Dr. Who’s life cycle: it requires complete regeneration.

I had to explain Dr. Who mythology to J., who wasn’t familiar with Time Lords. In the process, I realized, “holy crap, British Steve is RIGHT!”

In my book Grieving Futures I have a chapter about grief “recovery”, a word I don’t think applies at all to the process or the goal. It implies that you will get back to some kind of steady state, that you will “get over” grief and recover. But you won’t. You can’t, because that steady state of who you used to be has been shattered. It really isn’t like breaking a bone, although that metaphor has its uses. In GF I decided that the word “recuperation” fit better, although even at the time I knew it wasn’t perfect. You can recuperate from a broken leg and walk around like nothing happened, even if once in a while your leg twinges with pain or aches on rainy days. It’s the same leg and it works the same way, it looks the same, it IS THE SAME. Broken but healed: you have recuperated.

But regeneration isn’t like that. As I explained to J., when the Doctor regenerates, it’s a complete genetic remapping of his body (apologies to Dr. Who fans if I mangle this a little, I’m not really a hard core fan, I’m just familiar with the show). Intrinsically, he’s still the Doctor. But because his body has been remade, he’s also a completely different person, and not just in looks: his humor is different, his attitude is different, his reactions are different. His moral center as a Time Lord is the same, and he has all of his memories (mostly?) and he is always, always theDoctor. But he’s also not the same at all.

And that, my dear readers, is exactly what grief does to you. It regenerates  you.

In thinking this over, I realized that I have regenerated about three times (not counting childhood, but I think an argument could be made for that). The first time was when my mother was diagnosed in late 1992; the second, after my father died in 1996 and I was well and truly on my own; and the third, in 2008 when I hit the psychological skids and had to completely….wait for it….regenerate.  I think I’m actually undergoing a slow regeneration now, or maybe getting ready for one? Who knows how many times I’ll hit that reset, but now that I understand what is happening, I think I’m more prepared for it.

Back to the idea of regeneration, though: it’s painful, it’s scary, and there are no guarantees of who you will be on the other side. “Ten“, the tenth Doctor famously played by David Tennant, is known for the quote, “I don’t want to go.” It’s a heartbreaking moment because he knows he’s losing the life he created for himself in that form. When he regenerates, Ten "I don't wanna go"he won’t feel quite the same way about things and people, and he won’t react the same way either. Whatever he gains through regeneration (namely, an extremely extended lifespan) comes with great loss as well. And he damn well knows it.

I suppose this isn’t a very pleasant version of grief, but then, I pride myself in not pulling punches when talking about this stuff. It sucks, okay? It just sucks and it hurts and it’s awful.

But, and here’s the kicker: not regenerating at all isn’t a viable option. There is no stasis. You either rot in place or you change. To be honest, I rotted in place for a decade. I thought it was safe, but it was also pretty painful, and depressing, and in the end I had to regenerate anyway. It always comes back to that, and you can put it off until the pain is too great to continue or you can get it over with quickly and deal with the fall out. I’m not saying one way is good or bad, right or wrong, just that regeneration is inevitable.

This concept probably applies to a lot of traumatic life events, not just grief, and I find myself applying it liberally to my own story now. I understand clearly now why I am still the 26 year old young woman who lost her family, her home, and her pets and yet am someone so profoundly different I don’t see the similarities anymore. I have not lost a single experience, despite having a completely different outlook and personality. Friends from 1990 or 1998 recognize me as the same person, but also talk about how much I’ve changed. Part of that is the aging process, of course — brains change over time, we accumulate experiences that feed into our behavior and outlook. That’s the expected part of life.

Trauma, though, throws a wrench into the process. It takes a slow slide along the track of “getting older” and throws you bodily off it onto another track entirely. You’re still getting older, you still have all the memories and mementoes of “life before” but you’re going in a new direction in a different mind/body combination with different thoughts and different emotions.

You’re not recovering from grief or any other form of trauma, nor recuperating from it — the experience has, bodily by force, regenerated you completely. 

So it’s all scary and it’s got no guarantees and it means letting go of parts of yourself that you used to believe were permanent elements of your personality. On this side, that just sounds awful, and stressful, and painful. The irony here is that regeneration is the only way the Doctor can survive and by regenerating, he continues his adventures helping people and fixing time itself. For us, as mere humans, grief/trauma forces us into regeneration both as a protective measure to keep us alive and a progressive measure to help us continue on into a new stage of adventure.

You don’t wanna go…but you will, and when you do, you’ll find an amazing, brand new life. That’s just how it works.


Powerless Atheism, Human Strength

Last week I bailed on facebook because of an encounter with a friend and fellow atheist, who dragged my character through the mud in order to justify his experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous. His entire argument rested on the fact that even an atheist can “accept a higher power” and that anyone who is unwilling to do so lacks humility and suffers from a god complex.

His attack so floored me that I just logged out.

As much as I criticize AA for its religiosity, I don’t begrudge it; it has worked for many people in helping them overcome terrible addictions and the situations those addictions got them into. What I do take issue with is an unwillingness to critique how it does NOT work for atheists like me, who find the whole “higher power” issue problematic to the extreme, and to then counter that there is something wrong with me because of that.

But these are the kinds of confrontations that assault us all the time, when dealing with emotionally laden topics such as addiction, grief, abuse, and mental illnesses. It’s not that people can’t understand our godless perspective, it’s that they really don’t want to because it challenges their own deeply held beliefs.

I am fortunate in that I rarely have dealt with direct confrontations with religious people about death and their insistence on an “after-life”, which I always feel like I have to put quote marks around because it is such a ridiculous term to me. I acknowledge a physical afterlife, in the sense that corpses don’t go POOF and disappear, that our bodies change and decay and become part of a different ecosystem. But I’m pretty immoveable with my understanding of a lack of a spiritual afterlife. To me, spirituality is an internal emotion much like love and sadness and anger — it does not exist outside of the brain, and when that brain goes dark, so does everything in it. I’m okay with that.

And my comfort with that fact terrifies some people, and disturbs them as much as my friend was bothered by my unwillingness to acknowledge any “higher power.” It is living proof that maybe their own beliefs just might not be true.

Which is never my intention (I leave the aggressive debates to other atheists), but that’s not a defense anyone ever respects, in my experience. Often, like my friend, they see this as proof of self-aggrandizement, and I’m just amazed by that because it’s the complete opposite. My understanding of total death is a profound acknowledgement of meaninglessness, both individually and collectively. We’re specks, even our whole planet is nothing more than space dust at the galactic scale. It’s an acknowledgement that there is no controlling my death or the rain cycle or the turning of the Sun, that I am simply who I am for as long as I am alive. I am no more a higher power than is some mythological “supreme being”; perhaps I do have a god complex in the negative sense, in that I feel I’m just as powerful as deities I do not believe exist. Which is to say: ultimately powerless.

But I’m okay with that, because lacking supernatural power over the world around me does not mean that I don’t love, that I don’t care for others or myself, that I don’t feel grief and pain and sorry. Nor does it mean that I am powerless in my own life. It means my power comes from compassion and love and humility, because there are no gods here, not even me. My strength does not rest in an external higher power, it comes from the people I know who love and support me, my equals in this journey.

We’re not inferior because we are atheists, or lacking some important component that makes us human by other people’s standards. We love, we grieve, we cry, we suffer, and we get up to face the day every morning with our integrity intact…if anyone ever asks more out of you than that, then they are wrong. It’s just that simple.


I get to expert things?

I was talking to my colleague Jennifer Miracle about blogging and specifically about my upcoming debut as a columnist for Atheist Republic, where I will be writing about grief and mourning issues. I was talking about how I don’t feel much like an expert on the topic, especially since I’m not a counselor or therapist trained in grief issues, and her question was, “Well, who is the expert?”

And I couldn’t tell her, because I can’t think of one.

Carol A. Fiore has written irregularly about atheist grief issues, but doesn’t seem too active on the subject these days outside of a few articles for Grief Digest. Her book detailing her relationship with her husband, his death, and dealing with her grief as an atheist is due out this year, though.

My resources page highlights a few (very few) other blogs and articles that are worth visiting, and I especially recommend the facebook page Grief Beyond Belief founded by Rebecca Hensler. But that’s pretty much it.

I’m totally not prepared to be “the expert” nor do I find it helpful to think of myself that way. I have to re-iterate that I’m not a professionally trained counselor or therapist. I’m a librarian whose parents died when I was in my 20s. That is pretty much the extent of my “expertise.”

Yet, I feel the need to have a role in talking about atheist/non-deist grief and mourning issues. We are a very small minority of people world wide, and our support structures are few and far between, especially if our families are religious. I’d love it if I were just one of dozens of bloggers currently writing about this topic, but I’m basically one of two. I’m certainly the only one who has been doing this regularly for several years (that I know of). That doesn’t make me an expert, just persistent — because I feel this is important, and I can’t seem to let it go.

That will have to be enough.

Love is my eternity

The grieving atheist’s consolation is not in hope but in love.

The theme of reunion runs through a lot of religions, and many people of faith rest the burden of their grief on the hope that someday they will be reunited with their loved ones. They believe that they will see their loved ones again. For these people, the very concept that such a reunion might not happen is downright horrific, and they cannot conceive how an atheist’s grief is not made exponentially worse without that promise. They perceive an atheist’s notion of death as a singularly final and empty event, and project their own fears of being alone and without hope onto the atheist’s experience.

As an atheist, though, I never felt the need for that hope. It would be like pining for Santa Clause; comforting, perhaps, but no less ridiculous and unrealistic. It is hard to explain that this is not a decision I came to, but rather is an emotional state that is very natural and organic for me. Atheist logic fits my argument beautifully, but had no bearing on how I felt about matters nor in how I explain it now. There is a huge difference between arguing that Heaven (and Hell) does not exist, and simply knowing that to be true. Is that the essence of blind faith? Perhaps. I’m okay with that, because in the end, human emotions will never resolve into a rational argument. All we can do is provide the best evidence we can for our beliefs.

Atheism is my default setting, so this lack of hope was not traumatic for me. I remember studying with some Baha’i followers during my Great Search for God who told me I should find comfort in knowing I would be reunited with my parents after my own death. My knee-jerk (and probably thoughtless) reply was, “why?” I did not understand why this would a source of hope for me, rather than an argument for committing suicide. I remember this moment clearly because the kind Baha’is looked floored by my comment, and I realized for the first time that my grieving emotions were out of lock step with the majority of mourners.

I have worried at this discrepancy for a while. I mean, it does seem odd that I am not utterly distraught by the idea that I will never, ever ever see my parents again, that their deaths are final and absolute. They are gone, and I am here, and that is a permanent divide. As long as I am self-aware, I will be mourning them and there is no end to that other than my own death, which will be just as final and resolute as theirs.

What I eventually realized is that my consolation, when I find it, does not need hope. My consolation is in the continuity of my love for my parents, a feeling that is boundless and constantly present. I loved them while they were alive, and I love them now, and I will love them until my own mind goes dark. That is eternity, for an atheist; so for all of eternity my parents are here with me, now, in every moment.


January: A Time of Change and Renewal

The theme for January is renewal. For most of the Western secular world, January 1st is the official start of the new year, a time when people make resolutions to improve their lives. In fact, it is an old tradition represented across many cultures to use the start of the new year (wherever it falls on the calendar) to wash away the mistakes and regrets of the past year.

For skeptics and non-deists, there is no supernatural significance to the date change. There is no paranormal energy tied to the human-created artifice of labeling the orbit Earth takes around the sun.

That does not mean that a new year is not symbolic, or that it can’t serve as a metaphor to instigate positive change.

What we can take from the tradition of marking a “new” year is the idea of cleansing our minds and bodies of poisons — whether ingested in the form of junk food, or festering in the form of cynicism and negativity. Now is the time to look at why we are not treating ourselves with respect and love, and to make changes in our lives to improve our well being. Spring will be creeping up on us soon, and even from the depths of winter, we can see that change is coming. This is our opportunity to own it and make the changes that work for us and serve our goals. As the saying goes: Now is the time!

What ‘Sacred’ Means

I was interested in reactions to this NPR ‘Code Switch’ story, “What Part of Sacred Don’t You Understand?” Normally I don’t read comments sections because therein lies madness, but in this case I made an exception. The topic is a sensitive one here in America, concerning Native American artifacts and land, a subject with enough tragedy and frustration to run through generations of amity. My interest in the story, though, came from a genuine curiosity as to how sacred is defined.

Yes, I can look up the word in the dictionary, as well as the legal concept as given by Federal law here in the U.S. What I was looking at was how people react to the word individually, how they interpret a situation where people are looking at objects and land but conceptualizing them differently because of a disagreement about what makes something/someplace “sacred.”

In short, what makes a Catholic Church sacred and worthy of protection, but not a mountain that Native Americans have practiced their religion on for years?

Of course for most religious people with a strong faith in a deity, sacred is something that is empowered by some external factor, be it a priest’s blessing consecrating a church or using a sacred area of land for rituals to gods/goddesses.

For us as non-deist mourners, though, “sacred” is a cagey, nearly verboten idea. I’m going to argue that it can still hold a space in our lives. Unfortunately that is often taken from us by people want to shoe-horn us into their concepts of religion and sacredness. The NPR article showed how divergent those meanings could be even among people who do have supernatural beliefs, so there is no way to approach this idea that isn’t going to be controversial to some people.

I propose that “sacred”, in the context of secular grief, means places/things/times that hold a connection to a memory of a person who has died. I have written before about how I held on to my parents’ keychains for years after their deaths. My husband knew better than to touch them, because it upset me to not see them hanging by the door. Eventually during a move they were simply packed away and never put up again, but for many years they were sacred objects to me. This was not due to some paranormal power or connection they had, but simply because they reminded me of my parents.

Too often the practice of atheism takes the emotions out of things. For some, that’s okay, they need that remove. For others, though, perhaps the idea of “secular sacred”, that is, connecting to an emotional state, might be helpful. I suspect it could become a crutch, but I think with the rationalized understanding of what is going on by claiming something is sacred from a secular mindset, it can be beneficial.

Of course many people come to atheism/non-deism through deconversion, and mistrust anything that smacks of religion/paranormal/spirituality. That’s fine too, I’m not trying to force this idea on anyone, just trying to expand our resources to help us deal with our grief.

Writing recommences on ‘The Empty Bowl’

A long time ago, I decided to write a book about atheism and grief. I was going to call it “The Empty Bowl”, a riff on my own Buddhist studies as well as a vivid image of grief itself.

In a not very unusual occurrence, I stalled after that.

Grieving Futures stalled for years, because I could not decide on the right “voice” for it. I resisted making the book all about me, because I wanted it to be a more general resource for young adult orphans. Yet, not being a professional grief counselor, I felt I was ill-equipped to write that kind of self-help guide.

Eventually I just sat down and started writing my story, without worrying about where it was going or what it might turn out to be like. That, in the end, was the right decision. While it was in many ways a self-serving project, a form of purging for me about my life during those years, it has nonetheless proven to be a great resource for  readers. People have written to tell me how much it meant to them to find someone else who had gone through what they were experiencing, and how my book connected with them emotionally. That means more to me than anything else.

So, I’m trying to let go of expectations in regards to “The Empty Bowl.” I want it to be a touchstone for atheist mourners. I want it to play the role that C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” plays for Christian grievers, even if I know that I’m no where near as talented and smart as Lewis was.

It could be a collection of essays on topics, or a straightforward recap of my own experiences…I don’t know. It bothers me that I don’t know, but I need to trust in my abilities to create the right book. Part of me wonders if atheists need something like this, but then, I did and so I figure someone else might. As with the Skeptic’s Inspirational, I’m jumping in and making it happen, simply because I feel it should be done.

I think I’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of “The Empty Bowl” as it comes along. Please, feel free to give me feedback!




Skeptic’s Inspirational: Sept. 26th

You win by working hard, making tough decisions and building coalitions. ~ John Engler

“Working hard” is often viewed as a lonely effort, something we face by ourselves every day as we put our back into the projects and jobs that are important to us. This is not the whole picture, though.

Engler, a politician and former governor of Michigan, had to build coalitions around himself in order to make a success of his career. His quote illustrates both the difficult aspects of hard work (making tough decisions) and the social ones. You can learn a skill all by yourself if you have to (drawing, a second language, entrepreneurship) but to actually incorporate it fully into your life, you need to build coalitions. You need people who will come to your art shows, who can talk to you in the language you are learning, who will do business with you.

In your labors, remember to put as much effort working outwardly as you do inwardly.

I choose to build healthy relationships with those around me, with both the people who can help me achieve my goals and also those who need my help to reach theirs. I am committed to putting the effort needed into developing and maintaining positive coalitions.

Facing the emptiness

I wrote Grieving Futures back in 2010, and threw it up online pretty quickly. It served as a cathartic bleed out of my emotions regarding my experiences with grief, and as tool in helping to reach out to other grievers. It lives up to its dual purposes, I think.

But it’s not all I have to say. On deck for a while now is a book I call The Empty Bowl: An Atheist Confronts Grief. It’s another biographical essay, I suppose, in that it recounts my erstwhile “search for God” during and after my parents’ deaths. It is not just about my own spiritual journey, though; tentatively, it also addresses godless grief in a more straightforward way than Grieving Futures does.

But therein lies the rub. I don’t want it to be a book about negatives, which I mean in the clinical sense not the judgmental one. Often discussion of atheism is focused on what it isn’t, i.e. a religion, and therefore is littered with commentary that boils down to the phrase “atheists don’t believe in God, a god, or gods.”

I think that leaves a lot of room for discussion what atheists go through otherwise, emotionally. Of course that’s not universal, and particularly with non-deists, the spectrum is infinite in regards to reactions to death. We tend to make things up as we go along.

Which is what the Empty Bowl will be about, I think. Less “this is what I did” than “this is why I did it” with a fair amount of “I wonder how I could have done that differently.” What is the value in such a story? That’s something I’ve gnawed on for a while, because personal essays can become self-indulgent so easily. I tried to avoid that trap with Grieving Futures and I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

One factor that will be predominate will be my desire for community and connection with others who might understand what I was going through, and help me. I think my search for God was less a truly spiritual crusade than a desire to find a community I could belong to without bowing to personal hypocrisy.