Here is an article I wrote some years ago…the short version of it, anyway…I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.
The Experience of Loss Without Religious Beliefs
After the sudden death of one of my twin sons, as I survived the first weeks of raw pain and grief, one of the very first items on my “agenda” for my grieving process was my religious beliefs, or rather, my lack of them. Raised very much within a particular Protestant church, I had tried others after going off to college. I soon came to the conclusion that I did not believe in their teachings and did not feel that I needed well-defined answers and guidelines in order to live a meaningful life. Later, I came to believe that life could be better, both for individuals and for society, if we were not preoccupied with being “saved” from something and were not counting on some other place, an afterlife, to make everything right. Nowdays, rather than have to define myself by something I don’t happen to share, I consider myself a secular humanist.
Andrew was buried on his and his twin brother’s due date, which was also my 37th birthday. They were my first children, and the first children of my husband Bernhard, who was 47. We were just beginning to feel our age–and then after the joyous news, had expected the house to be brimming with young life and that we would be far too busy 24 hours a day to think of anything more “existential” than the next round of diapers. Now death seemed to be around every corner and, in fact, staring us in the face. Even looking at our precious surviving son brought strong fears of what could still happen to him. I became completely attached to him anyway and, at the same time, had to process the finality of his brother being gone. I thought, “Wait–isn’t there some way I can at least be with him later, forever?”
I struggled with this for several weeks, and came to the conclusion that as much as I wanted to see Andrew and be with him, I could not subscribe to a whole set of beliefs and practices for that reason alone. Such beliefs needed to be true, and deeply felt. How could I agree to a particular version of how the world was made, what the rules for living are and who gets to say so, and so many other things, when my real purpose was to be with Andrew, no matter how much I needed to? I also struggled with all the issues about mortality, and realized that I thought that after a person dies, it is just like all eternity before his or her birth–we are not here and we are unaware that we are not.
Harriet Sarnoff Schiff, in The Bereaved Parent (1977), is one of the few who discusses the situation of bereaved parents who do not have religious beliefs as they cope with the death of their child. She says that we do go through a process of questioning our not having certain beliefs and rituals, and search for something that would make it ok for us to have them (something which I definitely did do, but never found the thing). Also, very accurately for me, she wrote that we need other people even more because for us, that is all there is.
I became very involved in our local support group and also founded what is now a large national organization for parents coping with loss in multiple birth. For more than ten years now, I have been immersed in phone calls, letters and meetings with other bereaved parents, many of whom are now good friends. I have had another son and have been involved in talking with both children about their brother Andrew. And I have continued my own grief journey. Along the way, I have met many people who are counting on being with their child/children in an afterlife in heaven, and others like myself who are not planning on this or are not sure. For us, every day is not “a day closer,” we don’t say that we couldn’t cope if we didn’t know we’d see them again, and our children are not angels who are watching over us, even though so many others want or need to tell us that this is so. We don’t think that there is a reason for the loss of our child that someone knows even if we don’t. Our living children have grown up knowing that their sibling lives in our hearts and minds, and that it’s important to ask all the questions and fine not to have all the answers to everything, even things that are very sad.
I really encourage bereaved parents to mentally and spiritually try on for size a number of points of view and to know that they will cope and heal because they want to do so, not because a certain set of beliefs is handed to them. We alone choose how to cope and how to heal and must find our own way, including or not including certain beliefs. All viewpoints will have their pros ands cons when it comes to coping with grief. For example, I gave up certain things that might have been comforting, but also didn’t have to struggle with “anger with God.” People who do struggle with the anger of that seeming betrayal may not realize what they are also getting by their beliefs (for example, a pre-existing framework of meaning in which to work out their loss).
Also I really encourage authors, experts, loss groups and caregivers to be keenly aware of each person’s worldview before offering support. Religious beliefs are a major part of how many people cope with their loss and this needs to be recognized, never underestimated. At the same time, it is just as important not to assume that someone has a Christian, religious or “spiritual” worldview and to facilitate what these parents need to do. We secular people live in a reality that is profoundly different, and it is at best frustrating, and at worst, offensive to be offered support that is automatically based on that other world of certain beliefs–especially when we are completely counting on support from other people. What appears to be a support group of bereaved parents actually contains people living in a number of different realities on which they are basing their coping. Recognizing this is not just a multi-cultural, diversity type of issue, but also something that goes to the heart of what we are there to deal with about our child’s death and its finality.
Our group here has been all the richer for our knowing that we are open about these issues, and knowing that ultimately all we need to have in common is the loss of our precious baby(s) and that each of us has the inner strength and goodness to find our own path while we care for and share with others along the way.