Grief Without Belief

by Deidre Felton

Whether or not we share a specific belief system there is a sense of solidarity when it comes to dying. Dr. Albert Schweitzer said that he found there was “a fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain,” and that “sensitivity to human suffering does not stand alone and rootless.” We have all stood over different graves and have had different beliefs as to the fate of our loved ones, but our tears remain a universal constant and need no translation.

There was a recent article by Kimberly Winston from the Religion News Service entitled, Grief without God, wherein she discusses the challenges for an atheist who grieves without a specific belief system. She writes of parents who chose to leave support groups because they didn’t share the views of other participants who spoke hopefully of “holding their children again” in an afterlife.

One anguished mother commented in the piece that her loss was so absolute that to suggest otherwise was to dismiss its magnitude. So how do non-theists cope without the “trappings” or support of religious ritual and belief? Where is there a space for them in what is essentially a theistic culture? One place to look is at the Facebook page entitled, “Grief Beyond Belief,” where one of the tenets of the Bill of Rights for the Grieving is, “You have the right not to be grateful, reasonable, inspired or inspiring.” Another would be the book “Godless Grief” by Cathe Jones whose work has generated an online community of like-minded grievers.

Creating rituals for non-theists would also seem to be of importance. Rituals have been with us over many millennia. Flower pollen has been traced back over forty-thousand years in caves in Scandinavia, placed on the bodies buried deep within their caverns by mourning loved ones. Rituals not only link us to our past but provide a way to cope with everyday life. They acknowledge the trauma, but also the survival of the living. The community has been damaged as well as the individual. It matters that we were here. It matters that we are no more, and it surely matters that someone cares enough to notice. Rituals affirm who we are and where we fit in to the universe. No one wants to slip into oblivion. Being erased from memory may, in the end, constitute one of our deepest fears.

So what might be some options? When the deceased has specified no service and no obituary, there are still ways to fill in the gaps.

  • You can write a letter to the deceased and leave it with the body for cremation or burial.
  • You can put a notice in the paper on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, a birthday or other anniversary.
  • You can donate your body to science, thus bringing hope that what is learned may yet help the living.
  • There can be a public gathering in a secular setting at a later date.

When a colleague of mine died who had done pioneering work in the AIDS community and later succumbed to the disease himself, a gathering was held in his memory. Three months later in a concert hall, several people spoke, and a chamber orchestra played a number of his favorite Mozart works. I like to think that he would have been pleased.

Bearing witness is also a way to bring comfort to the living. A recent article in the New York Times by Hiroko Tabuchi recalled the first anniversary of the tsunami in Japan. He spoke of a retired undertaker, a Mr. Atsushi Chita, who had spent countless hours cleaning the faces of identified victims as best he could so that the grieving family members would know that cultural rituals had been observed and that their loved ones had not been alone in death. My sister-in-law, who is Japanese, impressed upon me at the time how vital it was that even in catastrophic circumstances the body be treated with respect and dignity.

I am thinking of all who bore witness at the makeshift morgue in lower Manhattan after 9/11. Some were clergy, many were not, yet there was a common sense of humanity that united them in their goal of showing dignity and respect, knowing that loved ones could not, and also understanding that the fragmented remains might never be identified.


Perhaps the ultimate secular memorial in America is simply known as “The Wall.” When twenty-one-year old Maya Lin proposed the architectural plan for the Vietnam Memorial in our nation’s capital, there was much opposition, some of it quite brutal as I recall. Now, thirty years later, it is universally acknowledged to be part of our national psyche. To be there, to see the endless blocks of thousands of names carved into the smooth stone, to have to walk down, only to walk back up to re-emerge into the world gives not only the sense of the enormity of our losses, but speaks with quiet dignity and respect. People leave toys, flowers, photos, letters and military mementos to such an extent that a museum has been set up to hold them all. It is the most visited secular site in the country.


Over twenty years ago when what was known as the Quilt Project in memory of AIDS victims was touring the country it came to Phoenix where I was living at the time. It took over the Phoenix Civic Center and there were literally thousands of quilts…on the floor, on the wall and hanging from the ceiling. As a volunteer it was my job to find the names on a computer printout that matched a specific quilt. Never will I forget the older couple who approached me for assistance. They were in their seventies I would guess and the woman was pulling a small oxygen tank behind her. We walked quite a distance until the quilt they were searching for was located. I found two chairs and left them to their grief and their thoughts.


Later as I was helping them to find the exit back into the hot July desert sun they told me that the quilt had been made in honor of their grandson who had died with AIDS. His sister, their granddaughter, had made it in secret. The man’s parents had been so ashamed that they had refused to hold a funeral for him. This quilt had been his sister’s memorial to him. Looking back on it now I realize that in those few minutes spent in tears and quiet contemplation sitting in front of that quilt, this young man’s grandparents were in fact making a cemetery visit. It was as close as they were going to get to memorializing him. It was a completely secular moment, but none the less powerful, and I’ll never forget it.

The needs of our communities are changing. There must be room for all who grieve…for those who rely on age-old structures and beliefs as well as for those who do not share in those traditions. Let us never say that we are not up to the task. We owe it to one another to bear witness to the pain of our neighbors, wherever that may lead.

About the Author: Mrs. Felton is a dynamic and inspiring international speaker and presents seminars throughout the United States on current grief issues. Prior to establishing her consulting business, Deirdre worked in the bereavement field for over twelve years in various professional capacities. She was formerly the Bereavement Counseling Coordinator for the Hospice of Stamford, Connecticut, pro-bono counselor on the oncology service at Morristown Hospital in New Jersey and a Bereavement Counselor at St. Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal Church in Phoenix, Arizona. She has been a faculty member of the American Academy of Bereavement since 1993. She is currently contributing editor for the American Academy of Bereavement’s quarterly newsletter. Her audiotape series on “Compassion & Bereavement” has received critical acclaim.

Permission given by Grief Digest Magazine to reproduce original article

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