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Atheism and Agnosticism, grieving without a belief in God

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Hello all,

I am an agnostic who suffered the loss of his wife on December 25th, 2016.  I wanted to make a thread for those with similar beliefs where they could feel safe sharing their experiences.  The only other such thread I could find was very disappointing to me.  It seemed to be filled with a significant amount of anger, vitriol and conflict.  None of us, regardless of our beliefs, or lack thereof, need any more of those three things than we already have due to our grief.  I don't believe that the purpose of this web site was represented in that thread.  I believe the purpose of of these forums is to provide a place for people to share their grief, experiences, and the wisdom gained through this long hard grief journey we are all on.

I also don't believe the thoughts and ideas of the vast majority of agnostics and atheists was represented on that thread.  I, and most agnostics and atheist that I know, do not hold any ill will towards theists, theism, or God, by whatever name he may be called.  We simply have a different belief structure, and some of what helps religious believers does not help us in the same way.  Atheism and agnosticism are in my opinion very calm, logical, and accepting mindsets, something I don't think was expressed in any way in that thread.

I personally believe in the possible existence of a supreme or divine being, I just don't think it can be proven one way or the other.  I also believe that organized religion has been responsible for some awful parts of mankind's history, including crusades, inquisitions, wars, witch hunts, mass suicides, and holocausts.  I do not blame religions themselves for this, nor the vast majority of religious believers.  It is a handful of bad actors that used fear and faith in awful ways to manipulate people to perform horrible acts.

As a result, I want very little to do with organized religious groups, but I fully respect others right to belong to such groups, and indeed recognize the good parts that it can bring to them, particularly in trying situations such as the ones we are all going through.  I have seen faith help people in my personal life, and I am glad that they had the community and beliefs that they did to ease the pain of their grief.  To any of you with strong religious beliefs, I never intend to belittle your faith, or cast doubts upon it.  I hope that it helps you through these difficult times, and know that my prayers, though our interpretation of that word may differ, are with you.  I also still listen to your experiences and wisdom on a regular basis, and apply it to myself as best I can.

To the agnostics and atheists among us, I actually hope this thread is mostly unused.  This community is a wonderful place, filled with kind, and compassionate people.  During my time here I have not once felt my lack of faith has in any way had an adverse effect upon my interactions with others regardless of their religious beliefs.  In point of fact, the only thread I can think of which I wouldn't feel comfortable posting in is the aforementioned "other" atheist/agnostic thread.  I strongly encourage you to post in the loss of ... forum that is appropriate to your situation.  They will most likely have larger audiences, meaning more people to share your grief, and a much larger pool of people who will have experiences similar to yours.

But we all know that this experience does strange things to our thought processes, particularly in the early days of grief and shock.  As a result, I think a thread such as this may be useful to allow some who are mourning, but uncomfortable with the idea of being singled out as different for their lack of belief, a place to express themselves.  If it only reaches one person, it will be worth it.  Additionally, if there are any issues specific to Atheism or agnosticism, this will give us a place to discus those without disturbing others who might find it offensive in the midst of their grief.  Celebrating how our differences do not have to divide us, but instead can make us stronger as a group,


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Suicidal thoughts can be common early in grief.  If they are recurring, vivid and detailed, or if you start to take any action on them, please call a suicide hotline. 


Edited by Herc
moved suicide hotline closer to the beginning of the thread
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For anyone who has an agnostic or atheist friend who is in grief this is a good article as well:



(I fall into the group that is not offended in the 12th thing not to say.  For anyone who interacts with me, please don't feel like you are stepping on egg shells.  I try to take the meaning behind what you are saying, not the literal interpretation.)

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From https://chopra.com/articles/15-tips-to-help-you-get-through-the-early-stages-of-grief with minor alterations

“Losing a loved one is one of the most debilitating experiences you can go through. At times like this, it’s normal to feel confused or even disoriented. Life seems to stop in grief and it’s difficult to summon the energy to do even the most menial tasks. So how do you cope? Where do you go when you’re in such a dark place?

Start by taking care of yourself. Here are 15 small, loving actions you can do each day to help yourself move toward a place of healing.

1. Get rest. Take breaks from work or daily tasks to nap or just relax. Make yourself a cup of calming tea or take a leisurely walk.

2. Make lists. It’s easy to forget things when your circuits are on overload. Make lists but only include short tasks that don’t require long periods of concentration. If you keep forgetting appointments, ask someone to remind you. This, too, will pass. It just takes time for all the parts of your system to reset, so be patient with yourself. It will get better.

3. Cry. Do this as often as you need to. Tears provide a healthy emotional release and help clear out the cobwebs.

4. Talk to a friend. Don’t hesitate to talk about your feelings with others, particularly someone with whom you are comfortable. Finding comfort in someone you trust can do wonders for a battered soul.

5. Write. Consider starting a journal where you can reflect on what happened, and how it has changed your life. A journal lets you release pent-up feelings and helps you begin the healing process. Just a few minutes a day gives you a framework from which you can view the changes you’re going through.

6. Exercise. Make sure some form of exercise is part of your daily routine. It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous. Stretching or a few easy yoga poses can help release tension. Even something as simple as a 20-minute walk may help lift your spirits. Choose an activity you enjoy, so you can look forward to it.

7. Ask for help when you need it. This can be as simple as asking someone to get something down from a high shelf. Or you can reach out for help with more complicated tasks, such as grocery shopping, that you are just not feeling up to.

8. Eat regularly. Eating small meals 4 to 5 times a day can help curb emotional swings by keeping your blood sugar in check.

9. Drink a lot of water. Every cell is dependent on water; a dehydrated body will only contribute to your emotional drain. Aim for 8 to 10 glasses a day.

10. Breathe. If you find yourself drifting, take a few deep breaths. The body gets the oxygen it needs from the bottom of the lungs, but when we are tense and feeling stressed, our breathing tends to be shallow. Insufficient oxygen stresses the body, which just adds to the stress you’re already feeling. Conscious, deep breaths not only help you relax, they give your system the oxygen it requires to function normally.

To help yourself breathe deeply, try breathing in and out through an imaginary straw so the oxygen can get to the bottom of your lungs. Or raise your arms slowly while breathing in through your nose, gauging the intake so you reach capacity when the arms are all the way up. Then slowly exhale on “sssss” while slowly lowering the arms, again gauging your movement so you reach “empty” when the arms are all the way down. Repeat this 2 or 3 times and then stop and smile. Do this several times a day, or whenever you’re feeling particularly stressed.

11. Meditate. This can bring you back to your calm center and help restore a sense of stability in your life.

12. Laugh. Even though this may be the last thing you feel like doing, do it anyway. Give yourself permission to laugh at something … anything. Laughter helps to break up the clouds and bring you in a better place.

13. End each day by giving thanks for positives. Even in the toughest of times, there is something for which you can be thankful. What can you give thanks for today? Did support come from an unexpected place? Did someone say exactly what you needed to hear? Did a robin stop and sing on your windowsill? Positives come in many forms. You may even wish to begin a gratitude journal in which you record how each day was good. Gratitude heals at a very deep level.

14. Go to bed around the same time every night. A regular routine helps create a feeling of stability. If sleep is difficult for you, a soothing bath or a cup of chamomile tea early in the evening will help you settle down as you prepare for sleep.

15. Go your own pace. Grief doesn’t have a schedule. Do what you need to do and feel what you need to feel in order to heal. You are doing the very best you can at any given time, so be easy on yourself and let the process unfold.

No matter how difficult things may seem, healing does come. Focus on the small things and big change will come in time”

Sent from my iPhone using Grieving.com

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Another, slightly modified, guide to help with grief from @KayC, a very wise member of this forum who has a large amount of experience to draw from:

”I wrote this article of what I've learned has helped me in the years since my husband's death.  I hope something in it will be of help to you.  It's intended to print it out and read it every few months as different things will hit you at different times...our grief journey is ever evolving.


There's no way to sum up how to go on in a simple easy answer, but I encourage you to read the other threads here, little by little you will learn how to make your way through this.  I do want to give you some pointers though, of some things I've learned on my journey.

  • Take one day at a time.” ... “each day has enough trouble of it's own, I've found that to be true, so don't bite off more than you can chew.  It can be challenging enough just to tackle today.  I tell myself, I only have to get through today.  Then I get up tomorrow and do it all over again.  To think about the "rest of my life" invites anxiety.
  • Don't be afraid, grief may not end but it evolves.  The intensity lessens eventually.
  • Visit your doctor.  Tell them about your loss, any troubles sleeping, suicidal thoughts, anxiety attacks.  They need to know these things in order to help you through it...this is all part of grief.
  • Suicidal thoughts are common in early grief.  If they're reoccurring, call a suicide hotline.  I felt that way early on, but then realized it wasn't that I wanted to die so much as I didn't want to go through what I'd have to face if I lived.  Back to taking a day at a time.  Suicide Hotline - Call 1-800-273-8255
  • Give yourself permission to smile.  It is not our grief that binds us to them, but our love, and that continues still.
  • Try not to isolate too much.  
  • There's a balance to reach between taking time to process our grief, and avoiding it...it's good to find that balance for yourself.  We can't keep so busy as to avoid our grief, it has a way of haunting us, finding us, and demanding we pay attention to it!  Some people set aside time every day to grieve.  I didn't have to, it searched and found me!
  • Self-care is extremely important, more so than ever.  That person that would have cared for you is gone, now you're it...learn to be your own best friend, your own advocate, practice self-care.  You'll need it more than ever.
  • Recognize that your doctor isn't trained in grief, find a professional grief counselor that is.  We need help finding ourselves through this maze of grief, knowing where to start, etc.  They have not only the knowledge, but the resources.
  • In time, consider a grief support group.  If your friends have not been through it themselves, they may not understand what you're going through, it helps to find someone somewhere who DOES "get it". 
  • Be patient, give yourself time.  There's no hurry or timetable about cleaning out belongings, etc.  They can wait, you can take a year, ten years, or never deal with it.  It's okay, it's what YOU are comfortable with that matters.  
  • Know that what we are comfortable with may change from time to time.  That first couple of years I put his pictures up, took them down, up, down, depending on whether it made me feel better or worse.  Finally, they were up to stay.
  • Consider a pet.  Not everyone is a pet fan, but I've found that my dog helps immensely.  It's someone to love, someone to come home to, someone happy to see me, someone that gives me a purpose...I have to come home and feed him.  Besides, they're known to relieve stress.  Well maybe not in the puppy stage when they're chewing up everything, but there's older ones to adopt if you don't relish that stage.
  • Make yourself get out now and then.  You may not feel interest in anything, things that interested you before seem to feel flat now.  That's normal.  Push yourself out of your comfort zone just a wee bit now and then.  Eating out alone or going to a movie alone, these things are hard to do at first.  You may feel you flunked at it, cried throughout, that's okay, you did it, you tried, and eventually you get a little better at it.  If I waited until I had someone to do things with I'd be stuck at home a lot.
  • Keep coming here.  We've been through it and we're all going through this together.
  • Look for joy in every day.  It will be hard to find at first, but in practicing this, it will change your focus so you can embrace what IS rather than merely focusing on what ISN'T.  It teaches you to live in the present and appreciate fully.  You have lost your big joy in life, and all other small joys may seem insignificant in comparison, but rather than compare what used to be to what is, learn the ability to appreciate each and every small thing that comes your way...a rainbow, a phone call from a friend, unexpected money, a stranger smiling at you, whatever the small joy, embrace it.  It's an art that takes practice and is life changing if you continue it.
  • Eventually consider volunteering.  It helps us when we're outward focused, it's a win/win.”
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The following link has secular support groups that may be of use to agnostics and atheists.  I would have quoted parts of it, but I personally disagree with some of the principles, and also find it in some ways inappropriate for this web page.  Essentially the author indicates that separating religious from non-religious support networks is of value.  I disagree, and believe rather that having atheistic and theistic views both present promotes discussion on, and critical thinking about the subject.  Additionally while for some atheists discussion of religion is hurtful in our grief, for many of faith the language used regarding the finality of death could be disturbing.

Still for atheists and agnostics there are some great support networks in the link.  The groups range from grief specific items, including a network of therapists, to AA alternatives that may be of use to those suffering from depression and/or addiction.  For any of those with strong religious beliefs going through grief, I would advise against looking at this one, it may be more harmful than helpful.


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Thankyou for reading, I hope people find it useful.  Here is my personal list of grief tips after reflecting on two years.

Everyone’s path through this is unique, but there are many things that we have in common.  I hope that people fresh to grief find this list helpful, as well as giving those further along on their journey opportunity to reflect.

1.  One day, one moment at a time. - It is ok to look at the future, particularly if you are having strong moments.  When it starts causing anxiety, panic, or discomfort it is important to stop and deal with grief in smaller, more manageable pieces.

2.  Practice self-care, particularly in the small things. – Your loved one would want you to take care of yourself.  This applies to all aspects of grief, but basic elements in particular.  Eat what you can, sleep when you can, exercise if you can, and drink plenty of water.

3.  Accept help when you need it, help others when you can. -  It is hard at times to accept help.  Grief may make you may feel that you are a burden, or that you aren’t worthy of being helped, both of which are untrue.  People who offer help do so because they want and need to.  It is often part of their grieving process.  If someone offers help without specifics, you may try to think of one small, but concrete thing they can do.  Let them pick up something from the store for you, cook you a meal, or help clean a room.  These are small things that have visible results.  Remember the "when you can" of helping others.  Helping people builds a sense of self-worth and purpose, but you have burdens of your own and don't need to overextend yourself.

4.  Establish and stick to routines. - This puts order into chaotic lives.  Try to go to and get out of bed every day at the same time.  Set schedules, with alarms in your phone if needed for the basics of life, shopping, caring for pets, eating, or cleaning.

5.  Allow time to grieve. - Ignoring grief may lead to further problems.  There are times when it is appropriate to disguise your emotions, but if you do that for too long it may lead to a setback in your grieving journey.  You may want to add this to your routines, and set one time a day to think about your emotions, loss, and how to cope with it.  Over time you may find you simply know when you need to take time to process your grief.

6.  Before making big changes take time to think them through. – This seems to go against one day, one moment, one breath at a time, but it is important.  Avoid making big changes in the first year.  Slow down and make sure what you are doing is good for you, not a reaction to your grief.

7.  Try new things. - The reverse of establish and stick to routines.  While routines bring order to the chaos, trying new things opens the door to future possibilities.  Start small, such as changing your routes to and from work or the store.  When you feel comfortable, look at trying large things such as changing long term patterns of behavior that no longer work for your situation.

8.  Do what feels right for you. – Self-confidence is often damaged by personal loss and grief.  You may stop trusting your instincts and second guess yourself.  Often your instincts are still correct.  If you don’t feel you are ready for something, listen to that inner voice.  This journey is hard enough, on occasion it is ok to indulge yourself even if it seems selfish to others.

9.  Separate guilt from regrets. -  Regrets are natural and we all wish we had done better at times.  Guilt is feeling you have done something wrong and blaming yourself for the situation.  None of us needs blame or condemnation through this process, least of all from ourselves.

10. It is OK to not be OK. – You are going through a very difficult experience.  It is normal to feel panic, anxiety, fear, anger, and depression.  Take those moments for what they are and work through them as slowly as you need to.  If you don't get something the first, fifth, or five thousandth time, that is understandable.  Take your time, regroup and try again.  Anyone who doesn't understand doesn't matter, and anyone who matters will understand.

11.  Grief can be a part of you without controlling you. – Early in grief it is all you may feel, in ways it may define you.  As you move through this grief journey, you will come to points where you can define your grief rather than the other way around.  While you may never be rid of it, you do not have to give it power over you.  You can find ways to live with it and find purpose or happiness even though grief will still be a part of you.

 12.  When truly lost, seek out an expert, then take and follow their advice.  -  No one knows everything.  It is normal to feel isolated and abandoned in grief.  Asking for, and accepting help doesn’t make you weak in any way.  It gives you the strength of your entire community.

Again hoping everyone finds this helpful, and wishing all the peace and comfort possible,


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Thank you for this thread.  As someone who hasn't believed in a god since he was a teen I find what you posted to be very informative and helpful.   The article you posted about things not to say to a non believer was pretty spot on.  The amount of people who have said to me you are in my prayers or I will pray for you over this last year has always irked me.  I know it comes from a good place but they know I don't believe and therefore believe you are praying to nobody so keep your prayers to yourself please.   The god has a plan line too has been bestowed upon me that I just don't even respond to it anymore.  If anything, any shred of belief I may have had and didn't know existed was set on fire last year and just reaffirmed what I knew all along about my beliefs.  

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Thank you so much for this much needed thread. I’m not sure if being agnostic makes it harder to grieve or not. I suppose there are pros and cons. I just don’t want to live in denial of the real possibility that “the end” may just very well be The End. A  very hard pill to swallow. I think believers do grieve differently. That’s why I think this thread is so important to some of us.

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On 11/30/2018 at 5:09 PM, ModHerc said:

For anyone who has an agnostic or atheist friend who is in grief this is a good article as well:



(I fall into the group that is not offended in the 12th thing not to say.  For anyone who interacts with me, please don't feel like you are stepping on egg shells.  I try to take the meaning behind what you are saying, not the literal interpretation.)

Updated link: 


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