Secular Death


The topic of death might be a little heavy, but it is something that has been weighing on my mind for some time because of recent events in my life.

How, as an atheist, or if you are talking to an atheist, do you deal with the grief of losing a loved one, be that a family member, a friend, a lover or an idol? Death is a difficult subject to broach with most people, but another layer of difficulty is added if you do not believe in a spiritual afterlife. How can you console, or be effectively consoled, by someone who does not believe that the loved one has “gone to a better place” or is “watching us from above”? I was recently placed in this awkward position when a woman who I am very close to lost her 14 year old sister to suicide. The girl in question suddenly took her life late last year and devastated her family to a degree that I could not even begin to comprehend myself.

Both my friend and I are atheist, but that does not in any way diminish the grief of losing someone you love. A lack of some sort of religious faith does not provide the emotional safety net that such belief offers. I was dumbstruck as how to console her and help her through this incredibly difficult time in her life. I could not say the cliché line of “she’s in a better place” because I do not believe in such a place, and coming off as insincere or false would do nothing to ease her pain. By the same token, saying such things to someone who is not of a religious faith would do little to comfort them. It took me a long time to come across the right words to use, the right message to convey whilst keeping to my principles of a secular universe. I could see that what I eventually told her lifted a weight from her shoulders and relieved her suffering for her sister, even if only a little. I am not trying to say that this will work for everyone, but should you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of losing a loved one, or knowing a secular person who has, I hope these words will guide you and your loved one along the path from grief to acceptance.

“Mourn not for those who have been lost, for they do nought but continue on in the greatest adventure in the cosmos. Their body will fade and disappear, but who they were, the atoms within them, the energy of their life, will live on eternally through all of time and space. They will soar on the wind as birds of the sky, run with the wolves of the forest, and discover every secret the ocean can offer. They will form the cores of the mountains and the flowers of the trees. They will shine bright as the hearts of stars and travel far and wide across all of the cosmos, for matter and energy are never ending, and she will go on to be all of these things and more. Mourn not for the dead, for nothing truly dies, only goes on to continue the great journey through the cosmos. Be happy for the sights she will see and the places she will visit, and know that someday, you two will be united again, be it in the heart of a star or the seed of a tree, no one is lost to you forever.”

I hope these meagre words will be of help, and wish it to be many years before you have need to use them.

By Zeph Gabriel Mclean