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In working with people grieving, it is important for chaplains to remember that not everyone shares even a belief in some sort of divine functioning in the world. It is something I debate with others about, as many struggle with the idea that without religion, someone can find meaning in life and death. As this post shows, there are ways, though perhaps these ways create greater challenges in coping. At the same time, as the author indicates, what really makes death easier.

How Do Atheists Talk to Their Children About Death?
December 23, 2012 By Hemant Mehta

In periods following great tragedy, like we saw at Newtown, churches provide a lot of comfort to survivors and the community at large, albeit with their wishful statements that “the victims are in a better place” or that “this was all part of God’s plan.”

Atheists don’t have the luxury of false hope. But that does make it tougher to cope with loss. It’s even harder when you’re trying to explain death to children without invoking the supernatural.

The Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein explores that very issue:

So when [Julie Drizin] pulled her 9- and 13-year-olds together this week in their Takoma Park home to tell them about the slaughter of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., her words were plain: Something horrible happened, and we feel sad about it, and you are safe.

And that was it.

“I’ve explained to them [in the past] that some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don’t believe that. I believe when you die, it’s over and you live on in the memory of people you love and who love you,” she said this week. “I can’t offer them the comfort of a better place. Despite all the evils and problems in the world, this is the heaven — we’re living in the heaven and it’s the one we work to make. It’s not a paradise.”

This is what facing death and suffering looks like in an atheist home.

Through a variety of examples, what you see are atheists refusing to lie to their children, choosing instead to frame the discussion in ways their kids might be able to comprehend. Nothing about Heaven or Jesus or God or the afterlife or that you’ll be “reunited” one day.

None of that makes it any easier to accept death, but really, what does?

One thing Boorstein doesn’t talk about in the piece is how atheists (and their children) grieve, and if you’re in a position where you’ve lost someone but can’t bear to be consoled by religious friends and relatives whose words of comfort all revolve around faith, Grief Beyond Belief is a group on Facebook that I know has helped a lot of readers of this site. This essay (PDF) by Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is also worthwhile reading.

(Thanks to Ubi Dubium for the link)