In my last post, “A Pro-Science, Skeptical Woman Speaks” I interviewed a woman with whom I share many views in common. One of my goals here at Feminism and Religion is to introduce different secular, atheistic, liberal feminists who share many of the same ethical views as regular contributors and readers, but not the same “religious” or “spiritual” ideas. In this post I examine an online support network for unbelievers, Grief Beyond Belief, and ask a few questions to its founder, Rebecca Hensler.
I met Rebecca in February in San Francisco while on a visit I made to meet with the Unitarian Universalist Association in regards to my ordination. My girlfriend and I met Rebecca in North Beach, San Francisco for dinner and drinks. I experienced her as a compassionate, friendly, and genuine person. Her experiences and insights inspired me to think more about the role of grief and pain among unbelievers. I mean, atheists cry, agnostics experience loss, skeptics lose family members, and we do it all without a “God” or “spirit” to help us. And if we were to meet C.S. Lewis, we would make
sure to exclaim, “No…pain is not some megaphone for God to rouse a deaf world.”
Why did you start Grief Beyond Belief?
The original idea was born of my own grief. After my son died, I found a group in which to share comfort and compassion with other grieving parents: The Compassionate Friends, a mainstream parental grief support organization with a strong online presence. It was so close to exactly what I needed, but I frequently felt alienated by the religious and spiritual content — not just the offers of comfort that depended on beliefs I do not hold, but the assumption that everyone there held some sort of belief in life after death. And the assumption, so common in mainstream grief support, that even if I am not the same religion as you are, I have a religion, and I believe in some sort of afterlife was equally alienating and hurtful.
It didn’t take that much imagination to realize that the same sort of support could be provided to nonbelievers, just free of religious and spiritual content. But Grief Beyond Belief would have remained just a wish — a good idea but something I would have learned to live without — if Greta Christina hadn’t explained to me how great was the need for the kind of community I imagined among atheists and other freethinkers. Many atheists had written about it, but no one had stepped up to make it happen.
The final push came from my own impatience, my own tendency to get frustrated when everyone seems to know something needs to get done and no one is doing it. Even as a little girl, I was known for saying, “I’ll do it myself!” Founding Grief Beyond Belief was definitely an “I’ll do it myself!” moment.
Why does it trouble you when someone tries to counsel a nonreligious person with theologically loaded phrases?
I think that should be easy for religious people to understand why an atheist might be troubled by comfort based in religious beliefs. Simply imagine how it feels to be comforted by a religious belief you do not hold. Is a Christian widow comforted by being reminded that her husband who died in combat is drinking with Valkyries in Valhalla?
As for, “I’m praying for you,” the religious may want to consider that to many who do not believe in the power of prayer, “I’m praying for you” sounds like “I am choosing to do nothing for you.” It feels like the speaker is either avoiding offering practical help or avoiding the admission that there is nothing they can do to take away the pain of bereavement.
But to speak for myself in particular, any comfort based on the idea that I will someday be reunited with my son doesn’t just fail to comfort me, it hurts me. The agonizing fact that my son is gone from me forever is being dismissed with a facile promise that I know cannot ever be fulfilled. It is far more comforting to validate my pain than to brush it off with fantasies about cherub wings and heaven.
How can religious feminists better understand the need for secular forums for dealing with grief?
I would think that feminists — especially feminists that have been involved in any sort of feminist activism, education or organizing — shouldn’t have any problem understanding why atheists and other freethinkers need a separate space to process the ideas and emotions of grief. In particular, those who have been harmed by discrimination, harassment and ostracization due to their atheism need a space that feels safe in which to mourn, heal, and learn from each other how to move forward with grief in their lives.