In need of words of comfort in the face of godless loss.
April 24, 2016 7:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm an atheist and need (short) words of comfort for my grief. Bulleted list, haiku, your own account in 100 words or less, real articles, books. I have Frankl.

Not looking for: stuff on stardust or the conservation of energy, or approaches focusing on detachment, if poss.

Looking for: stuff addressing the finality of loss (i.e., *attachment* to life), the senselessness of disease and suffering, how/what to do/feel about lack of redemption etc in the case of an unhappy life ended after senseless disease and suffering.

Bonus question, but not a requirement at all, please don't let it constrain you - atheist eastern orthodoxy, is that a thing, is going through the motions for tradition-comfort purposes allowed, and how do you actually do that without feeling like punching a priest when he actually does go ahead and bring up paradise etc
posted by cotton dress sock to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry for your loss. You might want to check out Grief Beyond Belief and their confidential Facebook group. I also found this Atlantic article moving: "In grief, try personal rituals". They found that people's private rituals, of which 95% were non-religious, helped them recover.
posted by wintersweet at 8:45 PM on April 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Not sure if your bonus questions means we're not constrained on length... Going to Pieces without Falling Apart was really the only book that spoke to me when my mother died. The author is a Western psychiatrist interested in Eastern philosophy/spirituality, and his overall idea is that grief punches you apart into myriad little pieces and gives you the opportunity to figure out which of those pieces you want to continue holding. The whole book was amazingly helpful and insightful, and it definitely made me feel less like I needed to have a "right way" of dealing with anything.
posted by lazuli at 8:51 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Google "Small Comfort" by George Hrab. The key line being (and I tear up as I write this):

I'm glad I get to miss you, but you can never miss me.

Your loved one may no longer be in pain, but, more to the point, they're no longer here. You miss them. They can't.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:52 PM on April 24, 2016 [10 favorites]

It gets better. At first, I was crying all the time (at the store: "I will never take mom to the grocery again." *whoosh* or deleting my regular mom date of the calendar. That was hard). And I was so, so angry. Still am. But it's letting up a little, and I can talk about her and smile. It fucking sucks. It does ease up, a little.
posted by joycehealy at 9:06 PM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful." -Ann Druyan, author/producer and Carl Sagan's widow (full quote)
posted by scrubjay at 9:06 PM on April 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

Also, seriously, call you local hospice. Ours here does free grief counseling if you've suffered a loss in the last year, whether or not your loved one was in hospice. I had my first session last Monday. No religion, no stardust, etc. Just lots of solid "so, what's been going on, what do you think about that?" and then as we started getting into specifics, "Okay, so what I hear is that you're unsure about how do your relationship with your dad now. That's something to think about." It was a big help.
posted by joycehealy at 9:11 PM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

The "ring theory" of grief.

Sheryl Sandberg's essay on her grief for her husband. She references her religion, but only in passing. Her message is non-religious.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:26 PM on April 24, 2016

And just in terms of under-100-word expressions, "This sucks and keeps sucking and I think it will eventually stop sucking but for right now it sucks" is probably my best description.

Joan Didion's My Year of Magical Thinking was accurate enough that I got triggered (but in ways that were ultimately helpful) reading it a year after my mother's death. It's not going to meet your 100-word criteria, but it's sparse and severe enough to feel that way.
posted by lazuli at 9:53 PM on April 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I will mangle this because I don't remember the very elegant quote that describes the concept....

In essence, you will never "get over it." That's a bullshit way of expecting loss to work. You will live past this grief, incorporating it into your perspective on your existence. It's always with you, eventually you grow bigger than the pain.

Many hugs. Hope that helps. I know profound loss and have found this to be true if you give it a chance.
posted by jbenben at 10:07 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

My condolences. Along the lines of your haiku suggestion, here are some selections from A Tomb for Anatole by Stéphane Mallarmé, an unfinished poem about losing his son. To me, they address a couple of the themes you mentioned.

o earth --- you do not
     grow anything
--- pointless
--- I who
    honor you

     vain beauty
endlessly purified
by my tears
some random
  moment, in
  the middle of this
  life, when you
  appear to me
true mourning in
  the apartment
--- not cemetery ---

     What, the thing I am saying
is true --- it is not
music   ------

posted by Wobbuffet at 10:08 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have found comfort in a quote from Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The character, Harold's neighbour, is talking about what it is like to miss his wife who passed away:

"I miss her all the time. I know in my head that she has gone. the only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It's like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it's there and keep falling in. After a while, it's still there, but you learn to walk round it."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:34 PM on April 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

Also--I forgot to say--I'm very sorry for your loss, and I hope that something in this thread gives you at least some solace.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:42 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

It has helped me to remember that we all make the journey. What has been asked of them is asked of us all, everyone who has gone before and everyone who will come after. I felt so lonely until I remembered that grieving is universal.

It's just going to hurt for a while. It's not a thing you can fix, it's just how loss works. It's in the way of everything you'd like to do, and it's boring, and it hurts, and it hurts, and it hurts. But it subsides, I promise. Sleep is soothing, and then you wake up sad and wonder why you're sad, and then you remember. It's deep in your bones. But not forever. Crying is cleansing. Don't listen to people or yourself who put deadlines on grieving. It's not vacation, you don't just switch it off on Monday morning. Don't feel like you're doing it wrong if you have expectations about grieving that you don't meet. Just feel it and process it. You will be okay, and you will find peace. You're in pain, but the one you mourn no longer is.
posted by Fantods at 10:45 PM on April 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

I go to poetry books when I'm grieving, and then I carry poems around in my head and roll them around the way I used to do when I carried river stones in my pockets. Garrison Keillor made an anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times that has helped me many times, and the introduction always makes me cry, but not in a bad way.

But mostly the most helpful thing I've learned is: you're going to be alright. It will be hard and awful for a while, but you're going to be alright.
posted by colfax at 12:40 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am sorry for your loss, and can understand you reaching out for guidance in dealing with the grief this is causing you. This is a universal question, including for those who have 'religious' faith in an afterlife. Those who use religion to paper over their loss are dodging the heavy lifting required to deal with the grief of the loss of a loved one.

The point here is that that you are not alone, and that religious, agnostic and atheist share a lot more than you might expect in these situations. There are rituals and resources around that can be cherry picked for what is relevant and potentially helpful to you, do not to be put off just because, for example it is offered by or prepared for a particular target group. I have personal experience of support from religiously oriented groups that is built around secular psychology and grief counselling.

Above all, hang onto what Colfax said: But mostly the most helpful thing I've learned is: you're going to be alright. It will be hard and awful for a while, but you're going to be alright.
posted by GeeEmm at 1:19 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Weirdly, Queen Elizabeth on 9/11 said something I find helps: 'grief is the price we pay for love.' The situation you're in undoubtedly sucks and I totally understand feeling how it's so profoundly unfair (it is). But the grief you're feeling is because you were lucky enough to experience love in your life. That love doesn't end, it just changes - and your grief will do the same, eventually.
posted by thebots at 2:00 AM on April 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Here's a Carl Adamshick poem I found equally comforting and moving when an old friend died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. It helped me feel that he was OK, and would always be with me:
I always thought death would be like traveling
in a car, moving through the desert,
the earth a little darker than sky at the horizon,
that your life would settle like the end of a day
and you would think of everyone you ever met,
that you would be the invisible passenger,
quiet in the car, moving through the night,
forever, with the beautiful thought of home.
Best wishes to you.
posted by ZipRibbons at 3:28 AM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Previously (from me): Non-theist's guides to grief, please?

I was moved and comforted by Donald Hall's book of poems about the death of his wife, fellow poet Jane Kenyon: Without.

I am very sorry for your loss.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:48 AM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sorry for your loss. I always find this letter from Henry James to a grieving friend to be suitably secular, and reassuring while realistic.
posted by jamaal at 4:49 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

"What is there possibly left for us to be afraid of, after we have dealt face to face with death and not embraced it? Once I accept the existence of dying as a life process, who can ever have power over me again?"

-Audre Lorde, who has a lot of other writing about death and grief where this came from.
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:36 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Michael Rosen's Sad Book is an excellent book with a very real representation about grief. It's a children's book but certainly does not feel that way. There are no euphemisms about death and grief. It is just an honest look at the grief a man experiences over the loss of his teenaged son.
posted by teamnap at 5:51 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

i had a hard time where i felt a need for something vaguely like religion. i don't think there's anything wrong in taking what you want from the culture you know (in particular, when it's one person in private v organised religion appropriation issues go out the window). in my case, i ended up buying a box of chocolates and, each day at 3pm, making myself a cup of tea and taking time to sit in the sun, drink tea, eat a chocolate, and meditate a little. i treated it as my ritual - my own prvate religion - and even "talked" with the sunshine. i can't say it made much sense, but it helped me.

so, in short, do what you want to get through this. take care + good luck (also, go see the film PK if you get a chance - nothing to do with death, but guaranteed to cheer you up).
posted by andrewcooke at 7:59 AM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thank you so much, everyone. I appreciate your kind suggestions and thoughts. *Many* thanks to those of you who have shared personal experiences of grief and loss, here and by private message. I am sorry, so sorry you have that knowledge to share, and that the people you loved are gone.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:43 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

TLDR, so forgive me if any thing is repeated.

I'm a reformed southern Baptist. I go between eastern orthodox atheism and agnosticism, so I understand what you mean. I told a friend once that prayer in crisis and grief was the one thing I missed most from Christianity. She taught me meditation. I highly recommend it if you aren't doing it already. Journaling is a great way to get your thoughts out and if you aren't already in counseling, I'd recommend looking into a non-Christian counselor.

As for the "paradise" talk, "everything happens for a reason", "god doesn't put more on us than we can handle", etc...I just politely smile and thank them for thinking of me. Then, I go home, fire up The Sims 4, make a Sim in their likeness and torture it.

I read this somewhere once, but not sure where. It's gotten me through many days.

Each night, I put my head to my pillow. I try to tell myself I’m strong because I’ve gone one more day without you.
posted by Amalie-Suzette at 10:54 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently lost my father and it's been very odd and comforting at the same to think about how being an atheist makes death a completely different thing than it is for the rest of my family. Last week after Prince died, my Facebook feed was awash in complaints about how many awesome people had been lost this year so far and how heaven was having a party, and so forth.

It hurt a lot to think that the only way people could honor the dead was to picture them continuing on and linked all together in some mystical "Death comes in Threes" meme. Couldn't we take this loss and make it a way to remind us to value each other now rather than waiting until some mythical reunion that might never happen. Love each other now, dammit and make sure they are valued before they're gone.

So I wrote this and stuck it up on my Facebook to help my friends understand where I was coming from:

Considering recent events, I've been thinking about this for a while. I think the whole "Death comes in threes" concept is a little flawed. It's a way to lessen the sting of the loss. To link the grief together in a more rational package.

In reality, Death comes in ones. Big ones, little ones, ones that bring us together and ones that tear us apart. We mark the losses of these ones as best we can. And no one can tell you are grieving wrong, too much or too little.

I've lost a few ones this year, ones who sang to me and made me who I am. As someone who firmly believes this is the only life we get, you might think that the loss of all these ones would hit me hard. But truly it only makes me love life more. To get the opportunity to have a life with so many ones in it, whether they are just on the radio or at your kitchen table, that alone is a miracle, but to share those ones with so many...that's awesome.

Death may come in ones, but so does life and I'm so happy to share mine with so many wonderful ones.

Let's go crazy. Love you.

Hope it helps.
posted by teleri025 at 11:47 AM on April 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I second the book of poetry by Donald Hall, and for me, Distressed Haiku is a perfect moment of understanding that loss is a constant ache, and that none of us are spared it. Awareness that we are surrounded by other people, and that these other people have experienced loss and the searing pain that, very eventually, becomes a dull ache we never escape, that's about all the boon I think we get.

My father has been gone for nearly seven years now. There are times when it still hurts, suddenly, out of no where, like it was right after he died. Other times, I think, I would like to talk to him, and then I remember that I can't just call him anymore, and it aches, like a missing limb or an empty tooth socket. Something should be there. Someone should be there.

The thing that helped most, in the immediate aftermath, was being with people who knew him, and sharing stories. People I barely had ever met were fast friends with my father, and they shared stories of never heard of. They were with me, supporting me, holding me up by sharing with me, and I was helping them to grieve by listening to them, and letting them support me.

I can totally understand (and agree) an utter dislike of religious talk about the afterlife. At the same time, when people spoke to me using those phrases, I listened, said thank you, and moved on to be with people who understood that it wasn't for me. The people with the afterlife talk, some of them, that's how they mourn. It's not how you mourn, but it is mourning. To me, there is too much emotion after the death of a loved one to waste energy on being angry at someone else's way of grieving.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:51 PM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

blessing the boats

(at St. Mary's)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
posted by MsMolly at 7:19 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

The New Normal
posted by MsMolly at 7:24 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

150,000 people will die today. I found this statistic oddly comforting after the fact - a weird, 'oh well it's not just me it's literally metric shitloads of people and their friends and families right now so I guess that's fair, or at least not unfair' - and wish I could've shared it with the person who died so that they wouldn't feel alone either.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:34 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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