By: Monique Zorzella
There is something deeply heartbreaking about someone innocent and fragile losing their life much too soon. Such is the story told by Priscilla Blossom in the flamboyant article My child is not in heaven: Your religion only makes my grief harder, sharing of the experience she had three years ago, when her daughter Margaret passed away after only 8 hours of life. The mother laments that her “tiny, frail, lifeless daughter […] never even got a chance to see.” Although what physically remains of Maggie is but a plastic box in her mother’s bedroom closet, her mother says “[she] continues to exist with us in her own way […]” until this day. May her precious memory continue to live on in the hearts of her loved ones.
There is no denying that such a tragedy is especially traumatic to the parents who experience things like this. Naturally, people want to provide spiritual comfort to the family to help them through their process of grieving. As over 80% of North Americans are religious—most of them being Christian—chances are there will be someone who will offer statements of comfort concerning “God” and “heaven”. But the author confesses that since she does not believe in the afterlife, she does not find much releif in such assurances
When I tell people about the death of my infant daughter, they often respond that she is in heaven. They tell me that she is an angel now. They tell me that she’s with God. But as an atheist, these words have never brought me any comfort.
It is easily conceivable that an Atheist like the grieving mother would feel a bit discomforted by religious remarks about the afterlife. This was precisely the case when the heartbroken parents held a memorial service for Maggie at a Church in Miami Beach. “Those around us did their best to offer words of comfort, but after a while, I became tired and even resentful of the comments about my daughter needing to go be with Jesus.” She explains. While acknowledging that the statements were well meaning, the bereaved mother didn’t find these remarks very consoling. “I really don’t know what happened to her soul, if such things even exist. And while it may comfort you to say to me that my daughter is in heaven, it does absolutely nothing for me or for the countless others who don’t subscribe to your brand of faith […]”, she writes at the end of her testimony, strangely closing by saying “and that is okay”.
It is hard to believe that it truly is okay with the author considering that she claims religion has made her process of grieving more difficult. If it were truly okay one would think that she would not take issue with others expressing what they believe concerning God and the afterlife. Yet, her behavior indicates otherwise. If the title of the piece does not make this apparent enough, evidence of her contempt for the religious can be seen when she describes looking for a support group where she could talk about her loss, and explains that she “did not feel comfortable going to one of [those Church groups] for fear of verbally assaulting anyone who might suggest [her] daughter had earned her angel wings.” Adding “It made me want to shake people […]”. She additionally remarks “grieving as an atheist in a world of believers added loneliness to grief.” Surely such discomfort and hostility toward the issue makes it evident that she was not at all okay with people openly sharing their religious beliefs. What seems to be implied is that people ought to keep their religious beliefs to themselves.
In all fairness, her hostility towards religious sentiments during her time of mourning is quite normal. Questioning or loss of ones spiritual beliefs are very common reactions of grief among parents who have lost a child.  In a study entitled “Long-Term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife”, it was noted that” because the death of a child defies the expected order of life events, many parents experience the event as a challenge to basic existential assumptions”. The study further explains “[…] grief has been described as the loss of an ‘assumptive world,’ in that the generalized sense of predictability and stability of the world has been challenged.” Just as Maggie’s Mother explains, many people have difficulty wrapping their heads “around the idea that there is some supreme being that allows these sorts of things to happen […]”. Her husband testifies to the commonality of these reactions having lost his own faith when the reality of his daughters death became more manifest; also do the several other bereaved parents the author confided in over secular internet discussion groups.
Be that as it may, it seems that the spirit in which the condolences were given has been overlooked. What should also be considered is the fact that being able to find meaning in death, and religious/spiritual participation are important aspects of overcoming grief. For the religious, faith provides an outlet to express the grief they experience in a healthy way amongst open arms and hearts. Religion helps many optimistically reconcile the difficult existential questions that arise in these circumstances. The intentions of the religious are not to evangelize, or to refute Atheism, or to shove religious ideas down anyone’s throat. They are simply trying to manage the situation in the best way they know how. And if that is okay as is claimed, there should be no aggression felt for people who express their condolences and grief in this manner.
Many non-believers do in fact respect religious expressions of grief, and even at times can happily embrace them despite not personally subscribing to them. A commenter on the article demonstrates this attitude by remarking:
“I have been an atheist, an agnostic, a pagan, and a catholic, and I will continue to travel through this life changing labels as the winds of change and the universe continue to determine my journey. Two dear friends, innocent and loving individuals, senselessly murdered, have caused me to realize that God, or the life force, or the power of love, or the bearded man in the sky, does not have control over the choices that we, sometimes evil , sometimes wonderful, beings make. Having also gone throughout the experience of a son who got caught up in a cult […] my idea of faith is very muddled. And real. Still, I say, god bless you (lower case) , and keep you, and watch over you, because we can use all the help we can get. Life is so hard. I pray to Mary, the Goddess. She is wise and compassionate. Her son is good, and means well.”
Sometimes we know not of any adequate expression of our spiritual selves than what happens to come from religious content. Although one may not believe in the supernatural, they may still relate to the notion that there is something that exists which is greater than ourselves. Perhaps you may not believe in any God calling your loved one back to heaven, but surely you can relate to the concept of the universe recycling their body back into itself. You may not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but you might still find peace in his saying “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
The expression of these beliefs should not be taken as an assault or insult to ones beliefs. Rather, it should be taken as a loving gesture by someone who is trying to offer consolation. Likewise, the religious should not take anyone’s honesty about their lack of faith offensively. Hard questions of faith will inevitably come about for a nonbeliever during their time of grieving. Everyone should be allowed the courtesy of expressing their own beliefs whether we agree with them or not. Rather than challenging and disputing over the beliefs of others, we should simply embrace the diversity of our ideas about the afterlife. After all, no one truly knows what awaits us beyond death.
1. “Grieving the Loss of a Child” Cancer.net. July, 2013. Accessed on 10/30/2015.
2. Catherine H. Rogers, Frank J. Floyd, Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Jan Greenberg, Jinkuk Hong. “Long-Term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife”. J Fam Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 Mar 17. Published in final edited form as: J Fam Psychol. 2008 Apr; 22(2): 203–211.
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