Dealing With Death As a Non-Religious Person

Do you spend much time thinking about death? What do you think happens after we die? Do you believe in an afterlife? What about angels or ancestors watching out for you?

The presumed existence of “heaven” and “hell” {or some equivalent places of reward or punishment} is very prominent in our culture. To question their legitimacy is to mark yourself as an outsider—in some ways even more so than divulging you are an atheist. The idea that an afterlife must exist is so ingrained in people’s minds that to even suggest this life on earth as we know it is all there is can seem incomprehensible to many.

As far as the myriad ideas on what life beyond death might be like, I personally do not believe any of them to be feasible. Nor do I believe in reincarnation. Or that our ancestors are guiding us. Or that dead relatives can come back to visit once a year like in the movie Coco. {Although, if an afterlife did exist, that seems like a decent setup.}

However, I understand what it is like to want so strongly to assume one of those scenarios must be true. If you previously believed in the mythology and rituals of a particular religion, you may have difficulty wrapping your brain around finality of death. Especially when all your life you have been sold false promises of “eternity” and claims of death not being the end.

While I certainly hope to live a long, healthy life—I am definitely in no hurry to check out—I do contemplate these things. I also talk about them openly with my children {currently 13, 11, and 8}. Dying is not something I want my children to fear. 

Instead of insisting it is not something they need to worry about right now, I want to prepare them to navigate their own grief as non-believers. When the world gives them unhelpful platitudes, I want to help them find a way to process their emotions in a way that respects their true selves and prioritizes their own well-being.

While I can’t give you an easy method to follow—there is simply no one way of handling grief—I can let you know some personal things that have helped me along the way, and share a bit about how I discuss this issue with my own kids. 

Grief is an intimate and personal timeline. I cannot promise anything you read here will assist your own process. I can only hope the knowledge that dealing with death as a non-religious person is something others have struggled with will help you feel less alone.

Single tree with changing leaves reflected in a body of water against an evening sky.

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Talk About Death {and Answer Any Questions Honestly}

About five years ago, shortly before my dad died, I had a dream in which I talked to him on the phone. {This in and of itself was surreal, as he had been very ill for almost a year and essentially non-communicative.} 

He asked about the kids and said how much he would miss them. He said that I should be sure to tell Agent A {three at the time} about him someday, because he knew he was too young to remember. In the dream I asked him, are you going to die? and he answered yes very matter-of-factly. Then he told me not to worry, and that it would be okay.

Within a few weeks he was gone. I was 42 years old, and it was the first time in my life I had to seriously confront my own feelings about death. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the dream was a sign. It was simply my subconscious helping me process a very difficult time.

Most people struggle with how to deal with death and dying because as a culture we have been conditioned to not talk about it. Or, if we do discuss it, it is in broad terms and meaningless memes about better places and everything having a reason.

I still considered myself a Christian when my father passed. Oh, I had doubts for years by then, but the big moment when I officially broke things off with Jesus wouldn’t happen for another six months. 

At the time the kids and I had not talked a lot about dying, or heaven, or hell, or any aspect of life after death. The emphasis here being on heaven, because no one likes to ponder what their dearly departed is doing in hell. Heaven as an end result is much more palatable. 

I had tried to prepare them {they were 8, 6, and 4} for the inevitable given the situation with my dad, but I was unprepared myself and just repeated much of the same religious dogma I had learned. I probably passed along some ramblings to the Agents about Grandpap going to heaven—without putting too much thought into it. I mean, that’s what people say, right? 

Of course being the way they are, they did not just accept the idea of heaven being a “better place” where dead people go, and many questions arose:

  • Do you look the way you did when you died? Or are you a younger version of yourself? Do you get to choose? What if folks don’t recognize you?
  • How do you find people? Is there a directory of everybody there?
  • Is it literally everyone—or almost everyone, minus those poor folks in hell—who has ever lived? Are our early ancestors there, in whatever hominid form they passed in? How do we communicate with them?
  • If animals go to heaven, too, does that mean every ant I’ve ever stepped on and every cockroach I’ve ever sprayed with Raid is waiting for me? Or is just cute animals, like dogs and cats? What about dinosaurs? Are they there? {That would be pretty cool, actually.}
  • Who are you reunited with first? If you were widowed and had more than one spouse, is there some sort of protocol? 
  • Do you need to sleep? eat? work? Or are you just floating around in a state of bliss?

I quickly realized I had no good answers to these inquiries. However, even if your views on religion and death and the afterlife are fuzzy, you should not fear talking to your kids {even very young kids} about your own thoughts. They might even give you more clarity though their processing and questions.

In hindsight I wish I had broached this subject with my children sooner. Although I would have approached things from the perspective of Christianity, any conversation would have been better than none. Perhaps it would have been handled differently if I were already a non-believer when my father died, but it was what it was.

When You Need Encouraging Words {and You Don’t Want To Turn To Religion}

I have a couple of favorite quotes about death. {What; you don’t?} Because I do not rely on scriptures of any kind or prayers or rituals, I find solace in the words of scientists and fellow non-believers. These particular words are just two examples of thoughts that give me all the feels, and I hope they help you, too. 

{In addition—if you don’t mind physics making you cry—you might also want to check out The Physicist’s Eulogy by Aaron Freeman.}

My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are—really and truly—still in existence somewhere. I wouldn’t ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There’s a part of me—no matter how childish it sounds—that wonders how they are. “Is everything all right?” I want to ask. The last words I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were “Take care.”
—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark

I love what Sagan has to say, because it conveys exactly how I feel about my own father’s passing. Intellectually, I know he is just gone. He’s not looking down on me, he’s not waiting for some grand heavenly reunion—he simply no longer exists. Yet some tiny, visceral part of my being wishes the afterlife were real, and wherever he is, he is okay. I would love to have those ten minutes to let him know I missed him, and to show him how the Agents have changed. 

Sagan’s words make me feel less alone with my grief, and validate my {admittedly irrational} feelings of wishing intermittent communication were possible. 

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

This Dawkins quote gives me a sense of gratitude about our ephemeral existence. 

Honestly, just accepting the finality of it all provides consolation. You might think, isn’t that kind of depressing? No, not really. I think accepting dying as simply a part of the circle of living makes the whole experience more comforting, not less.

I am not afraid of death, for I believe it will be much like it was before I was born—which is to say, I will have no comprehension of my nonexistence. Of course, those I leave behind will comprehend it, and will need to come to terms with it. That is why communication now is so important.

We Might Have This Figured Out All Wrong {and That Is Okay}

Of course, I don’t know what happens upon death—no one does. That’s not to say that I think any scenario other than complete obliteration of your thoughts is likely. And I truly believe that is the better alternative. 

While some look at the idea of an an eternal life after death as a way to alleviate the pain of losing a loved one {so-and-so is in a better place, they are with God, they are re-united with whomever} to me it seems like the worst possible idea. 

It is bad enough that we need to spend the rest of our natural lives grieving those who have left us; do we want to spend our eternity grieving for those left behind until they die, too?

{Please don’t tell me this magically doesn’t happen, that somehow time in your conceived heaven has different rules, and that it wouldn’t be like that. Because, God. If you can invent a narrative to fit your version of death, so can I.}

In all likelihood—whether my end comes tomorrow or fifty years from now—my kids will outlive me. Do I want to burden them with the false hope that we will be reunited one day? Do I want them to bear the pain for the rest of their lives that I’m waiting for them, longing for them somewhere? Of course not.

I think a common misconception about atheists is that death affects us differently. That somehow—because we know life to be finite and we do not believe we were specially created—dealing with death as a non-religious person hurts less or does not produce the same void in our lives. 

This is simply not true. If anything, I would argue the death of a loved one affects us even more strongly, because we know it is just game over. There is no holding out hope for a tear-filled future meet-up. There is no sense of longing to re-unite with the person again someday. It is just done. 

Still, I would rather have that closure—however painful—than any choice of mythological afterlife, with its delusions of eternity in a much better {or much worse} place than earth. To me it offers more peace this way.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I often wonder how we will choose to explain death to our children as non-religious people. I appreciate the insight.

    1. Valerie

      You’re welcome. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and give it a read. I think when the time comes, as long as you are willing to answer questions honestly, that is really the most important part. Kids are usually able to handle these types of discussions way sooner than we adults typically would expect.

  2. In my own journey away from christianity and Jesus, I’ve had too many experiences outside of the realm of “we simply cease” to fully become atheist. I’ve become agnostic, I believe there is a spiritual realm, something beyond what we know that is actually beginning to be proven by scientists. Whether it’s electromagnetic communication between humans and entities, or some magical force that is beyond the scientific reach of today, I still believe there’s something beyond us, something to the belief of ancestors walking among us, honoring them. But certainly ive moved beyond “reunion, waiting for them, a better place” it’s more related to cycles and going back into the earth from where we started. I’ve really resonated with animism and I’ve always felt that on some level throughout my life. That’s what I’m teaching my daughter on the same level of respecting the earth.

    1. Valerie

      It’s definitely a question we can only answer for ourselves. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. It’s so important that death — being an aspect of life — is allowed to be discussed, thought about and learned about in a way that isn’t heavily dictated and expected to be understood like it is often from a religious perspective. Everyone has the right to exist and explore their own place in the world and when it comes to death and/or grief, there shouldn’t ever be a pressure to conform to a religious view .

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Valerie

      Agree completely, Molly. Thank you so much for reading.

  4. Death and grief are such emotional and vulnerable times. I wish more people would try to consider that the individual in question may not share the same beliefs that they do when this topic comes up. For example, don’t assume someone beliefs in life after death BUT also don’t rain on someone if they do. This is the time where we really need to respect one another wherever they are in life.

    1. Valerie

      I agree that it is most people’s default to assume the other person shares their beliefs. I think that if more folks were exposed to differing faiths and views earlier on there would be a whole lot more respect shown in that regard. And you’re absolutely right; we need to respect people wherever they are. I would never try to convince someone *not* to believe in something that was giving them comfort during a difficult time.

  5. I really enjoyed this post, as I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like this as well. Good luck!

    1. Valerie

      Thank you, Trent. I hope you found it helpful.

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