Hensler is an atheist, so when people described her three-month-old son Jude as being an angel, or part of God’s plan, or “in a better place” than in his mother’s arms, the pain sometimes overwhelmed her.
“(Atheists) don’t think we are going to get to hold our children again,” Hensler told a group of about 30 members of the East Bay Atheists, a monthly gathering of nontheists, where her descriptions of people’s visions of her son as an angel drew a few gasps.
“We are facing an absolute loss, so when someone projects onto that the idea that we are going to be able to hold our children again or communicate with them, it is essentially dismissing the magnitude of that loss.”
As the atheist community grows and matures, one thing people are looking for is a way to process grief and sorrow without the trappings — or support — of religious ritual and belief.
For nonbelievers, John Lennon’s famous bid to “imagine there’s no heaven” isn’t just a lyric; it’s reality. And it’s not always easy.
Last year, Hensler founded “Grief Beyond Belief,” a Facebook page where unbelievers can share their grief and loss in what she describes as “a safe place” devoid of God-talk.
Within eight days, Grief Beyond Belief garnered 1,000 “likes,” a number that is now approaching 3,000. Hensler estimates there are about 150 users on the site each day.
A 43-year-old school counselor, Hensler tries to post something every day — a link, a picture, a question, a thought. Recent topics include a discussion of travel as a balm for pain, a look at how agnostics grieve, and a link to a “Bill of Rights for the Grieving.” Right No. 7: “You have the right not to be grateful, reasonable, inspired or inspiring.”
The idea that nonbelievers need their own places to grieve is gaining traction in the atheist arena. The book “Godless Grief” by Cathe Jones appeared in 2009; Atheist Nexus, an online community of nontheists, established a grief support group last year; and in recent months a handful of atheist bloggers have taken up the topic.
“When I became an atheist, death was one of the hardest issues I had to deal with,” said Greta Christina, a prominent atheist activist who encouraged Hensler to establish Grief Beyond Belief.
“I didn’t know about atheist writings or communities that could help me through it. ... I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that alone.”
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, leader of New York’s City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which has long held secular funeral services, said grief is a universal experience that requires different responses.
“Secular people feel as racked with sorrow as the next person,” he said. “Christians mourn differently than Jews who mourn differently than Muslims. There ought to be space for those who don’t share religious beliefs to mourn, too.”