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Losing the “God Talk” in Grief Groups

“To say you need the afterlife to have meaning is the bleakest form of insanity.”

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Painting of floating woman with building and trees

Life by Cornelia Li

Rebecca Hensler started an online group called Grief Beyond Belief after her three-month-old baby boy died in her arms of a rare genetic disease. Her son’s life was so brief that she did not see the need for a full-blown memorial service. Instead, she, family, and friends met at home and talked about the baby, read from books they had read to him, and comforted each other. She also sought comfort through an online parental bereavement forum called The Compassionate Friends, which provided resources and connections to grieving parents. It was a great help during a terrible time.

“Grieving parents feel like an alien species; the only people who get you are other grieving parents,” she said. Even in The Compassionate Friends, however, it was hard for Hensler to find people who could support her without resorting to spiritual language and religious philosophizing. Some people expressed their religious beliefs, saying that “everything happens for a reason” and “your baby is with God now.” The in-person parental grief support groups she found in the San Francisco area, where she lives, were often laced with New Age spiritual talk she dubs “woo.” Someone would say she saw a butterfly and knew it was her child coming back to check on her; others said their children came to them in dreams. “At some point, I realized this wasn’t working for me,” she said. “I wished I could have the same kind of support without all the religion and all the woo.”

About two years after her son died, she created a Facebook page for secular grief. It was so popular that she expanded her resources and community on the larger Grief Beyond Belief website, which offers links to writings, videos, and podcasts on secular grieving, as well as articles from the fields of psychology and philosophy. With the site’s popularity, in the world of organized secular groups Hensler has become what she calls “the Grief Lady.” People approach her for help in person, via email, and on the online forum. After she was profiled in USA Today, the number of hits to her website shot up.

In the past, visitors to the site usually found their way to it through atheist bloggers, but this wave of newcomers was made up of people with no connection to organized atheism or secularism. She saw this as a result of increased awareness about the nonreligious—“people all over the country who had not really given a name to what they are.” She said that it’s important to her that Grief Beyond Belief is serving those people as well.

Hensler has been an atheist as long as she can remember. Though she was raised Jewish and attended Hebrew school, she convinced her parents not to bother with a bat mitzvah for her when she announced that it would only be for the party and the presents anyway. For a while she believed the woo she now jokes about, which she characterizes as “belief in human soul-energy connecting us all—that whole thing.” She thinks a lot of people end up with that because it’s hard to say it’s natural that we simply return to the earth. As she learned more and more about atheism, she realized she was ready to “be a grownup.”

Often she hears that nonreligious people like herself can’t possibly find meaning without God or belief in the afterlife. But, she said, “to say you need the afterlife to have meaning is the bleakest form of insanity.” In her own life, she created profound meaning from her son’s seemingly senseless death by reaching out to others like her who were grieving but had no community or rituals that fit them. “Grief Beyond Belief is my son’s legacy,” Hensler said. “This is the way that this tiny little person who lived for only 90 days is touching the lives of thousands of people.”


Death Cafés Take it Black

Beyond death midwives, humanist celebrants, and secular grief support communities, a new movement of people who are trying to change the way we think about death has popped up. Death Cafés, starting up all over the world, are part of this growing movement of people who are intent on wresting death back from the throes of religion—and from our own solitary worry zones—by bringing it into our everyday consciousness, in the hope of enriching our lives. Death Cafés are held in various places, from senior centers to coffee shops and even cemeteries. They are salons for death talk that allow people to discuss openly what they often keep hidden, even from themselves. The point is to demystify death, so we can accept and even embrace it. deathcafe.com.


Grace without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment, published this month by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.


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