Grief is a Rollercoaster.
It takes us on a wild ride through multiple emotions. And not the fun kind of ride. Losing someone significant is never easy, and it can get more complicated when you’ve left behind your religious beliefs. Grieving when you are exvangelical, ex-Mormon, or any other “ex,” you may feel like you are struggling to process your emotions in a way that aligns with your current beliefs. You may not even know exactly what your current beliefs are. You’re not alone in this. It’s common to feel confused, angry, and lost.
First of all, let me just say that if you have lost someone (human or beloved pet) you love, I am so sorry that this happened to you. It’s not fair. It’s definitely not okay. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. It’s not “god’s plan” or “happening for a reason.” I know that your world has been turned upside down, and it will never be the same again. And it may be hard to watch life continue on all around you, as if nothing has happened. Or to hear family and friends tell you that you’ll see your person (or pet) again in heaven, when you definitely don’t believe that anymore. Please know that the tips offered below are in no way a suggestion that you need to “get over it.” You don’t have to get over anything. I simply hope you feel validated, less alone, and more able to find comfort when you want it.
So what do we do with all of this grieving emotion? Nothing truly makes grief go away. We can’t cure it or fix it. And it can be extra tricky when we are recovering from religion because we may not have a framework anymore. We can’t skip over grief, but there are ways to move through it that can be helpful. Let’s look at some strategies that can help you navigate the grieving process while honoring your current worldview.
Find Support from Like-Minded Individuals
One of the most challenging aspects of grieving without religion is feeling like you don’t have anyone who understands your unique perspective. It can be helpful to seek out support from other grieving nonbelievers. Look for grief-focused online forums or social media groups where you can connect with other non-religious folks. Real-time support groups can also be incredibly helpful (virtual or in person), if you’re able to find a group that is explicitly secular or non-religious. This can help you feel less alone and provide a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.
Embrace Your Feelings
It’s common to experience a range of emotions when grieving, including sadness, anger, guilt, and more. These are unpleasant emotions that we may have been taught to suppress, ignore, or avoid. In the long run, however, it’s best to vent, process, and express these feelings as they come up, or as soon as you have the time and space to do so. Grief is a process, and the process will wait for you, or come out sideways. You’ll have the most control over how it impacts your life if you don’t try to suppress it.
Anger is often a big part of grief. While you may know that anger about someone’s death can be common, you may be surprised to learn that anger towards the deceased is also common, even in situations of illness and natural death. Anger can be about unfinished business with the person, or about their decisions that may have contributed to their own passing. The anger may not be rational; we can feel abandoned by our loved one, even when we know they didn’t choose to leave.
Additionally, many people may also experience feelings of betrayal or anger towards their former faith. You may feel resentment for being misled, or for the way your past grief was mistreated by religious leaders. These emotions can be challenging to deal with, but it’s important to acknowledge them and give yourself permission to feel them, while practicing a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself as best as you can.
The various emotions of grief always come out, one way or another. Consider using creative media such as writing, drawing, collaging, or making music, to get those feelings out.
Be Patient With Yourself
Grieving takes time, and the emotions tend to come and go. One moment you may be having a completely unremarkable day, and the next you’re a puddle of tears after some unexpected trigger. This rollercoaster is normal (though inconvenient at times). Be kind to yourself about these ups and downs. They are all part of the process. You are not “going crazy.”
You also may have been taught, in the context of religion, to suppress your sadness, if your group believed that ultimately you would see your loved one in “heaven” or an afterlife of some kind. Displaying sadness too intensely or for too long may have been seen as a sign that you lacked faith. As a result you may feel uncomfortable with how deeply upset you feel for such an extended period of time. Practice self-compassion, and give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up, and take credit for surviving and growing.
Memorialize Your Loved One
As your grief progresses, you may find it helpful to create a tangible or visual reminder of your loved one. Some examples are:
- A small non-religious altar in your home, with a photo and other small meaningful objects
- A memorial tattoo
- A donation to a local cause that your loved one valued
- Periodically cooking your loved one’s favorite dish
- Wearing a piece of their jewelry
Memorializing might be a type of tradition that was frowned upon in your religious culture, if the predominant mentality was that your loved one is in heaven (and as such, so you should not mourn). But in some cultures it is common to memorialize the deceased in ways other than a grave marker, and families often find it very helpful to acknowledge their loved one on an ongoing basis in everyday life.
Would you like to get some support as you move through this time? Let’s talk.
Looking for additional resources? Check out Grief Beyond Belief, a faith-free support network.