The loss of loved ones is an inevitable part of having loved ones in our lives. Many people lose grandparents or parents, while some lose their children or their grandchildren. Many lose friends or life partners. Pet lovers lose their pets. So far I've been relatively fortunate with regard to such loss, but I've still had my share. I've lost grandparents. A few years ago I lost a good friend suddenly. About five years ago I lost my cat, Bubbles, and just last October I lost my cat, Marla, both of which I regarded as my children.
With loss comes grief, and when this hits, people often turn to their religious beliefs to help them cope with it. For these people, loved ones aren't really dead, but are living in a better place. They aren't gone for good, but are only gone temporarily because there will be a reunion in that better place some day.
For those who lack religious belief, however, such comforting thoughts are not available. When loved ones die, they are really dead. They aren't living in a better place because they aren't living at all. There will be no future reunion. They're gone for good. Gone forever.
So how do these non-religious people cope with the loss of loved ones without the aid of comforting religious thoughts? I can only speak for myself. Here are a few things that I've found helpful to think about when coping with loss without religion.
1. Although my dead loved ones are really dead, this isn't completely bad. It's actually good in some ways. It might hurt like hell for me when they're gone, but it doesn't hurt them at all. Nothing can hurt them anymore. They cannot suffer in any way. Nor can they be in danger or be victimized. Generally speaking, they are free from everything negative that this world has to offer.
2. Earlier I said that the loss of loved ones is an inevitable part of having them in our lives. Let's put this hard fact in a larger context. I want a good, meaningful life, and my loved ones play a large role in this. My loved ones are significant sources of meaning for me, and they make my life go well. Having loved ones in my life, then, is part of having a good and meaningful life. But notice what happens when we combine this with the hard fact from above: since having loved ones is part of having a good and meaningful life, and losing loved ones is part of having loved ones, it follows that losing loved ones is part of having a good and meaningful life! So despite how awful I feel when in the throes of grief due to loss of a loved one, being in such a miserable state is actually a stark reminder of how well my life has been going. Such grief just means that I've had something that makes life good and worth living.
3. My grief due to the loss of loved ones doesn't just mean that I've had something that makes life good and worth living. It also signifies my part in making the lives of my loved ones go well. The grief that I experience due to losing cats, for example, is an inevitable consequence of bringing them into my life and loving them like children, where by doing this I give them really great lives. And when my grief is due to the loss of human loved ones, my grief is also an inevitable consequence of me playing valuable roles in their lives (e.g., that of a loving grandson or a friend), where these roles are similar to the ones that they play in helping me have a good and meaningful life.
4. Although miserable to experience, the grief is worth it. It's worth bearing the cost of this grief for the sake of having loved ones in my life. I choose well when I choose to have loved ones in my life despite the eventual grief from losing them. And I wouldn't choose to avoid this cost if it meant not having loved ones in my life. If I could go back in time and choose to avoid the grief by not having the loved ones who cause it, I wouldn't choose to avoid the grief. I'd choose the same thing over and over again: I'd choose my loved ones while knowing that there will be painful costs to bear some day. Grief from the loss of loved ones, then, is something that I embrace as part of good, worthwhile choices that I've not only made, but that I wouldn't fail to make even if I could go back and choose differently.
I don't pretend that thinking these thoughts is enough (or even that thinking them will always be effective). Positive thinking can help us cope with grief, but we can't simply think our way out of it. We need a lot of social support and social interaction. We might even need therapy, and there's no more shame in needing that than there is in needing to repeatedly visit a doctor to treat a gunshot wound. We also need to be active and engage in suitable activities, especially meaningful ones. And most importantly, perhaps, we need time. Time to heal and recover. Time to adapt to the profound change that the loss of a loved one brings. Time to let the grief run its course.