The loss of a child could test the faith of any parent. But for parents who are atheist or agnostic, it leads to a different — but no less shattering — kind of spiritual crisis.
Greg, who blogs at Dad Minus One, is a father of three whose son Riley died of whooping cough at only 32 days old. As Greg wrote on Facebook, the tools he uses to see and evaluate the world, like “reason and evidence,” made mourning his son very difficult.
Greg had prided himself on his “ability to be rational and think logically,” but now found these traits to be “pretty terrible when you’re trying to cope with the sudden death of your child.” He wrote:
When Riley lost his short battle with whooping cough, I wanted so desperately to find comfort in the idea that he’d gone somewhere else, that he was now in another peaceful place where he was all better and his world continued just without me in it. My heart so badly wanted me to turn my back on my rational side and place my belief system in something that my mind knew not to be true. I wanted to find faith, because the concept that he was gone, that this was the end of road — it was just too painful to wrap my head around.
And yet, he couldn’t. Trapped between his lack of a belief system and his grief, it was difficult for Greg to escape the “rational” conclusion— life is ultimately meaningless.
That train of thinking led to a full-blown existential crisis and a lot of bad nights:
I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I lay in bed and cried myself to sleep over the notion that my child was gone and his journey had simply ended. I felt numb, lost, devastated and useless. It spiraled out of control to the point that I genuinely couldn’t see my purpose. If life could end so quickly and unexpectedly, and nothing comes after death, then what was the point of me doing anything?
This isn’t a conversion story. What brought Greg out of his despair wasn’t acceptance of God or the embrace of faith. Rather, it was something his 3-year-old daughter said one day:
“I’m lucky ‘cos I climbed a tree all by myself today. Riley never got to climb like me so I’m really lucky.”
It was an innocent statement of joy in the little pleasures of life, but it hit Greg “like a bucket of cold water thrown in my face.” And it gave him the wake-up he needed to stop questioning the meaning in life and start seeing the value in living every day.
As he wrote on Facebook:
She was right — I was so lucky. We are all so lucky. My son had only lived for 32 days but here I am pressing onto 32 years and still going strong.
Though it may seem strange to those who do believe, this was when Greg’s lack of belief began to comfort him in his loss. As he explained on Facebook:
Believing that there is nothing after we die means that my time here on earth is important. Every minute counts. Every day has meaning and every year is a milestone we should celebrate.
With hindsight, Greg realizes he had become overwhelmed by his grief — to the point where it clouded his ability to see the beautiful things in life.
His daughter’s word helped cut through that cloud and reminded him of what he had to be grateful for. As he told Dearly:
“As a bereaved parent you can get so caught up in the loss and what you don’t have that you lose sight of what you do still have. As someone with no belief system, I found that concept really difficult to deal with and my daughter’s raw honesty and simple reasoning (which I think only a child can truly provide) was a major factor in helping me to turn that mindset around.”
Of course, his daughter’s statement also demonstrated that losing her little brother affected her deeply. Greg told Dearly they are very aware that she is also grieving. He adds that his daughter has shown great resilience in how she’s coped with Riley’s death:
“My daughter is still processing the loss but she does it in her own way, and we’re very open with how we communicate with her. She loves and misses her brother, but she’s a really well adjusted and beautiful kid. She loves being a sister and the fact we now have our rainbow baby Lucy has helped her to heal, given she gets that opportunity to play big sister again.”
Greg doesn’t claim to know for certain what really happens after death, and he doesn’t have any ill-will towards those who do believe.
In fact, what Greg learned from his daughter is a lesson that transcends faith (or the lack thereof), and which people of many belief systems can agree with. As he wrote on Facebook:
“What I do know is that we all have an opportunity to seize ‘right now’ and make the best of what we’ve got. Not everybody gets that opportunity — we really are so lucky.”