Grieving the Living
A Post-Belief Reflection on the Losses of Deconversion
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” -God
When someone dies, Americans know what to do. We don’t like to grieve publicly, but we know what to do, and we are good at doing those things. We bake casseroles. We fly home—real home—the middle of the middle of South Carolina. We hug cousins. We mingle at a musty funeral home. We console. Sometimes we look. We bury. (Or we burn. We scatter.) We cry. We eat. We tell stories. We watch filmstrips. We sing.
In the Southern Baptist tradition, funerals are often dubbed “celebrations of life,” and crying anything but tears of joy for someone’s heavenly reception is a sign of doubt.
My grandfather, Lloyd, was a Southern Baptist pastor. I said goodbye to him in Charleston while he was hospitalized rather than attend his funeral, but the service was easy to imagine.
“Brother Lloyd wouldn’t want us to be crying on his behalf, y’all. He’d want us to celebrate! He is no longer in his tired, leathery shell of a body—he is beautiful, brand-new spirit, and he is where he has wanted to be since the Lord put the call in his heart—at the feet of our Lord and Savior!”
“Celebration of Life” services include slideshows of memories, testimony of the person’s influence, hymns like “When the Roll is Called up Yonder, I’ll be There,” and of course, an altar call, followed by a somber hymn framing following Jesus as a brave, counter-culture move. Losing a grandfather, father, husband, or uncle began to feel akin to a Smoky Mountain condo timeshare pitch—a bait-and-switch.
“Now y’all know Brother Lloyd didn’t give a sermon without an altar call. No, sir. And we have an altar here, because God is here among us, amen? If anyone here feels grief for their soul today, that grief is Jesus speakin’. He’s tellin’ you to come to this altar. Repent of your unrighteousness. Join Brother Lloyd in heaven someday. Not one of us knows the day nor the hour. Our dear brother, father, grandfather, uncle, pastor, friend—he suffered the monster of lung cancer, but any of us could walk out this door and be hit by a stray Chevrolet. BAM! Then it’s too late, y’all. If you haven’t decided to follow Jesus by then, it’s too late. All you have to do is believe. The Lord Jesus said that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Let today be the day. Sister Becky, let’s go to hymn 305. Someone here needs to decide to follow Jesus today. That would be Brother Lloyd’s greatest joy.”
I never saw anyone go to the altar during these funerals.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, working as a secretary at a Lutheran church in Montana, that I experienced solemn, contemplative funerals—even so-called “celebrations of life” focused on the person who died and allowed people to cry or laugh as they felt led. They did not shame grief or even unbelief. Even if the service was religious, including communion, liturgy, the whole shebang—no one took advantage of grief to coerce anyone into converting to Christianity. (To the Southern Baptists, this was an eternal-life-and-eternal-death matter, so those pastors did not consider preaching about hell at a funeral to be cruel or tasteless. They would have been irresponsible to not offer an invitation to be saved.)
While designing, copying, and folding hundreds of funeral service bulletins at the Lutheran church, I discovered the elegy—poetry rather than condemnation. Elegies combine celebration and grief. They make room for complicated emotions surrounding death. They felt honest, and that honesty clashed with the emotionally-charged sales pitches I was used to.
Now, in my late 30s, I find myself post-belief, reflecting on how my tradition treated emotions like grief. Any emotion other than joy was a warning that something was wrong with me. Anyone who has experienced the long, arduous process of losing faith knows it involves a great deal of grieving the living—human and divine. I didn’t even know how to properly grieve the dead other than to fake being happy about it.
On an episode of “On Being with Krista Tippet,” poet David Whyte, after describing the loss of a close friend, said,
…we have this physical experience in loss of falling toward something. It’s like falling in love except it’s falling into grief. And you’re falling towards the foundation that they held for you in your life that you didn’t realize they were holding. And you fall and fall and fall and you don’t find it for the longest time. And so the shock of the loss to begin with, and the hermetic sealing off, is necessary in grief. But then there comes a time when you finally actually start to touch the ground that they were holding for you. And it’s from that ground that you step off into your new life.
The apt foundation-holding metaphor Whyte uses falls short in my experiences of grieving the living. There is shock, there is falling, but the “sealing off” and the landing don’t happen in the way they could when the person is dead. The living people I grieve might believe they are holding a place for me to land, but I must have fallen past it. That landing place is conditional. They seem to feel justified because I know the conditions for stopping the fall, and it’s my choice to keep falling.
I know what to do when someone dies, but I don’t know what to do when I’m dead to someone else—I no longer share their beliefs, so I am presumably mourned. Believers can grieve the loss of my kindred soul; they can pray, they can hope I’ll come home like the prodigal son. They have heaven to look forward to, where “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Therefore, my believing family and friends will not mourn me in heaven, so their grief is temporary.
My heaven and my hell are here on earth. I have to grieve losing people and grieve the loss of God—the loss of my life’s foundation since birth. There is no simile for the volume and mass of this loss.
Grieving the living is not something we have rituals for, and there are no “foundation(s) they held” to land on, anyway (Whyte). Grief assumes literal death. Grief assumes sympathy. It assumes some amount of publicity. Grief is published. Grief is chiseled. Grief is unexpected; mourning is expected, supported.
But believers present my grieving of the living as a choice. In this case, it is my choice of self-acknowledgement and self-preservation. My tradition condemned the concept of self; it valued selflessness, “dying to self,” and condemned anything done in one’s self-interest as evidence of human depravity and original sin—the reason to repent.
Humans value forgiveness and reconciliation. Idioms like “bury the hatchet” mean to put away weapons and agree to live in peace. We value continuing to put faith in people. We value patience.
The living grieved seem to smugly wait for me to “see the light” and repent, to return to what they are certain is the only right way. I imagine they see themselves as patient, praying for me to return, framing it all as my sad and selfish choice. I imagine this because I was taught to feel this way about people who left the church. They likely see my grieving of the living as giving up hope, as negativity. It’s accepting defeat. It’s un-American.
I have spent much of the past several years grieving, yet no one died, and some never existed.
I am grieving the loss of a faith I was born into, and some relationships that may end as a result. I am grieving my self-concept—that I was so truly wretched and worthless that God could not even look at me without letting his Son suffer for a few days first. It feels odd now to grieve the loss of a self-concept so harmful and negative that most would celebrate that loss, but I was trained well to be wary of such pride. I learned early that questioning God’s story was dangerous blasphemy.
Because of those early funeral re-branding attempts, I have tried to frame this grief as a celebration, but I can’t, and I don’t want to. I’m finally allowed to grieve. My inner voice reminds me I should “rejoice in the Lord always,” but that voice is slowly changing its tune, reminding me there is no Lord, I don’t have to rejoice or feel anything “always,” and it’s OK to be sad, angry, confused, frustrated. Even as a devout believer, I inwardly cringed (and then shamed myself for it) at the insistence on joy instead of mourning. I never felt the way I was supposed to feel. Grieving the living is unknown territory when all negative emotion was shunned for the first three decades of my life.
In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (4:13). He explains that anyone who believed in Jesus before they died would also be resurrected when Jesus returned, unlike dead people who did not believe in Jesus while they were alive: they are hopeless. According to this, I am now in the “hopeless” camp. I will be in hell for eternity.
I have to do my mourning now, my rejoicing now. Both are amplified, and yet neither has any structure, ritual, or formal recognition. There are no “In sympathy for the loss of your deity” cards.
As a child (and believer) I was taught that believers who died would join me in heaven someday. I was taught that those who died but weren’t believers were in hell, but that was OK, because as soon as I got to heaven, I wouldn’t remember that they were suffering. Until then, though, I should remember that the unbelievers I knew were burning for eternity, so I didn’t neglect sharing the gospel with anyone else. (After all, once they had a chance to accept or reject the gospel, their soul was out of my hands, and every acceptance or rejection of the gospel meant Jesus was returning sooner).
When that belief was real to me, I had a context for grieving the living. People who chose to live without Christ “in sin,” were selfish, wretched, and hopeless—ignorant and pitiful at best. Some were Satan’s pawns, actively but unknowingly controlled by Evil to prevent the spread of the good news. But the worst kind of person to be is the kind of person I am now: someone who knows the story and fully embraced the gospel as true but no longer believes.
Some members of my family are likely mourning me, as I am mourning them. My hope is that they can show curiosity about my experience from a solely human perspective—that maybe we only have this one life, and it’s not worth claiming absolute truth, especially when that claim requires that they turn their backs on a sister, a cousin, a nephew. In that sense, my grief is urgent, thick, and heavy. Their grief seems temporary; its justification is reinforced constantly by the church and other believers. It can be rescheduled daily, weekly, or hourly as needed via prayer. Their timeline is eternal, and they stand on the promise that they will spend eternity in heaven, oblivious to the suffering in hell, where they believe I will be.
“The funeral is a time to proclaim our hope in Jesus Christ. For most ministers, the funeral service provides an opportunity to present the gospel to more lost people than any other single thing he does. Rightly conducted, it becomes an opportunity for both sowing and reaping.” -The New Ministers Manual, Truett Seminary at Baylor University
Meagan Newberry is an assistant professor of English at the College of Western Idaho. She can be found most Sundays fly fishing one of Idaho's many trout streams. @meagan_newberry
Special thanks to Meagan for her sharing her essay with us!
The other week, Meagan, Carolyn (from How and Why We Believe) and I had a conversation about this essay and the ambiguous loss many of us experience as part of the deconversion process. The recording will be available soon on the Life After God podcast. Stay tuned!
What has been the most difficult part of your deconversion?
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-Brian Peck, LCSW
Therapist | Deconversion Guide | Fellow Traveler