This is a guest post from Rebecca Hensler, founder of the Grief Beyond Belief secular grief support network. It was written in response to this request from Dave Muscato of American Atheists, calling for education of public officials about the diversity of their communities in times of tragedy, and atheists’ desire and need to be included.
Aurora, Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon… following each tragedy, I ask myself, “Who is taking care of the nonbelievers among the grieving?” As the founder of Grief Beyond Belief, a secular grief-support network whose members reach into the thousands, I am painfully aware of how alienated, isolated and without comfort many atheists and other freethinkers feel following the death of a loved one — or following public events such as the ones above, events that touch and traumatize not only those present but the millions who see, hear or read about them. I think of the atheists among the multitude who heard the President use the word “we” as if he was speaking not just to the nation but for the nation. Might they, like I, find more hurt than comfort in having belief in scriptures, God, and an afterlife projected onto their own grief by the leader of their nation?
A believer might say, “But this is an interfaith ceremony; why should a speaker not speak of the faith that supports him through tragedy?” Certainly a Rabbi or Imam or Pastor at an interfaith ceremony should do so. But this is why the public rituals of grief at which our elected officials speak, the ones that are aired on television and through the internet across the country, should be secular in nature. They still might have clergy speak for those who share their beliefs, because belief about what happens after we die is an intrinsic part of grief. But if clergy are given the opportunity to speak religious words of comfort, the same opportunity should also be provided for a secular or Humanist celebrant to speak secular words of comfort.
Politicians, however, should either admit they are speaking as individuals, and leave out the “we” and “our,” or they should speak for a nation in mourning using language that is universal. The president — this president — is certainly capable of finding words that speak for us all: “sorrow,” “love,” “remember.”
– Rebecca Hensler, Founder
Grief Beyond Belief