Considering that Christians and Atheists have wildly different beliefs about what happens when we die I've always been deeply perplexed that both grieve quantitatively and qualitatively similarly. The Christian suffering loss believes that he or she will be ultimately re-united with their dear departed in Heaven (barring any grave infractions that might lead to Hell) in a way that will replicate to a significant degree the relationships here on this Earthly plane; your mother in heaven will still be your mother and will recognize you as her son. The Atheist generally believes that there is no afterlife, that the unique qualities of the dead person are permanently are irrevocably lost. As such I would have imagined that Christian and Atheist grief would be quite dissimilar. How could they not be? To the Christian death is a misty, "Until we meet again." While for the Atheist death is a bruta and unyielding, "Goodbye forever and ever." And yet in my own observations of grief (and personal experience of grief) there seems little difference in people's experience of death. Everyone (barring rare exceptions) finds the loss of a loved one to be miserably and inconsolably intolerable. And so I can't help but wonder how this is possible? How can the belief in an afterlife reunion not spare a person a significant portion of their grief?
These are the best possibilities I've been able to come up with to explain the lack of qualitative and quantitative difference...
It's possible that the most significant elements of grief are associated not with what we imagine happens to a person after death but with the impact their removal has from our current and expected life. A person suddenly being removed from our world will force painful adjustments in our life, in our thinking, in our ability to cope, in our expression of love, in our expectations, etc. While these elements and experiences do absolutely make up the bulk of our spontaneous experiences of sorrow and misery which last for days, months, and years, I still think it doesn't explain the situation fully because the severity of the experience seems ultimately tied to our perception of the other person's state. For example, if I knew that my close cousin was forever gone from my life, having set off with others in a one-way light-speed rocket ship ride to the star system Trixolopy, I would feel vastly more comfortable with my loss than if I knew him to be dead. The mere knowledge that he is alive staves off the bulk of my grief. I would still wistfully think of him when I passed by his house on my way to work, I'd still instinctively look for him when I headed over to the baseball field, I'd still feel a twinge of emptiness as I put away my cell phone after reaching for it to tell him something, but I wouldn't be devastated in the same way I would if he was known (or expected) to be dead. Thus the impact of death can't simply be tied to individual alterations made in my life by a person's absence. And this would seem inadequate then to explain Christian versus Atheist mourning, since I would liken their belief about the present state of the loved one to be so radically and comfortingly different.
Another possibility is that the parity in grief experience is created by variation of two factors: Christian grief being reduced by their belief in Heaven while Atheist grief is reduced by their inability to fully recognize the value and therefore loss of human life. Christians often use arguments which suggest that Atheists are incapable of are are limited in their ability to appreciate or understand the world because of their refusal to accept its God-given value, without which (from many a Christian's perspective) nothing has value. I reject this option because it's just silly and simplistic. It is too convenient to imagine two things are adjusted and both rendered equal by two wholly different mechanisms, and I reject the idea that God solves the value problem (at the very least because of the who created God argument).
It's also possible that the grief of Christians and Atheists exceed what the biology of the human brain can support. It may be that we cannot see qualitative or quantitative differences in the grief of people with wildly different belief systems because even though they may quite significantly both experiences of grief so far exceed or biology's ability to express grief that they appear similar. I liken it to the clipping which occurs when you try to record a very loud sound with a microphone and recording equipment that's not up to the task; the sound of an atom bomb and the sound of a conventional bomb would be recorded identically even though the actual events are vastly different. I like this theory because it is elegantly simple and makes a certain sort of intuitive sense to me, but I'm not sure if it's part of the solution.
And ultimately I come back to my earliest suspicion, the one I first thought over as a teen, that Christians may not believe in Heaven in the same absolute way that they might believe in a place like Bismarck, SD. Christians might feel okay with a loved one being prolongedly incommunicado in Bismarck, SD because they feel entirely secure in the concept of a geographically placed American city located within our plane of spacial and temporal existence. Heaven might make them nervous and feel too wishy-washy and abstract, even if they entirely believe (in a theoretical sense) in its existence. Of course it's also possible they suspect Heaven may not be real, in the same way a child might suspect Santa Claus isn't real years before being willing to call him out; I reject this because I am willing to accept that Christians believe as they say they believe and are not engaged in this piece of self-deception.
Ultimately I'm not sure which of these explanations is sufficient to explain the observation, perhaps other explanations are still required. I suppose the reason I come back to this question so often is because I wish someone had a meaningful and lasting solution for grief, a means to rid ourselves of what becomes for most a bane of their own existence. The longer we live the more grief we are made to experience, how nice it would be to recognize loss without being wholly undone by it.
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