Guest Post: Bringing Faith-Free Support to The Compassionate Friends

Three months after my son Jude died in 2009, I discovered the Facebook page of a worldwide parental grief organization called The Compassionate Friends. In those dark months, their community provided invaluable support — and inspired the eventual creation of the Grief Beyond Belief Facebook page, which provided the same sort of online grief support, just free of religion and spirituality. This month, Peggi Johnson, a member of both communities, brought this story full-circle, by presenting a  workshop called “Healing When Faith is Not an Option” at the Compasionate Friends’ yearly convention.  This is Peggi’s telling of why and how the workshop came about, and how it was received.

Rebecca Hensler, Founder
Grief Beyond Belief

The Compassionate Friends is an international organization supporting parents, grandparents and siblings after the loss of a child at any age. TCF, a nonprofit, volunteer organization, chartered its first chapter in the USA in 1978; today there are almost 700 chapters nationwide.

On July 10-12, 2015, TCF held its 38th annual National Conference in Dallas, TX. Over 1000 parents, grandparents and siblings were in attendance. There were four keynote speakers and over 100 workshops and sharing sessions were offered for attendees.

This year, for the first time, a workshop was offered providing information and support to people enduring such a loss without religious support. TCF is not a religious organization and seeks to provide support to all those who are experiencing the loss of a child. However, it is a member driven organization and sometimes meetings and presentations reflect the majority view that religion can be essential in coping with traumatic grief.

It was my privilege to present the workshop “Healing When Faith is Not an Option.” I am indebted to the TCF leadership and conference committee for inviting me to offer this workshop when all I had submitted was this idea: “Many bereaved parents and siblings derive strength and comfort from their religious beliefs. Those who are bereaved who have never subscribed to religious belief or who have rejected the faith in which they were raised (whether related to the loss of their loved one or not) may benefit from support and encouragement that does not refer to an afterlife, heaven, angels, reunification or signs and messages. This workshop will not denigrate any religious belief, but it will provide a safe haven for those trying to endure their loss without religious support. Such grievers can sometimes feel isolated and marginalized in a culture where the nonreligious are a minority.”

It was just an idea. Just a proposal. No outline. No script. An idea.

It had occupied a place in my mind for several years. I became a part of the TCF family in 2009 after my nineteen year old son died. I attended chapter meetings, candle lightings, and conferences. In 2011, I became a newsletter editor for six different chapters. I carefully read the guidelines for newsletter and realized that TCF works hard not to promote or endorse any specific ideology. Nevertheless, many members simply could not view the world through any other lens and it permeated much content that was sent to me from the various chapters. When I would suggest that a particular article might not be appropriate, I encountered vigorous “push back.”

More and more, I became aware of how many people could not comprehend why saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand how anyone can survive this loss without faith” excludes all those who choose not to turn to faith. It didn’t matter that close to a quarter of our population isn’t religiously affiliated. The majority couldn’t grasp the views of the minority. I realized that there were others out there feeling frustrated and misunderstood. Others who felt their views weren’t respected.

So, I decided to develop a workshop for others who felt on the fringes.

Almost 50 conferees attended. It was clear that the workshop struck a chord. Attendees are asked to complete a workshop evaluation. One question posed is “What did you like best about this workshop?” These were among the replies:

  • That a workshop like this was available at this conference
  • Candor, sensitivity, and keen insights about life and loss
  • Confirmation that nonbelievers can still be kind and good neighbors, etc.
  • Fascinating information I could really relate to
  • A much needed and appreciated workshop
  • Thank you having this workshop. Please do it again
  • Please always have this topic! There is a place for nonbelievers!
  • Reinforcement that I am not alone. This has been needed at TCF for a long time.
  • Openness, not strident
  • This is so important and was a very safe environment

 These are the comments people wrote down on an evaluation. But what moved me beyond words were the spoken words, the handshakes, the hugs from so many who attended. Their thanks mattered immensely and I am so touched that I could make them understand this: they are not alone. And it is indeed possible, respectable, and admirable to walk this grief journey without faith.

Many thanks to Rebecca Hensler for her support, encouragement, and suggestions as I prepared for this workshop. Without the inspiration from the Grief Beyond Belief community, this workshop would never have happened. Thanks also to Greta Christina and Carol Fiore for their books which were such a helpful resource. Hopefully, this workshop will contribute to a greater awareness that we are out here, grieving as best we can, without a belief in a god or the mystical.

Peggi Johnson, Charlottesville, VA

2 responses to “Guest Post: Bringing Faith-Free Support to The Compassionate Friends”

  1. Sue Blue says:

    I attended TCF meetings for years after my son’s death and met many wonderful new friends there. However, for many years the meetings were held in a local church and I remember one bereaved father who sat out in the vestibule and wouldn’t come in because he said he was an atheist and didn’t want religious help with his grief. I know our group was there because one of the church elders and his wife had lost a child and offered us a free meeting place, but as an atheist I was relieved when our chapter found a new meeting room at a local hospital (even though a member whose baby was stillborn at that hospital stopped coming). I often think about that man who wouldn’t attend because the meeting was held in a church.

  2. Julie says:

    Hello Sue Blue, Rebecca Hensler and others. I just found this website after a fairly lengthly internet search, which took me along the way to the Compassionate Friends website. I have been to their website before and found it quite helpful; as a source of information about what I am going through, as a way to find local chapters, and so forth. I have resisted online forums to do with grief in general because the attempts I’ve made to connect in real life with people in similar circumstances to mine (single mother of only child, child killed in car accident, victim of someone else’s drug addiction,18 years old) have typically come up short in one way or another. I have found that people who are married, for instance, or people who have other surviving children, while we have in common the most obvious and critical factor, are walking a markedly different path than I am. In many cases, too, there is a difference in religion, which makes it hard for me to find common ground about anything, especially my son’s death. I am an atheist, and most people are not (or so it seems). I can tell from what I’ve read here so far that you will know what I mean by that. Anyway, I am glad to find a place where at least one of those differences is removed, and I might be able to connect to like-minded people, even if only virtually, as I struggle to come to terms with what has happened and to find reasons to continue living.

    The reason I mention Compassionate Friends, and what prompted this reply btw, is that I attempted today to enter a chat room on the CF website, and left after a few minutes when, much to my surprise, the repeating thread seemed to be stuck on spirits in the room and how the loved ones who “passed on” (I hate that expression) are still coming around to remind those left behind of, what, I’m not sure exactly, just that they aren’t really gone, I suppose. Anyway, I felt like I was in a seance of sorts and couldn’t think of anything to say or that I might gain from being there, so I left. That’s when I entered “atheist” into my search and found this website.

    All that to say, thank you.

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