The Grieving Nonbeliever’s Bill of Rights

by Rebecca Hensler, Founder of Grief Beyond Belief

Many Grieving Person’s Bills of Rights are now available on the internet, usually modified from The Mourners Person’s Bill of Rights by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.

One thing the various versions have in common is a passage that says that a grieving person has the right to embrace their spirituality and to receive support from people who share their faith. Often the passage reassures the grieving person that it is okay to feel “angry at God.” But not one version that I have found acknowledges those of us who are grieving without spirituality and our right to receive appropriate support from people who share our lack of faith beliefs.

So I have created a Bill of Rights just for us. I have replaced the right to grieve with faith with the right to grieve without faith as well as the right to receive support from other nonbelievers, and the right to reject religion-based comfort. In addition, I added an item acknowledging that even rational people engage in irrational thoughts and behaviors when grieving.

I also modified the second item to embed Bonnano’s findings that a balance between actively grieving and engaging in non-grief-related activities promotes resilience. And finally, I modified some of the items to encourage grieving nonbelievers to engage in meaning-making and maintain a connection to their loved one through memorializing and honoring the deceased’s lasting impact on the world.

The Grieving Nonbeliever’s Bill of Rights

1. You have the right to experience your own unique grief. No one will grieve the same way you do. So, when you turn to others for help, don’t let them tell you how you should be feeling.

2. You have the right to talk about your grief or not. Talking about your grief may help you heal, but so may giving yourself a break or a distraction. Seek out others who will let you talk as much or as little as you want.

3. You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions during your grief journey. Some may tell you that feeling angry, for example, is wrong. Don’t take these judgmental responses to heart; find listeners who will accept your feelings without condition.

4. You have the right — even as a rational thinker — to behave in irrational ways in your grief. Knowing that your loved one cannot hear you does not mean you cannot speak to them if it makes you feel better. The same goes for keeping odd mementos, crying in public, and avoiding (or gravitating toward) reminders. Not everything you do to survive grief needs to be logical or make sense to you or to anyone else.

5. You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. Feelings of loss and sadness can fatigue you. Respect what your body and mind tell you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. And don’t allow others to push you into activities you’re not ready for.

6. You have the right to experience grief “attacks”. Sometimes, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but it is normal. Find someone who understands and will let you talk it out.

7. You have the right to make use of ritual if you want to. Collective rituals provide you with support from caring people, as well as a way to mourn. Private rituals are no one’s business but your own and can help you live with your grief as you move forward in life.

8. You have the right to embrace your own personal knowledge and belief about the nature and meaning of life and death. If philosophy or science is important to your understanding of your loss, express it. If you can, be with people who share and support your lack of belief in deities, pseudoscience, the supernatural, and any kind of afterlife. If you cannot find other nonbelievers in your area, connect with them online.

9. You have the right to reject “help” that is not helping. This includes offers to pray and pressure to accept religion-based support or rituals.

10. You have the right to search for meaning and to make meaning of your loss. You may ask, “Why did he or she die? Why this way? Why now?” Watch for clichéd responses like, “Everything happens for a reason” or “They’re in a better place.” These sentiments are not helpful, and you do not have to agree with them. Some questions may have answers, others don’t. And in some cases, you can create meaning by acting, giving and creating in a way that memorializes your loved one.

11. You have a right to treasure your memories. Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of a loved one. You will always remember. Instead of ignoring your memories, find others with whom you can share them.

12. You have a right to maintain your relationship with your loved one as they exist in your mind and heart. The fact that their body and consciousness are gone does not mean that they do not live on in everything they taught you and all the ways they affected you and others. Find ways to connect with your loved one’s lasting impact on you and the world around you.

13. You have the right to move toward your grief and heal. Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient with yourself, and avoid people who are impatient with you. Neither you nor those around you should forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.

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