How Accepting Death Brought Me Peace

I was in graduate school (to become a therapist) when I realized that the perfect career specialty for me just might be religious trauma. It made so much sense because religion had tormented me psychologically for so much of my life, I’d been through my own personal deconstruction journey from it, and I knew how fulfilling it would be to help others heal from it too.

At this point in my life, I no longer identified as a Christian but still believed in some sort of afterlife. Even though I don’t tend to believe in supernatural things, it bothered me that I didn’t understand consciousness, and I wondered where a person’s “soul” went after it left their body. I’ve since come to believe that consciousness is likely just a function of our brain on some level and have accepted that it’s simply one of the many things that current science is not advanced enough to explain yet. But at this point I found the uncertainty around consciousness pretty unsettling and had even started pondering whether reincarnation might be a thing.

Because I knew I wanted to pursue a career in treating religious trauma, I began tailoring my graduate course assignments to this niche as best I could. When one of my courses required me to interview a “key informant” of a population I was interested in, I reached out to the leadership of a nonprofit organization called Recovering from Religion. Their wonderful Executive Director, Gayle Jordan, was kind enough to answer all of my questions and share her own deconversion story with me. By the end of our chat, I had learned that she was an atheist. After asking all of my assignment questions, she let me ask her some personal ones. I asked “Do you really think that death is the end of everything?” She said that yes, she really did believe that death was the end of existence. “That’s so depressing!” I said. She pointed out that this was only really “depressing” if you had been conditioned your whole life to think that you get to go to this magical perfect kingdom in the sky when you die. The reality of death was a long way to fall from this idyllic fairytale. She asked me if I remembered what it was like before I was born and pointed out that death is likely the same, just a state of nonexistence, like being asleep, and nothing to be scared of. The minute she said it, I knew it was true. And I realized I had known it all along.

This difficult reality sank in, and a cloud of depression settled over me for about a week. But then an interesting thing happened. I finally felt “peace that surpasses all understanding”. Christians will know this phrase, as it’s part of a Bible verse (Philippians 4:7) that’s quoted all the time in Christian circles (as something that “God” provides). The irony for me is that as long as I was white-knuckle gripping onto religious doctrine that told me that I never had to die and could live forever, I was not at peace. I was confused and disturbed, because subconsciously I knew that the wishful thinking I was trying so desperately to cling onto didn’t make any logical sense to me.

We talk about “acceptance” a lot in the world of therapy. Acceptance of reality is important because unpleasant circumstances are a valid part of our existence, and denying them can lead to even more suffering. As therapist Andrew Harris (LCMHC) put it so well, “Completely and totally accepting [reality] is still challenging and painful, but focusing on what we can control versus what we cannot, can be liberating. It frees up all of the energy we were using to fight reality, and helps us use it to focus on how we can effectively cope with the situation and take care of ourselves.”

For me, the reality of death was too painful to accept. I was happy to lean into the idea that I never had to die and could go on living forever. But deep down, I knew that sounded too good to be true, and therefore lived in a constant state of uneasiness over it. Allowing myself to accept this difficult but likely reality was initially painful, but in the end brought me the peace I had been searching for for so long.

Are there any difficult realities you’ve been avoiding? Whether the situation you may be in denial of is similar to mine, or whether it’s related to a significant other who doesn’t want to be with you anymore, or even the reality that your body will never be the size you want it to be … allow yourself to begin leaning in to acceptance of the facts. It doesn’t mean that you have to like your situation. Simply acknowledging it can start to ease your suffering.