How Do You Grieve the Non-Believer?

I had this whole post ready about the role of women in the workplace. That’s what I’m supposed to be writing about right now: women’s roles and questions I have about it. But I can’t stop thinking about this: Peter Hitchens’ In Memoriam article for his brother, Christopher Hitchens, the renowned writer, thinker and atheist who died on Friday. And now the real question I’m asking is not so much about my role as a woman in the workplace and much more about how Peter is grieving his brother right now. Tonight, even as I write this, I wonder what he is thinking, what he is wondering, what type of sadness he is feeling or confusion or, even, anger.

Peter (left) and Christopher (right) as children photo taken from this article:

Peter is an evangelical Christian whose relationship with his brother has been, as he describes it, publicly complicated. He says in his In Memoriam that the correspondence between him and Christopher for the last several months was better than had been in the last 50 years. Amazing what one’s impending death can do to all parties involved: the big arguments and fights are not worth it until the end. We want to be remembered for good. We want to say goodbye on decent terms, loving terms, if possible. Once it is over, the real thoughts settle in. The real feelings you didn’t have to turn off so the one slipping away didn’t see them on your face.

I don’t want to have a discussion on the existence of hell right now. That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking how to let go of someone you loved who did not love the Jesus you love. In the little experience I’ve had with the deaths of loved ones who were Christians and deaths of those I knew who were not, my grieving was very different. For one, I find solace in their life outside of earth. For the other, I find solace in restraining my thoughts to memories of them on earth. The types of sadness are different too, as well as the conversations you have about him/her afterwards.

I think, perhaps, we grieve them before they’re gone. I wonder if Peter did this with Christopher. Did he feel he lost his brother years ago? Though I have never used this word for it, I think I have grieved friends and family who have denied a faith they once had. And I think that grief was extremely similar to what I feel when someone physically dies.

I don’t know the right answer to this one or if there is one but I know I certainly agree with this statement of Peter Hitchens’: “Much of civilisation rests on the proper response to death, simple unalloyed kindness, the desire to show sympathy for irrecoverable loss, the understanding that a unique and irreplaceable something has been lost to us.”


  1. A.E. Forest on December 19, 2011 at 10:13 am

    This was lovely. And, we cannot forget hope. Even when the last breath has long passed, I find myself hoping and praying that those final few days, moments, or seconds were filled with grace. I know that time only moves one direction, but can’t resist the prayer that, if only for an instant, they knew accepted love and grace and transitioned from this life resting in it.

  2. HopefulLeigh on December 19, 2011 at 10:16 am

    This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot in recent years. I’ve had to mourn the deaths of loved ones where I’m not entirely sure where they stood. If they did believe, they lived out faith differently than what I’m used to. It may be theologically unsound and I may be deluding myself but I believe that we don’t know what goes on in someone’s final moments. I worked in hospice for 5 years and there’s a point where the body is shutting down but the person is still here for reasons only they know- we used to say at that point, that it was between them and God. It’s possible that they could come to recognize Christ as their Savior during that time. But either way, we won’t know until we get to heaven ourselves.

  3. Dylan Malloch on December 19, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Great column. Peter’s article reminds me very strongly of my brother and I.

  4. Katie Axelson on December 20, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Many of my family members don’t know the Lord. I think you said it best when you say we grieve for them before they are gone. Yet still while they are alive there is hope and a chance. Once they’re gone, it seems that hope is gone, too. The only assurance I have is that maybe in their final hour they cried out to Him… Today, that brings my comfort. But then again, my unsaved relatives are still living.


  5. Ma bear on July 25, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    Im struggling with this.
    Lost my Grandpa 2 weeks ago to suicide.
    He shot himself instead of treatment.
    I loved him
    But he was not saved.
    I only wish i had tried harder.
    But he had freewill.
    He is forever gone.
    I hate it when people say he is in no more pain.
    I say …how do you know he isnt in worse pain

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