An Atheist Talks About Death
The question is: “Do we need religion to comfort someone whose loved one has just died?” Some would say that is what religion is for. It provides comfort to the family. Perhaps even a sense of hope for the future.
To me, the ‘comfort’ of a religious response to death is about as condescending as you can get. The religious person is basically saying that the bereaved (what a weird word) isn’t strong enough to handle reality. They aren’t capable of dealing with their emotions without the lies and false hope given by the religious.
And you know what? Maybe the people in our modern culture (in general) aren’t capable of handling that. They are too used to everything handed to them on a silver platter. The most strenuous thing most people do is stand in line for a Black Friday sale on TVs.
We are told that men never cry and just ride off into the sunset. We tell young children to be strong and brave.
And it’s all wrong.
Here’s what I would say, as an atheist, to someone who just lost a family member (maybe at a funeral).
It hurts. I know it does. That pain, like all the pain we have, is telling you that something is wrong. We know what’s wrong, but we still hurt.
Humans need to cry. We cry to release. I may be unusual, but I cry with intense emotion. Whether it be the death of a loved one or the power and majesty that is our world. It helps me feel better. It will feel a little better and be less intense every time you cry. The pain won’t go away immediately. It shouldn’t, for someone we loved so much. Over time, remembering them will bring less pain and more acceptance.
Your loved one is gone. You will never see their smile or hear their laughter again. You will never hold hands or hug them again. They will never teach you or share their stories again.
And it’s those things that you will miss. You feel such pain because they were such a huge part of your life and now they are gone. But are they really gone?
What are we, but our experiences and our memories. Everything that happens only happens once. From then on, it’s a memory. We laugh every time we think of a young child’s surprise at a birthday party. But that only happened once. We remember the good things and we hold them dear to us. We remember the bad things to learn from them.
Now, we should remember that person. They are gone, but their memories live on in us. We can share their wisdom, their love, their knowledge. In that way, their memory will never die, but be shared throughout time.
Humans have stories from before writing existed. We have knowledge of many people throughout history, whether they had done great things or not. Share your stories, especially with the children. Share the knowledge and wisdom. Don’t forget and don’t let others forget.
My grandfather died in 2001. He was born in 1922. He fought in World War II and taught the D-day paratroopers to jump out of planes. He watched men learn to fly and go to the moon. He had an actual icebox, when the ice man would delivery a large chunk of ice to the house every day and put it in the box with the food. He saw the first TVs and was downloading MP3s the year before he died. He raised my mom, he raised me, he raised horses and dogs. He was a master carpenter.
The year before he died, he had a mild heart attack and spent a few days in the hospital. I went to see him every day. The first day, he told me this. ”I’ve lived a long life. I’ve had a good life. I love my family. I’m proud of my daughter and grandson. There is nothing in my life that I wanted to do that I didn’t do. When I die, which will be soon, I will be satisfied with my life.”
There’s a great deal of wisdom there. Love, satisfaction, and doing what you enjoy.
None of that made it hurt any less when he died. But it doesn’t hurt now. I look back and I still get sad, because I miss him. And you will look back and still be sad missing your loved one. That will never change.
But that’s great. It means that you remember them. It means that they were such an influence on your life that you will never forget them. And what greater legacy could anyone want than to be remembered, with love, by the people they most cherished in their own life? What a impact to say, “They made a difference to me.”
Look around. There’s not a person here who isn’t feeling the same way you are. You aren’t alone in your sadness. All these people here are sad too. Because, just like you, they loved this person who is gone. Talk with them. Share stories and memories with them. They may have a story you haven’t heard. Hug them and tell them that you love them. There’s nothing weird or shameful about love or sadness or fear or tears.
Cry for now. Be sad that this amazing person is gone. But be happy that they were here for you. Be thrilled that they meant so much to you. Be so impressed by them that you’re willing to share everything that they were with your own friends and family.
Because that’s what the whole point of life is. To share. To teach. To learn.
I want this said at my funeral (hopefully many decades away).
I do believe that death is the end. That there isn’t anything beyond that point for us. Like an old computer that’s unplugged for the final time, we won’t remember anymore, we won’t create anymore, we won’t do anything anymore except rot.
But we’re not dead yet. There’s a lot to do, a lot to teach, and a heck of a lot to learn. Be someone that people want to remember.