Saturday, October 30, 2010

Coping With Death Without Belief

I have found myself lately, surrounded by friends and family with near fatal illnesses. My aunt has recently survived a bout of pancreatic cancer which is usually fatal. My father-inlaw had apparently survived mesothelioma. And my wife's sister's mother is still being treated for stage four breast cancer which has spread into her bones. I have therefore been inundated by statements like "They are in my payers." and "I will pray for her or him" along with requests for prayer by their friends and family. My wife has, understandably, stated in no uncertain terms that if her father dies that no one had better come to her and tell her "It was God's will" or "He's in a better place now" or any of the usual vapid religious platitudes. She doesn't care if he's with Jesus and the angels and all of their ancestors. She wants him here with her. She doesn't want him to suffer through lung surgery and chemotherapy only to be "called home to Jesus" and she is a Christian. I hold no such illusions about death so I cannot imagine what I would feel were it my mother going through what Christie's father is going through and I was being bombarded with bullshit.

I know it is well-intentioned bullshit. I know they are stating their sincere and honest beliefs and trying to be consoling and supportive, but the death of a loved-one is really a pretty horrible and distasteful moment to try to foist your beliefs onto someone. I don't think I'd handle it well.

So how do atheists find comfort in moments of sorrow and death? How do we cope with the loss of a loved one or our own impending end? No different than any other tragedy I should think. No different than the loss of a job or a house. We wouldn't say it was God's plan or that it's "all in God's hands" or any such nonsense. We would recognize the unfortunate series of events that led up to this happening and try to figure our way out of it. We would try our best to find cures to employ specialist to find the best treatment and when none of that worked we would resolve ourselves to the reality. We did all we could and now it's over just as the end has come for hundreds of millions of other human beings throughout history. It is the deal we each make with life from the moment we take our first breath, that eventually we will also take our last.

I had a bout with pancreatitis a few years back and the doctors were not certain what was causing it and were not ruling out pancreatic cancer which is often a death sentence. As I was being wheeled into surgery there was a possibility that I might never wake up. The one thought that kept me from panicking was my near certainty that death was the end of all consciousness, all sensation, that I would never experience death since being dead I would not be able to experience anything. The anesthesia would put me under and I would either wake up or I would not. If I didn't I would never know that I didn't because knowing is a condition of the living. Those who do not live do not know. I tend to agree with Epicurus on death:

"Death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more."

I look at the death of a loved one with the same degree of sorrow (and no more) than when a friend moves away to another state or country and I know that I will never see them again. I am sad that we will no longer share each other's company. I cherish the memories we had and I look back upon those memories with longing from time to time. It is painful but seldom devastating. There is no unique or special sadness reserved for death over other types of loss. If it is a friend who has suffered long than I am happy that he or she is no longer suffering.

My wife often asks me if I will feel the same way when my own mother finally passes and I could not imagine how I could possibly feel otherwise. What is the alternative? I have no God to find solace in or rage against and raging against the laws of nature would be absurd. That would be like being angry at gravity were she to perish in a plane crash. Perhaps there would be anger at the failings and limitations of modern medicine or of my doctor in particular but unless I planned to go to medical school and make it my mission to find a cure for whatever finally took her that anger would subside and I would be left with nothing but acceptance and eventual healing just like everyone else, regardless of belief. Because once all the usual religious blatherings have been uttered the truth is that we all feel the same pain and loss regardless of what we believe. It is disingenuous to say that those who believe in an after-life suffer less at the death of a loved one than those who do not. I was once a believer and I can tell you that this is bullshit. What we grieve is that our time with them on earth has ended. That we will never again have a meal together or reminisce about old times or share a joke. It is the loss of their company that we mourn not whether or not they are going to Nirvana or inferno or non-existence. We cry because we miss them and that loss is universal.


  1. Very well said. I use to think that believers found comfort in their belief that they will rejoin their loved one in another world. I felt it was more difficult for those of us who believe that this is it. That when you're gone you're gone. After the death of several close family members and friends over the years, I feel the same about death as you do.

  2. My mother died at age 95 last year. I felt about her death much as you feel about death. My mother had dementia and she was not happy. She was ornery, unreasonable, and childlike. She couldn't take care of herself and refused to go to an assisted living facility or move in with my husband and me. We had her on a waiting list for a home, anyway. Meanwhile we had in-home care for her when I couldn't be there. She often expressed her wish to die. After she died when my niece and I were cleaning the house, we found about 500 pills ---her important medications ---under the lid of the organ bench, under a table cloth, in underwear drawers, everywhere. My mother wanted to go ---and perhaps she knew skipping her meds would speed up the process ---and her quality of life had deteriorated greatly, so her passing was more of a relief rather than grief for everyone.

    Although I am a non-believer, I went along with her wishes for a Christian memorial service. It was the first time I had been in a church since a wedding about 10 yr ago. Like you, I had to grit my teeth at those who told me they were praying for my mother and for me. I hate it when people assume I believe as they do. I was speaking with a cousin at the back of the church after other mourners had left about our lack of belief. The minister overheard us and said something to the effect that we'd both return to the church some day. I told him I stopped believing at age 12 and 50+ years later, I doubted that would happen. My cousin had never really been involved in religion.

    I finally got angry when I received an email from another cousin, a minister. He wrote:
    "Please accept my deepest sympathy upon the passing of your mother. God was gracious to her and now she joins the choir of angels in heaven. She also now has been reunited with those she loved and we have loved also. For those in Christ Jesus we have the assurance that we really never die but pass on to that eternal joy.
    I'm sorry I will not be able to attend your mother's memorial service but my prayers are with you along with the members of St. Luke's Lutheran Church here in City, State. May our Lord's comfort continue to abide with you today and in the days ahead."

    I asked a few friends how they would respond. Some said that they would not respond at all or just thank him for his thoughts. But I was annoyed that he presumed I believed as he did. I didn't want to insult him or put down his beliefs, yet I wanted him to know he was making assumptions. Finally, after several other suggestions, several rough drafts and rewrites, I came up with this:

    "Thank you for your kind words regarding the passing of my mother. Even though I am not a member of her faith nor a follower of Christianity, I understand that your feelings and beliefs reflect your understanding of our existence and beliefs regarding the afterlife. My feelings and beliefs differ in that I cherish the memories and experiences and wisdom my mother passed on to me as a living legacy of her existence and her love for me. I appreciate your kindness and thank you very much for your thoughts."

    When I saw an email from him responding to that message, I hoped it wasn't a warning that I was doomed to hell, because that would have really gotten my ire up. But, in fact, it was merely a question about another aunt of ours who had died several years ago. He never mentioned my message at all.

    By the way, I was directed here from a post at Black Woman Thinks blog. I've enjoyed what I've read so far.

  3. Thanks for your response and my condolences on the loss of your mother. I hope that people are a bit more enlightened by the time my mother passes but I frow less and less optimistic each day. I guess the most I can hope for is that I am able to deal with it with the patience and tact that you displayed.

    Your experience is, unfortunately quite typical. The big difference is that your response was not met with fire and brimstone. Perhaps that alone is a sign of progress.

  4. I just recently had deaf in the family; some that help me alot through lifes transgression. It, has e an very hurtful pain; and we atheist do tend to think ,how can I make things better and find cures for this fatal illness. But,I still feel that we need some support; and I have gotten that from some atheists friends; none that you and I know.But, I still tend to think that us atheist have an hard time dealing with death; because we know that there is no after life; and will never see them again.
    But, I have bee dealing with it well so far; from the help of an atheist friend. I glad that you have touch this issue;alot of people after someone one dies,intend to run to church. Making bad decision, but I am so glad i have my atheist friend ;who have been helping deal with this death;of an great man.

  5. What helps me most when people offer their prayers is to remember the value of the relatioship, and to remember they are doing the best they can.
    I had been Christian for so long that nearly all my most treasured relationships in life, be it family, friends, whatever - have been formed with other Christians. I'm not on a mission to "cure" anyone of Christianity, because I remember how much I needed it when I was on it.
    So when someone I know and love offers their prayers, I understand where they are coming from. It is their expression of love. Usually they are offereing their prayers at a very intense and trying time, so that would not be the time to launch a Belief Diversity Sensitivity Training seminar. They are loving me the best way they can, and it is much simpler and more efficient for me to graciously accept their offering of love and move it right along.

  6. This is great. I am also writing about this in my blog as I am currently pondering the same thing. Thank you!