Processing Atheist Grief: Some Thoughts

blue roseI continue to think about death and grieving, coming up on three years after the passing of my Cowboy Dad (not a blood relative, but someone more special in my life than any of my real relatives). I occasionally have new ideas about the subject. Here’s a couple:

1) If you lose someone to age or illness …

Ask Yourself ‘What If?’

Consider the pain you’re in, the magnitude of it. Now imagine that you could go back in time and change the events of your life so that you’d never met that person. So that when they died, it would be just some stranger off in some distant place, dying a death that would have zero impact on your feelings.

Okay, here’s the big question:

Would you take that trip? Would you relieve yourself of the pain by erasing the entire experience of having them in your life? Would you rather never have known your son — your sister, your mom, your grandmother, your wife, your dad, your best friend — never have had them in your life for those years (or months!) … so you wouldn’t have to feel like this now?

If your answer is NO!!, as mine was, it’s because you know you wouldn’t trade a day of that too-brief togetherness, even for a lifetime’s freedom from grief. This pain is, in its left-handed way, a GOOD thing, a necessary thing, and shouldn’t be avoided.

Grief is love.

That’s what it is. Love, interrupted. Few of us would trade love for the tepid unconcern we feel for distant strangers.

2) On the other hand, if you lose someone suddenly, so that you don’t get to hear their final thoughts, or tell them yours …

Write a Letter

Not long back, I hit on the idea of writing a letter to my dad. I was thinking it would be cathartic in that I would get to say some things I’d thought of since his death, additional things I would like to have said to him in his final days. And I still intend to write that letter (and maybe some letters to OTHER departed friends), but meanwhile, when I started writing, it was this other letter, the one HE would have written to ME, that came out.

I discovered I really could write his letter. When you know someone so well through the familiarity of years of close attention and love, you can often tell what they might say on any subject. What sort of goodbye would he write to me? In part, it would be this:

Hank, thank you so much for being there in my last days. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to open my eyes and see, not just a hospital and nurses, but somebody who loved me. And it was clear all those years, even when you were unhappy with me for not calling, that you really loved me. Dying is scary business, and it helped to have you there, talking to me and touching me, in my last hours and days. There can’t be many greater gifts to give a friend than to be by their side at the end, comforting and caring. I want you to know I heard everything you said, and it made those last days bearable, knowing I was loved so much by someone I cared about.

Just like you, I wish we’d had time for one more pack trip, one more fishing expedition, one more Whiskey Ditch, one more shot of Apricot Brandy. I saved up some jokes from the years we were apart, and I would have loved telling you one or two of them.

One of the best things ever to happen to me was meeting you, having you in my life all those years. Partner, I couldn’t have asked for a better heir to remember me and carry on with life in grand style.

I know you’ll do something wonderful with your life. I ask you to remember this: Find someone to love, find someone to love you, and live your life to the fullest. Have your adventures, make your life as full as you can of the things that only you can do. I know you have greatness in you, and the world needs you as your best self.

For whatever mistakes you feel you’ve made with me, I forgive you. None of that stuff ever really mattered to me. For the mistakes I made on my side, I hope you can forgive me.

I’ll close for now. Well, I guess I wish I’d done more with my life, but all in all, it wasn’t a bad one. I got to do the thing I loved, being a packer and wilderness guide, living in a place I loved, for 60 years and more. I met some wonderful people, and had my own adventures to be proud of. And it wasn’t such a bad end, was it? I wouldn’t have chosen this time to go out, but knowing I was going, at least I got to choose the way of it. Despite being in a hospital bed, I think I died with my boots on, as Louis L’Amour would have put it.

Hank, I wish I could always be there for you, but the best I can do is tell you that you were on my mind in all the years I knew you, and I thought nothing but the best of you.  In return, I hope you’ll remember me in all the good times we shared. You called them Golden Moments, and there were a lot of them between us. I hope you live a long time, finding all the happiness and success and adventure you deserve, making your own Golden Moments over the years to come.

You were one of the good things in my life, partner. Thank you for being my friend, my confidant, my audience. My Son.

Take care.


Final Notes

When it comes to dealing with death, we unbelievers are imagined to be at a disadvantage compared to believers. After all, having no Heaven to hold the spirits of our missing loved ones, we have to live with the constant grim reality of Real Death.

Probably even most of US believe that, on some level. But we stick to our guns, feeling that we’d rather experience this pain than live by lies.

The thing is, my own careful considerations about religion and its repercussions, over decades, has invariably shown that reality-based thinking is better. The chief reason always seems to be that religious thinking is just about 180 degrees opposite of reality.

Atheism itself, viewed through the lens of religion, looks like a hateful assault on all things good, a refusal to accept the glorious wonders of God’s Kingdom on Earth. But what it REALLY is, is the opposite. It’s a respect, a love, for true things and real people, unsullied by a harmful, petty fantasy. It’s the hope that the lives of everybody and everything can be made better, if we only claw our way out of the falsehood and begin to understand the way things really work.

Likewise, I think grief as an atheist is better than that same grief colored with a religious filter.  Far from being at a disadvantage, I sense that we atheists/unbelievers have great advantages over believers. The problem is, having had to exist in goddy culture that has stifled and stepped on non-religious thought for thousands of years, we don’t yet have clear ideas of what-all those advantages might be.

But we will. We’ll find them.