Death & Dying, Unbeliever Style

Comforting-ThoughtsI’m late to the party, but Greta Christina has a new book on death and dying as it relates to unbelievers. So far available only in audiobook and digital versions, ordering links to Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God are listed on her blog.

An earlier post on Alternet covers the ground on  what to say as a bystander to someone dealing with death — When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers.

Finally, one of my own thoughts on the subject, first posted on Facebook. Someone grieving a lost pet remarked on how comforting it must be to think of being reunited with him, and I tried to provide a gentle but realistic response:

It is absolutely normal to want death to NOT BE. Every one of us feels that. And I certainly don’t blame anybody for falling for a comforting just-so story about afterlives and happy reunions.

But in my own case, I can’t allow myself to believe in any such thing. Not only do I believe it to be untrue, and personally destructive for just that reason, I think the belief across all of society and all of history has been hugely poisonous. IMHO, the side effects of it have impacted everything we do, and in a negative way.

One of my personal goals is to live in Real Reality, to attempt to understand and savor it in all its glory and pain. To see what I can learn from it, even amidst the pain of the loss of loved ones. I doubt many people throughout human history have tried to do this, which makes us (I hope it’s not just me) pioneers and adventurers of a rare sort.

I sense that there’s something very important — revolutionary, even — and extremely life-affirming waiting to be discovered, if we can avoid falling into the old, old trap of the mystical. It may be as simple as that the constant consciousness of impending death helps us enjoy the in-the-moment closeness with others, but it may be something much more profound.

I’ve gradually come to understand that losing my dogs and my dad, while horrible, gives me the daily joy that I had THAT, that love, that relationship, that closeness. Nothing can take that away, nothing can change that.

We live in the day-to-day moments and don’t notice how special they are — I think because we CAN’T do both at the same time, live them and notice them. It’s only after we lose someone that we see the Golden Moments for what they were and are — the purest joys that life can offer.

When you think about it, this is a gift that death gives, the conscious appreciation for what we had. We can’t have the moment anymore, but we can have the joy, the realization that something special and wonderful is still a part of our lives, our memories, and that we’re immensely richer for having had that living presence in our lives, and for now having those permanent memories. The time of pain is a doorway to this larger joy.

It seems to me that believing in an afterlife-myth cheapens and blunts this process. We think “Oh, I’ll see him again,” and it slides us away — as individuals and as an entire civilization — from the pain, yes, but also from the fullness of this other understanding.

It seems to me that facing death in full vulnerable honesty should transform you, make you into something bigger and better. And it seems to me that a civilization-wide history of denial, so that few of us ever experience this transformation, has made us small and … terrible.

Facebook friend Dorothy Grasett added: “If you live in the ‘Real Reality’ you also remember that there are no make-overs – if you hurt someone, something, somewhere, you don’t get to go back and be really sorry and get forgiven after you die. (Or they do). I always found that belief to be a cop-out.”

  • BeaverTales

    I think about this every single day. Having been recently diagnosed with a rare and supposedly incurable cancer, I’m having to confront my own mortality at the relatively young age of 45. I may get lucky and see my 50th birthday, but things sure look dismal today. As much as life has been a struggle and knowing how many disappointing things about our world I can never change, I still want to live…I still want to be a part of things, learn and grow. I still find Reality as fascinating as the day I entered it…even the sad, bewildering and infuriating parts.

    I’m tempted to build this fantasy world in my head where all the people I have ever loved and all the good things I have ever experienced will be waiting for me on ‘the other side’. I was taught that as a child during my casual theist indoctrination. It’s very comforting to think about…and as a child it took away my fear, once I realized that I would someday die… but that doesn’t make it real or believable now that I am an adult. Now I feel like those imaginary thoughts are a burden that distract me from the task of actually living, and taking care of business I need to attend to.

    I’m no longer afraid to die, I’m more afraid of being unable to live, and live well. Death is unavoidable, no matter what I wish for and what people say in their attempts to console me about my rotten luck…. I get sad, but taking care of those I love, having minimal pain as I make the Final Transition and keeping my dignity are the only things that really matter to me now.

    Like you, I love my dogs, and it’s hard to let go, but I will…because “I” as a discrete packet of consciousness will no longer exist, except hopefully as a happy memory for my furry kids… and also the many humans in my life who were close to me and loved me back. Having someone read what you wrote and what I wrote if confronted with the same situation someday and taking some small comfort in it also matters. That thought pleases me.

    Anyway, sorry for being a wet blanket. I don’t facebook, so blogging under the Beaver nom de plume is my sole outlet for written expression. I am grateful to have read what you wrote, and to meditate/contemplate on it. You have beautiful thoughts, and this post was a bright spot in my day, Hank. Thank you so much.

    • Hank Fox

      Good gosh, no, thank YOU, Beaver, for your thoughts. We bloggers live for these rare moments when someone reaches deep, and delivers such a moving comment.

      I’m working on a book about death and dying. Working title is “Saying Goodbye to Dad: An Atheist Deals With Death.” My dad died more than 3 years ago, and I deliberately put off the writing, because I felt there would be a process that would take place in my mind that I could observe and learn from. I’m getting some very interesting stuff, and I recently realized that some large part of the book would have to be about life, about what it is and how it works in our human heads.

      The writing of it is going to be very difficult, I know, but I hope to get it done in the next two years.

    • Not a wet blanket at all.

      death does not have to be the Grim Reaper at your side, and your behavior will very possibly dictate the behavior you get back, if you let it.

      In a way, knowing “when” and not “if” gives you a chance to put your affairs in order in YOUR way, right down to your socks.

      The more we talk about such once forbidden things the easier it becomes to talk about them, doesnt it. And you, in your last journey, will be able to teach your family and friends about dignity. I wish you well, indeed.

    • Son of Liberty

      You sound like a reasonable and logical person who is preparing mentally and emotionally for death. Please read the book “More than a Carpenter” by Josh D. McDowell. It is an easy read, well layed out with good references. You may have less time than you think (though I hope you have more). You may be able to get the book in digital form from your local library.

      • Jaybee9

        Given what you believe, I understand your desire to proselytize. But if you are going to proselytize, you should be explicit about it.

  • Son of Liberty

    “I always found that belief to be a cop-out.”

    Is this a reference to reincarnation? Or going back after death. Going where? To Earth? Seems like a non sequitur.

  • David Straayer

    I just stumbled on the Urban Death Project at
    Why hadn’t I heard about it before? This is a great idea for secular burial. They’ve got a kickstarter project going. If we get the word out in blogs like this, maybe we can kick it over the top. They’ve got my support, and should have yours too.

    Dave Straayer
    Advisor, Tacoma Community College Secular Students Alliance