Letter to a Dying Grandmother

old-hands.jpgIf you’ve been an unbeliever for any length of time at all, you’ve probably heard this one: “If your grandmother was on her deathbed, would you tell her there’s no Heaven?”

It’s a nasty dilemma for an atheist.

On the one hand, you want to be true to your own principles, which probably includes a great deal of honesty. (I don’t think you can become an independent-minded atheist if you aren’t immensely honest. If you find lies easy and are willing to toss out glib, convenient fibs at a moment’s notice, the path simply isn’t there for you.)

But on the other hand, this is your grandmother, dying, and she has this comforting fairy tale foremost in her mind about the eternal life she has to look forward to. How could you dash her hopes in her final moments? Sure, if she was 50 and healthy, it might be worth it. If she was somebody else’s grandmother-to-be, and only 30, or 22, or 15, that might be a good time to intervene with the no-gods, no-heaven message.

But … 80? And dying? It would be heartless.Typically, one choice is offered: You don’t tell her. You play along. But by doing that, you not only back the lie, the thing you don’t believe (betraying yourself), you also actively lie to your beloved grandmother (betraying her).

The subtext of the whole situation is that whatever you do at this point is for her own good. But how can lying to a loved one be good? Especially a loved one who, in this moment, is so totally defenseless against you? Is there really some moment in your life when it becomes okay for people to say anything to you “for your own good”? Certainly your grandmother would be hurt to know you felt she was already as good as dead.

And what sort of philosophy is it that leads someone to argue that lying to a person is good, especially when they’re defenseless?

I’ve struggled with this quandary in the back of my mind, and sometimes in the front, for years. It’s one of those ethical problems of being an atheist, one gleefully forced on you by nice Christians who want you to believe in black and white choices, and who have generations of rhetorical tricks that divide life into the Christian way and the evil, heartless way.

It seems to me that I usually find a solution to these things, though, if I think about it long enough.

The first solution I hinted at a few paragraphs ago: Step away from the picture of your grandmother’s deathbed. Back up the clock 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, and catch the person who will someday be your grandmother, or somebody’s grandmother, and tell her then. Which means you tell people now, today, so that all those grandmothers-to-be and grandfathers-to-be will be able to hear what you think and figure out how to live with it in the years they still have.

But the second solution is something more subtle. It’s focusing on the sum total effect of your grandmother’s life and considering it as a real thing.

Here’s my shot at that, something I wish I’d been able to think of while my grandmother was still alive:

Granny, the good you’ve done in life, the good you’ve done for other people and the love you’ve given, is real. The effect of that goodness on me, for instance, is alive in me this very minute. You’ve made a difference in my life, and in the shaping of me. You’ve helped me to be a better person. So the goodness of you, the love and kindness and generosity and compassion, is carried on within me.

And being a better person, I pass the goodness along to others. The love that I felt from you as I grew up in Texas has touched people not just in Texas, but in California and Arizona and New York. Through me, your goodness ripples outward.

And I’m just one person. Think of all the other people – hundreds, at least – you’ve affected directly. Your love touched them too, rubbed off on them, and left its lasting impression.The goodness of you will live on in me, and all those people, and all the ones we come in contact with, indefinitely into the future. In a sense real enough to be worth believing, the goodness in you, the best part of you, is already immortal.

Sadly, my grandmother died before I figured this out, before I could say it to her.

Fortunately, a world full of people are still alive. And you and I both can tell them. Now.