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.

Dan

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.

 

  • 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.

    I’m so relieved I don’t need religion to be an arrogant jerk and stereotype people who don’t think exactly the way I do!

    • Hank Fox

      I’m missing the sense of what you’re saying here. Clarify, please?

      • Well, okay. I agree with you that religious folks don’t seem to make much of an effort to understand the perspective of nonbelief. But if we resent being stereotyped and demonized, it’s incumbent upon us not to do the same thing to believers. Do we really have the monopoly on “reality-based thinking,” or is that one of the cozy myths we tell ourselves for comfort?

        • Maine_Skeptic

          Hank was talking about how religious people view atheists, and he was answering their mistaken beliefs about us. How is that judging them?

          • Oh, um, yes. Of course. Calling other people’s perspectives harmful, petty fantasies, saying that they’re living by lies, and condemning their way of thinking as 180 degrees opposite to reality isn’t being judgmental or anything.

          • Maine_Skeptic

            We can always state things more diplomatically, and people can always be more empathetic. Still, it shouldn’t come as a slap in the face to a religious person to hear that those of other faiths (and skeptics) think their view is 180-degrees wrong.

            Hank does a good job of explaining what the religious point of view tends to be regarding death, and I don’t get any sense that he is judging people as much as ideas.

            I admit that I’ve been insulted enough over the years that I may have lost some sensitivity on the subject. How would you have made Hank’s statement?

          • Still, it shouldn’t come as a slap in the face to a religious person to hear that those of other faiths (and skeptics) think their view is 180-degrees wrong.

            So even if we’re talking about grief and loss, it’s perfectly appropriate to tell them their approach is 180-degrees wrong? We get to stare in disingenuous shock when people get offended by our informing them that they’re not experiencing the pain of loss, but rather living by lies?

            Such empathy.

          • Maine_Skeptic

            How would you have said it?

          • Personally, I think it’s valid to say that atheists feel grief more acutely because we’re not telling ourselves that our loved ones have somehow survived their physical deaths or that we’ll meet again in the afterlife. Hank even raised that idea, and you quoted it in your post. You’re right: we value life more than people who believe this is just a warm-up for eternal life.

            However, Hank dismissed that idea as “imagined,” without explaining why, and just asserts that someday we’ll understand why our perspective is better than that of believers.

            I don’t think it’s better, it’s just the only one that happens to make sense to me. I wish I understood mortality in a more comforting way, but I can’t.

          • Maine_Skeptic

            Our perspectives are very similar, and I don’t think Hanks is that different. Ideas themselves aren’t worthy of respect, in my view, but people are. I don’t know whether you’ve gone through dramatic changes in world view or not, but I have, and it makes me cringe when skeptics talk about the stupidity of Christians, Muslims, and others. If we’re right, and there are no gods, then human beings are facing a universe full of threats with only each other to stand by. We need to be good to each other when we can.

            But that also includes atheists and skeptics cutting each other some slack. When Hank referred to “petty” and “imaginary” perspectives, he sounded like I do when referring to my old views. Was he putting religionists down, or was that comment akin to chiding himself over having been so wrong before?

  • Maine_Skeptic

    Well done article, Hank. I don’t think we skeptics talk about matters of life, death, and values as much as we should. So much of the religious perspective is warped by the goal of feeling good about death, and when we avoid the subject, I think we do ourselves and others a disservice.

    “….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…”

    It IS grim to realize that someone we loved no longer exists, and that the same thing is going to happen to us someday. As you said about grief, though, consider the alternative of that person having never existed… it’s worth the pain.

    I’m often told on comment pages that as an atheist, I can’t possibly value life. Here’s the thing: we value it more. My father died two years ago. One of my siblings believes my dad will someday be rebooted into a life much better than this one. Life and death just don’t matter that much if that is true, because it essentially means life can be restarted at any time the right god wills it to happen.

    Not surprisingly, I have a different perspective. Dad was the outcome of an unimaginably complex series of events that began 14 billion years ago. He can never be re-created, and there will never be anyone quite like him again. If we value dead, compressed carbon so much because its occurrence as diamonds is so rare, how much more rare and valuable is a specific living person to those who will miss him as long as they live?

    I admit that I dread dying. It bothers me that lives end in an hour that summarizes nothing about the hundreds of thousands of hours that created the people we love. If you asked me about the alternative, though? About the idea that that person might never have existed? I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    And if my own life is going to end a lot sooner than I’ll ever be ready for? I’m lucky enough to have been one of the tiny handful of possible lives that lived, as opposed to an infinitely larger number that will never be. Even if my days are finite, I’ll still take them.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful article.

  • MNb

    “Probably even most of US believe that, on some level.”
    Not me and I know from experience. My father was murdered more than six years ago; my son (then 13) found his body. Step 1: face the facts. That took me about two hours.

  • JohnE_o

    We live. We die. That’s the natural order of things.

  • BeaverTales

    I envy the religious one thing: Even though it’s completely fabricated and a pure fantasy, believing in a deity gives many of them a sense of purpose, and a feeling of hope that they’ll see a better day. It’s neatly packaged and sanitized for mass consumption.

    Perhaps that’s why I am an anti-theist…feeling that my efforts, no matter how small, are contributing to the demise of religion is a great comfort to me…it helps me get out of bed every day and face the world. I am a believer…a believer that religion is the greatest evil mankind faces in our evolution and survival…and that throwing off the chains of ignorance will lead to amazing things.

    I also have ‘faith’ that everything I need to get by in this life is here on Earth, and that I will adapt and struggle to survive and die just like everything that has ever lived or ever will live. I am not waiting for a train to come and take me away to some magical place where problems don’t exist.

    • I am an anti-theist…feeling that my efforts, no matter how small, are contributing to the demise of religion is a great comfort to me…it helps me get out of bed every day and face the world.

      And, uh, this isn’t pure fantasy?

      • BeaverTales

        Building a secular community is very real. I spend a lot of time with my local atheist group, and many people have joined over the years recovering from religion, and becoming educated about the world outside of their former church. I also donate to humanist causes.

        I don’t think it’s all in my head, no…

        • Building a secular community is very real.

          It sure is. That doesn’t change the fact that you think you’re contributing to the demise of religion.

          Each to his own fantasy.

          • BeaverTales

            I am, though. Every person that solidifies his or her doubt by interacting with other doubters…every person who feels more confident about being open about his or her atheism with the help or encouragement of friends…every one who does good work without being a vassal to blind faith will have a better view of atheism, and a more critical view of religion.

            Will I change the world overnight? No, but maybe if enough of us do these things and we do it for many generations, we’ll make something happen. It has to happen, especially in the Islamic world, but it should be everywhere.

            Why are you so pessimistic about making a difference? We have lots of atheists in our group who are apathetic or just criticize others…but they are still contributing in a tiny way just by being a foil to some of the crazier ideas.

          • I’m only pessimistic about the thing I usually deplore in such Messianic visions: that it’s going to make the world a better place if everyone else gives up their false beliefs and thinks the way we do. Even if you thought that were possible, why would this kind of enforced conformity be something to strive for?

            I’m all for good work, getting people to respect and tolerate each other, but you seem to believe that people can’t be both religious and tolerant. So, ironically, you want a world without religion, instead of a world without tolerance.

          • BeaverTales

            ironically, you want a world without religion, instead of a world without tolerance.

            I think that’s a big stretch on your part to say that I don’t tolerate and respect religious people. However, wanting people to *choose* to drop harmful delusions vs. be forcefully converted or be subjected to harassment for their beliefs are entirely different things that you seem to have trouble distinguishing.

            My “messianic” delusion of educating people and giving them the *opportunity* to choose a reality based belief system is very different from coercing them with threats of hellfire or social ostracism, which is the kind of influence I have gotten from many, if not most, religious people my entire life. NO ONE should force their beliefs on others, adults or children, and for you to suggest that’s what I want to do is a strawman.

            However, your world without intolerance, which is what I think you meant, is impossible. Even if all religion disappeared tomorrow- sexism, racism, ageism, and nationalism would remain. I think that dream is more unrealistic than mine.

          • Hank Fox

            Shem, it seems to me that you’re slipping into trolling.

            I’d much rather you made your own thoughtful points than making catty remarks when others express theirs.

            Disagree with ME all you like. I’d welcome thoughtful disagreements or questions. Within the constraints of my time, and as long as I believe your intentions are honest, I’ll make an effort to explain whatever seems unclear.

          • Well, Hank, your guest here derailed your discussion about grief in order to describe how good he felt about contributing to the demise of religion. What do you think about people who stereotype the religious as “delusional” and lacking a “reality-based belief system”? Do you want a world without religion? Or just a world that recognizes the validity of nonbelief?

    • ctcss

      Perhaps that’s why I am an anti-theist…feeling that my efforts, no matter how small, are contributing to the demise of religion is a great comfort to me…it helps me get out of bed every day and face the world. I am a believer…a believer that religion is the greatest evil mankind faces in our evolution and survival

      I think that Shem may be right. You appear to be going after labels (“I’m against theism!”) rather than going after less than helpful ideas (“I’m against hate, intolerance, ignorance, etc.”) that actually exist in many venues, religion possibly being one of them. You appear to be thinking that by trying to eliminate religion (even non-confrontationally) you will eliminate the less than helpful ideas. But consider, what if there are religions with good ideas? Even more to the point, what if there are religions with good ideas, but you are so steeped in the concept that religion itself is bad/evil, you won’t be able to recognize those good ideas because you reject that which they seem to come from? And what if those religions believe things that you don’t think are true, but actually are, and you continue to spend your time railing against them rather than trying to learn why your current viewpoint may be false? It strikes me that going after bad actions, rather than labels you disapprove of, might be a better way to go.

      Remember, despite what you may think, not all religions are evil, nor do they all demand blind faith, or ignorance, nor are they all focused on forcing their way on others. (For instance, when was the last time a Quaker, or a Reform Jew tried to force their way on you, or tried to force their theology into civil law?) If I were you, I think I would be a bit more circumspect about the righteousness of my mission to save the world from what you currently think of as “evil”. I appreciate your desire not to force your way down other people’s throats, but until you can offer absolute proof that you are correct, all you are actually doing is offering your opinion as fact. Personally, I get enough of that from everyone with an agenda of theirs to sell. So, if you don’t mind, I’d rather appreciate it if you would try to eliminate that particular “evil” (unasked for and unwanted evangelism by others), instead of merely adding one more instance of “I’m right and you’re wrong” to the noisy chorus.

      • BeaverTales

        If someone said “I’m against War!”, and then was trolled by someone saying that “some wars are good…for instance, you shouldn’t be against all wars because then all of Europe’s Jews would be gassed by now, etc” is both a Fallacy of Composition and Special Pleading. Saying “you don’t seem to believe people should defend themselves” -without asking the person’s intent in their definition of “war”- is a strawman. Lots of examples could potentially be found of “good wars”. The same could be said of “good stealing”, “good lying”, and “good politics”. That doesn’t make a person who dislikes stealing, lying and/or politics a bigot.

        I never made the case that every religion is equally evil. Yet religion (as commonly defined by most non-theists…I’m well aware of religious philosophies like Buddhism, etc.) obligates one to believe in the supernatural. Does someone’s belief in an Invisible Magic Unicorn that grants wishes harm me personally? Probably not. Can a Magic Unicorn worshiper be humanistic and fight bigotry, poverty, and injustice? Of course. Is Unicorn worship still spreading intellectual dishonesty, ignorance, superstition and a potentially exploitable gullibility by grifters and demagogues? You bet.

        For the record, I’m agnostic about magic unicorns. I have no proof they don’t exist, and saying I don’t believe in them doesn’t mean I’m “offering my opinion as fact”. I’m not opining that all Unicorn worshipers are bad or good. What I *am* saying is that I want people to someday drop a belief in the supernatural because it arguably leads to the spread of superstition and ignorance, which I happen to think are bad things in themselves. It doesn’t indicate an “agenda” of intolerance and “labeling people”. Specious argument.

        We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. A particular belief system that is not reality-based might be just fine in fighting the world’s many evils. Saying I’d personally prefer people stop believing superstition and I’d like to help them be better educated, intellectually honest and accountable…and not waste our precious resources and time on this Earth on Unicorns…does not put me in the same moral category as a Christianist or Islamist. I’d hope a mature atheist or agnostic is above that kind of sophistry.

  • Losing someone we love is especially painful and may take a long time for the pain to go away.It is even worst if the loss happened unexpectedly and you had no opportunity to hug and say goodbye to each other! There is no easy way out. I like the idea of writing a letter. It can help a lot! Whatever happens,life must go on. We don’t really die. It is our bodies that die. The body belongs to time, but we belong to eternity for we’re consciousness that live inside bodies.