Thursday, June 30, 2011

Death visits the Atheist

   Last Friday, my husband Randy's father died. It wasn't sudden, but it also wasn't entirely expected, seeing as the doctor had given a "6 months" prognosis of the cancer that was devastating his body.  It is always sad and difficult when someone dies, but I think that most people don't realize how much more sad and difficult this process is when you are an Atheist.  While his overly religious family members have their beliefs that "paw paw" is now strumming guitars in heaven with Jesus and all the other family members who have "gone home" in the past, my husband is faced with the reality that his father is dead and whose ashes now inhabit a lovely urn.  There are no cherubs singing psalms, he's not halo'ed and wing'ed, and he's not swapping stories with his Confederate (yes, Confederate) ancestors about the fact that a Black president was elected in the year 2008. Randy, Sr. has passed from this mortal coil, and in the words of the truly immortal Carl Sagan, he has become "star stuff" once again and is gone.  His "eternal life" is now memorialized on Facebook, as hundreds of people have stopped by my husband's page and left "prayers" for him and reassured him that they will "meet again in heaven".

To which my husband (and I)says, "Bullshit".

So where is the comfort for the nonbeliever?  Well, it's within ourselves and with eachother.  At least I think so.  But I think that the comfort should also lie in being respected by those around you.  People know we are an Atheist family, yet continue to mention God and Jesus and heaven as though those would be soothing things for my husband to hear.  They're not.  You may as well be saying, "So sorry for your loss Randy, know that your dad is in Lilliput with Mother Goose and Santa now".  Where is the respect for HIS belief?  At the funeral and following reception (is that what it is called?) Randy was subjected to the Southern Baptist style of death: songs, Jesus, God, preacher, more songs, more Jesus, more God, more preacher, wife wailing over the coffin, coffin, more Jesus, God, God, God, God, heaven, Jesus, amen.  Did he snicker?  Did he snort or roll his eyes or guffaw at the ridiculousness of it all?  Did he scream, "This is CRAP!" in the middle of the sermon? Of course not, because he is respectful of the beliefs of his family.  He would never think to impose his ideas about what was going on to people who didn't believe like he did.

Yet, the reverse isn't true if you are an Atheist.  People refuse to respect and/or understand the notion that God and Jesus are irrelevant to you. We received a sympathy card that was, in essence, a call to Jesus.  It's content was less about how sorry the sender was for Randy's loss, but rather how it's time now for us to rely on God to protect us and turn to "him" for comfort and on and on and on and on. It's almost offensive.  No wait, it is offensive.  This person knows we are Atheists. Knows full well that we don't believe in any God.  Why not some encouraging words that don't involve religion?  Why not just say, "I'm so sorry for your loss, Randy.  I hope you find comfort in your family and know that we are thinking of you".  No, instead we get a whole condemnation of how something is inherently wrong with us and we need to find God in order to fix it.  "Only God can heal you now" or some shit like that.  It's disrespectful, plain and simple.  Would I send a Jesus card to a Jewish person?  Would I send a card with a picture of Mohammed on it to a Muslim?  Would I send an Atheist card to a Christian? (<----I've considered sending a thank you note to the sender in this fashion, but that would be childish. Funny, but childish. You know, "Thanks for the sympathy card. There is no god you sad deluded old person, now grow up". Or something like that).

The point is, that we as Atheists (and I suspect many non-Christians as well) have been forced to be respectful of theists even when that respect is not returned.  We're forced into submitting to their ritual of grief and grieving, death and dying, yet no one has offered to listen to another voice.  Everytime Randy tried to talk to one of his relatives about his dad's death, he was drowned in religious mumbo jumbo which neither soothed or comforted him. And while we both know that these words given were not meant to be malicious or offensive, but rather as a reassurance, it has to be said that if you don't believe in this stuff, those words mean nothing. They may make the speaker feel better, but if the person on the receiving end is an Atheist, you may as well be talking to a wall.  Your intent will be noted, but your words will offer no comfort or solace.

So now, Randy is healing and me and the kids are doing our best to help him; without fairy tales or promises of floating up in the sky or imaginary sky fairies playing guitars, but with love and support and the reality that life, though finite, is worth every single second.

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides." -Carl Sagan, 1996


krystal said...

Well I am sorry for your loss. There is nothing easy about death. I myself am not an athesist but I have no religion either. Does that make sense? We recently spoke on twitter about the "how do you get through it" and its like bam you answered me without even knowing I thought that. But I recently lost a friend and they were heavy into catholicism and I just felt so awkward. Its heavy in rituals. While people find comfort in that I find it unnervinng. So I can imagine how hard it is for your family. I don't know what I believe about life after death. It would be lovely to believe there is a heaven but I was raised a jehovahs witness (not that I still am one ) and they basically stated death is just sleeping. They also don't believe in souls and things. So I'm glad you have some kind of support system with your family. I hope it all goes well. Sorry for my confusing comment lol

Now This Is Life... said...

Thank you for this post. I am also very sorry for your loss. Being raised in a very religious family, I have struggled when facing this sort of loss, as well. I told my husband that I don't want any of the religious stuff at my funeral when I die. I don't want a sermon. I don't want religious music. He says that I will be dead and that if it comforts people, he may let them. I guess he has a point. At that point I won't be around to care.

lisa adams said...

Wow, did I love this post. My mother-in-law was killed in a car crash 18 months ago. I've written a lot about her death and the grief of our family (she was an amazing person and I loved her like a mother). Not only did I, too, find it difficult when people told me about the "plan" for us all but I also found that very upsetting when I was diagnosed with cancer. It often came across as if the religious speaker were trying to minimize the pain and anguish I was feeling ("remember, she's in a better place now.")

I found this challenging when others tried to tell my children that their grandmother was "looking down on them" and "in a better place" when all they (and I) wanted was her here with us. She hadn't been in pain, she was killed by someone who decided to be in her lane on the highway.

Thank you for your candor and reminding others that while we listen to religious explanations all the time it may not be appropriate to offer them to grieving family members unless you know they share your views. I am sorry for your loss.

Jim said...

A heartfelt and to the point post. Thank you.

Having watched my wife's mother die slowly from ovarian cancer, we had to put up with the same self-serving comments. Comments made by people that knew exactly how we felt. Comments made by people who couldn't think of anything else that could be in the slightest bit comforting to say.

Her mother once argued with me about my lack of belief in a god but an acceptance to the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. She was a christian in the same way many British people are. However, towards the end of her short 57 years, she admitted that she had no faith in a god anymore. That why should she - a good person that could not harm a fly - be punished in such a way.

When one of her (very) religious friends told us at the wake that it was "all part of his great plan" I blurted out that given the circumstances, she ought to hope that "his great plan" doesn't involve her.

Happily, we still don't speak.

In my mind, what I think, is that we become a collection of memories. When alive, *our* memories define us. When dead, the memories we leave in others minds define us.

All the best.

the xanax diary said...

I understand your feelings. I recently lost my spouse to cancer. He was and I am atheist. But I've found it's one of the last taboos that people don't understand and can get very weirded out if you try to explain it to them. God has come up a lot in cards and words. I just try to respect other people's beliefs and translate them to make them relevant for me. What's important is that I believe in (or don't believe in) whatever I choose and what makes sense to me. I guess I just try to look at the message people are giving me and now how it's being delivered. I'm sorry for your family's loss and I hope you all rely on each other to get through it. My prayers are with you. (Just kidding!)

Sherrie said...

I'm so sorry. I hope that Randy can find strength with you, the boys, and himself. Time helps. Hugs to all of you.