How Im Coping With Death As An Atheist
Today my mom called me to let me know that my Grandmom had passed away. She was 91 years old, and had been suffering from dementia for several years. I’m glad her pain and confusion is finally over.
Her husband survives her. As do her five children, and their families. She will be remembered by so many family members, and the countless people whose lives she has touched over the years. I hope that they all can find comfort in her passing.
When I was a boy, my cousin Renee teased me once that Grandmom was hers, not mine. I was concerned, so I marched right up to Grandmom to verify what I had been told.
“Are you mine?” I asked her.
“Always,” She said.
Of course, I was too young to remember this first hand, but I was told this story throughout my childhood. And it became a traditional greeting and goodbye between my Grandmom and I. “Are you mine?” one of us would ask the other as we hugged or kissed, whether a hello or a goodbye.
Because of her dementia, she wasn’t always lucid when I visited during her last years. But I was blessed to have the opportunity to visit her a little over a month before she passed. I sang to her, and told her stories I remembered about when I would stay with her and Granddad. She smiled, and remembered the stories with me. And when I left her that final time I asked her again…
“Are you mine?”
“Always,” She said.
My Grandmom was a Christian, and she loved hymns. How wonderful then that she passed away with her family singing Amazing Grace to her. I’m grateful to my Uncle Mike, Aunt Robin, and Cousins Hannah and Jared who were all able to visit with Granddad and to be with Grandmom during her final moments.
I was once a Christian too. I found comfort in the simple answers to what comes after death. I’m happy that so many in my family still find comfort in those answers. I cannot. I am by nature a skeptic. My mind was always wired to question everything until a verifiable answer presents itself. If YOU believe in God, you could say he made me this way.
Since I outgrew my childhood faith, I haven’t had to face death head-on. Now I have to. I spoke with my sister today, and she shared a sentiment that resonated with me… My Grandmom’s passing isn’t only the death of a beloved childhood caregiver, and my extended family’s matriarch. Her passing foreshadows the future losses that I will have to cope with. And so, I am pondering death, and how an atheist like me can find comfort in the loss of loved ones without God.
What I believe
Luckily, I am not without a belief system that works for me because it is based only on empirical evidence. It consists of a few observations I have taken mostly from my studies of Buddhist thought, and confirmed with my own contemplation and direct observation.
- Nothing happens without a cause.
- This too shall pass.
- Without desire, there is no suffering.
How could these cold, logical observations give me peace when dealing with the loss of a loved one? Thoughtful study has revealed to me that these simple ideas have earth-shaking implications. Let me take them one by one.
Nothing happens without a cause. Of the three observations I listed, this is the most easily observable as verifiably true. It is also has the most profound implications. If you follow this to its logical conclusion you’ll find out that it is less accurate to think of yourself as an individual with an identity than as a link in a limitless chain of cause and effect on a cosmic scale. This is the basis of every other insight I have received. If you get comfortable with this perspective, you will see that death is not an end at all. It is just another expression of the limitless.
This too shall pass. This is another easily observable truth. Every phenomenon is impermanent. When you are in crisis: this too shall pass. When you see your baby smile for the first time: this too shall pass. When you are alive and breathing: this too shall pass. In this way, life implies death. How would we even define “life” if we didn’t have death to compare it to? How would we value it?
Also, remember when I said “Nothing happens without a cause”? It turns out that for life as we know it, death is that cause. How? Death is the most critical component in the engine of natural selection that has driven life on earth from single celled organisms to modern humanity. Thought about in this way, death can be beautiful.
Without desire, there is no suffering. This is less easily observable. It takes a lot of effort to realize the truth of this one. On the other hand, it is the most practical observation I listed. I have spent hours sitting in silence practicing non-clinging and non-aversion. I can report that when I received the news of my Grandmom’s passing, this practice paid off. I observed that I did not want to let go of the loved one who provided me with a strong female figure, and helped form my curious personality. But I chose to set aside my desire for something other than what is, and instead of suffering, I found that peace is available. It is my hope that my peaceful ease will be a gift and a comfort to my family when I see them for the ceremonies celebrating my Grandmom’s life.
I don’t know if I’ll always be able to cope with loss with such peaceful ease. My grandparents had been married for seventy-two years. That’s quite an accomplishment. It makes me reflect on my relationship with my wife, Crystal. We’ve been together for fifteen years, and married for eight. She’s my best friend, my lover, my co-parent, my business partner, and my comedic relief. I love her endlessly, and I rely on her immensely. I think my Granddad probably felt similarly about Grandmom. I can’t imagine the pain I would feel if she were suddenly gone. Even if I felt that her passing was probably the best outcome for her, like I do about Grandmom.
It is comforting to know that if and when the time comes that death is not an end, it can be beautiful, and that peace is available.
Those are my beliefs, but my beloved Grandmom believed in Heaven. And so now that she has entered through that narrow gate, if she asks me from above, “Are you mine?” Now, and forever, I will respond, “Always.”
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