An atheist friend recently experienced the loss of three friends and family members over a short span of time and asked me for advice on how an atheist deals with loss. I suspect that when he was a believer the rituals and dogma provided comfort. But now, without the support structure of an imaginary afterlife, hope for future reuniting, and a “meaning” for the loss he is grasping for a reasoned substitute to ease his pain.
How easy and comforting it must be to imagine ones dead loved one running in a sunlit field in the afterlife – eternally young, physically perfect, ecstatic, and being chased by their equally ecstatic childhood cocker spaniel. Or surrounded by a few generations of previously deceased relatives who embrace them and welcome them to eternal life and introduce them to their angel friends. Or dressed in a white robe, glowing with contentment as they spend eternity fawning over their man-god and telling him what a wonderful god he is, like an eternity in
Heaven, Paradise, Valhalla, the Happy Hunting Ground, the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, the Spirit World, all have always held out the promise of eternal life as a way to avoid coming to terms with the ultimate new experience, the finality of death. Nothing in a thinking person’s quiver of reasoned thoughts can compare to, or compete with it. All we have is reality and for us that is quite enough.
It’s enough for me to know the deceased person loved me and I loved them. Enough to know the pain of illness has subsided. Enough to know their contributions to the world will live behind them and their progeny will carry on. Enough to know that the cycle of life is unstoppable, inevitable, and is shared by all living things. It’s enough to know that the oblivion of death is no more fearful than the oblivion that was pre-life. I take comfort in that, we all should.
I had no magic bullet of reason that would spare my atheist friend his burden of grief. All I could do is tell him that while there would always be a hole, hollowness, in his life that those people once filled, that in time it will shrink. Oh, it’ll always be there, but the depth of grief he is feeling now will gradually be supplanted by wonderful memories of what those people brought to his life, and he to theirs. That is the gift they, we, leave behind.
Let your sadness run its course. Time is the great healer. The brain is a marvelous thing that way. I wish theists could appreciate the beauty in the simplicity and reality of that.
[ dedicated to my friend G. David.]