Atheism and Death: Second Request

A book about Atheism and Death could either be a short, very personal exposition of the subject, with huge emotional appeal but limited practical use, or it could be something much larger and more far-reaching. It’s a rather intimidating subject, and right now I’m not sure which I’m able to undertake.

So again I’m asking for help.

As I relate in the adjacent post First Request, I’d like to know more about how atheists handle the death of loved ones. Not just as ordinary people faced with loss, but as atheists faced with loss.

First, tell me something, anything, about your own experience of dealing with death. Not just as an ordinary person, but specifically as an atheist.

Was the death of your family member or friend a distant one, or an immediate one? Meaning: Were you right there when he/she died? Or did you only hear about it after, or from some remove?

What was your internal “journey” before and after the death? How did you react to it, what did you learn from it? What, if anything, was the good that came out of it?

How did you/do you relate to your religious families? What do you as an atheist do to honor or remember the deceased? How do you handle the little religious-cultural traps you find in your own mind, say the sneaky little Sunday-school-installed thoughts that insist Uncle Bob is still out there somewhere, and that you’ll see him someday?

Second: Is how we atheists deal with death superior to how godders deal with it? And how and why do you think it is? (I’m thinking here of both the interior/individual effects, but also of larger socio-cultural effects.)

Third: Do you have any other thoughts, anything at all related to the subject, that you think should be covered in a book on the subject?

If it’s too painful/personal to post here, you can email replies to me at hankfox1 [at] gmail [dot] com.

[Fair warning: Some of the replies I might slot in as separate blog posts. Tell me if you’d rather not have your reply posted, or at least not have your FTB blogging name attached.]

Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Assholes and the Umbrella of Safety
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
Zoning Out on Liberal vs. Conservative Issues
  • Cazfans

    You might search though the blogs, current & previous,of your blogmates for their expressions in the face of death. Cuttlefish just re-posted one on worms and PZ had one back on science blogs that left us with a strange wetness on our cheeks.

  • actinomyces

    My father died of a sudden brain aneurysm twelve years ago. I’ve always been an atheist, as has my brother so there were no arguments about the memorial service and what we decided to do with my dad’s remains. I felt lucky I didn’t spend one ounce of mental energy wondering if my dad was in Heaven, or why this happened to our family. I’m a scientist so was easily able to understand the medical reasons, and didn’t spend a second justifying it as “God’s plan”. Atheists know sometimes shit happens and there may be no rhyme or reason. While that idea deeply disturbs most people who like to think something in the universe is looking out for the special little creature that is them, I found it comforting and freeing.

  • rwahrens

    As I mentioned in your “First Request” post, my mother died a few years ago, which resulted in my becoming an atheist. At your request and forbearance, I’ll expand on that here.

    To begin, I’ll just note that i’d never really been a “true believer”, but a kind of “sometimes christian”. One of the occasional churchers the preachers are always griping about. Much of the reason for that is the treatment I got from a preacher in my mother’s church many decades ago when I needed to borrow money till payday. In spite of my weekly attendance and dropping money into the plate at the same time, he told me that his slush fund was for “poor people”. (This being told to a new federal worker making less than $100 a week with a wife and two kids).

    We stopped attending that church very shortly after that. Later decades saw very little attendance, but I always told myself that I did believe whenever the subject came up, and we devoutly read the christmas story to our kids every christmas before they got to open gifts.

    Then, back in ’05, my mother died after a long convalescence in a nearby nursing home. She had faded slowly over a couple of years until much of her time was spent reliving her youth and when she saw me, she thought I was my dad.

    In her lucid moments, she often expressed frustration and despair that god had allowed her, a life-long devout christian who spend many many hours a week volunteering for the church and was an Elder in hers, to come to such a poor physical end while maintaining an active mind.

    She died one afternoon after my second daughter had brought her kids by for their bi-weekly visit. My daughter had told her that she wouldn’t be bringing the kids by any more, as my mother’s physical condition had deteriorated to the point that it was frightening the kids.

    She was dead less than a half hour later.

    When I went to her room where they had her laid out so nicely before the funeral home came to collect her body, I had a few moments to reflect by her side. It was surreal. The last time I’d seen a dead person was my dad when I was 11. This was worse.

    The mortal remains laid out so nicely was a ravaged frame that looked nothing at all like the woman I had known all my life. I took that time to reflect on what that told me and how I felt and realized that there was nothing a all to suggest that she may have been transported to stand by my dead father’s side as she had so fervently wished for so many years. I think at the end, she knew that too.

    I had thoughtfully taken out a funeral policy, so there were few expenses not already paid for, and her body was to be cremated (at her wish) and sent from Maryland (where she died) to Lake Jackson, Texas, where Dad was buried and she had a plot next to him.

    While my sister and her kids are all pretty much Southern Baptist, we all lived may States apart and none of us had the cash to travel for any kind of funeral. Her cremains were handled just as I’d arranged for, and I was at a loss as to how to handle a funeral or some kind of memorial.

    In the end, we send a donation to her long time church near Dallas, Texas in her name and I created a DVD memorial of her life in pictures set to music she loved that was distributed to the family.

    Sad, perhaps, but as she was 91, there were few people besides the family that she knew any more that weren’t already in nursing homes themselves that may have been in a position to attend a funeral anyway. She had outlived almost all of both her friends and enemies – if she had any!

    To me, that brought together all of the thoughts and realizations that had been simmering for years about religion, and it wasn’t much more than weeks before I had that illuminating moment when I realized that I really didn’t believe in a deity of any kind.

    Sadly, this has brought about a rift between my sister’s side of the family and mine, as well as that lovely second daughter (converted to catholicism) who has since told my wife and I that we can only visit our grandkids if both parents are there to ensure that we heathens don’t infect them with evil thoughts.

    C’est la vie.

  • Brad

    Greta Christina has a classic post on this topic called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God. An excerpt:

    Because all the things that give life joy and meaning — music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, making love, all of it — are based on time passing, and on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don’t get to have existence. We don’t get to have Shakespeare, or sex, or five-spice chicken, without allowing their existence and our experience of them to come into being and then pass on. We don’t get to listen to Louis Armstrong without letting the E-flat disappear and turn into a G. We don’t get to watch “Groundhog Day” without letting each frame of it pass in front of us for a 24th of a second and then move on. We don’t get to walk in the forest without passing by each tree and letting it fall behind us; we don’t even get to stand still in the forest and gaze at one tree for hours without seeing the wind blow off a leaf, a bird break off a twig for its nest, the clouds moving behind it, each manifestation of the tree dying and a new one taking its place.

  • Savagemutt

    Just a couple of brief anecdotes about the death of my mom. She died relatively young (58) and completely unexpectedly. She had a massive heart attack in bed. My dad performed CPR until until the paramedics came and they managed to get her heart restarted, but as it turned out she’d been “down” too long and was brain-dead.

    Anecdote the first:
    I was sitting in the ICU waiting area, crying quietly, after being informed that there was no hope of recovery. An elderly woman who had been sitting nearby asked what was wrong as she was leaving. I said, “My mom’s going to die.” Her response? “Heaven is richer for your loss.” My mouth dropped open in shock. She was gone before I could form any coherent thought. In her mind I’m sure she thought she’d provided me with a little comfort; that I’d picture my mother flying around in heavenly bliss, but instead it just seemed to trivialize her death and my own sadness.

    Anecdote the second:
    Me, my dad and my brother are all non-religious. I’m an outright atheist and they’re both basically pantheists though they don’t really label themselves as anything. So we knew we didn’t want a religious memorial service. None of us felt up to the task of trying to conduct or even speak at it though, so we hired a preacher the funeral home recommended to run the service. He agreed to keep his god out of it, but I could tell he wasn’t used to the request. We weren’t really in the mood to supply him with stories about mom or anything so he was pretty short on material. So the service was a very odd affair mostly filled with a few general jokey anecdotes about…well, nothing in particular that I could tell.

    Even 6 years later I still kind of cringe when thinking about that service. That’s a pitfall of being an atheist and having to memorialize someone on short notice that I’d never considered before. There really isn’t any sort of secular solution for it that I’m aware of.

  • susanhenry

    I have a wide network of family, friends, and coworkers, and I have developed personal rules of engagement for death. I think atheists need practical and specific advice on how to deal with the superstitious platitudes and ceremonies surrounding death.
    -Sympathize with the grief, not the belief. I understand the person is going through feelings of loss, sadness, anger and more. This does not mean I have to accept the religious beliefs of the bereaved.
    -Be honest but kind. When people say to me they believe in the power of prayer, or that someone is in a better place, etc., I reply in a caring tone of voice, “I’m an atheist and don’t share that belief, but I’m glad [deceased person's name] was with family/didn’t suffer/had a fulfilling life,” etc. I think it’s important to focus on some positive aspect of the person’s life, but not to agree with the bereaved’s religious beliefs for fear of offending them.
    -Religious funeral services are something I have to put up with. I feel trapped and resentful, but I go when it’s someone close to me, and remain silent, thinking about science. In the future, I plan to sit in the back with whatever book I happen to be reading at the time. I do not go through the motions.
    -I always send donations in lieu of flowers, even if it isn’t requested. Money will help a cause, flowers help the florist. I do not send donations to religious organizations EVER, no matter how good a cause it seems to be. There is always a secular equivalent.
    -When people say “what a beautiful service” after a mass, I reply, “It was what [deceased person's name] wanted.” This statement of fact is polite enough to get away from that comment without endorsing religious ceremony.

  • inflection

    I have generally been out of state, or the country, during the years when my father’s and grandfathers’ generations have been dying, and none of my younger relatives have died yet, so I only have a small stock of experiences to refer to.

    I was able to attend my grandmother’s wake. She was survived by my grandfather. That side of the family is religious, but it never came up at the wake — the most important thing for me there was being there for my grandfather, at least for a while.

    When my grandfather and an elderly aunt and uncle died (separately), I wasn’t able to see them. I remember mainly thinking of the times I had shared with them, and wishing there had been more.


    I myself have never been able to rid myself entirely of a fear of death, despite reading well-known atheists’ comments on the subject: “I scorn to shudder at the thought of annihilation,” and so forth. I *do* shudder at the thought of annihilation. It scares me. It comes over me at night, sometimes, in a black wave, and I clench my fists, or scream silently into the pillow, or hunch over and wait until it goes away. What it doesn’t do is make me believe in unicorns to make it stop. It makes me want to live, intensely. And the main thing that I have found efficacious for making it retreat is thinking about tomorrow: the real, solid, workaday plans we make to get us through life and do what we need and want to do.

  • Ursula

    I work as a closet atheist nurse in a catholic hospital (no job alternative outside religious organisations in a rural German area, coming out would mean unemployment). So as a professional I come in contact with death often enough.
    It is in these cases of course not my loss to deal with (at least not in an extent that I take home), but I feel if I try to be something I’m not when working with the relatives, it is not only a lie, but people will sense it and I loose their trust. So I will under no circumstances offer any phrases that are meaningless to me. I try to be respectful and of course I follow wishes as far as possible, even if that means setting up candles and a crucifix for a prayer or help prepare a ritual washing. So far that worked for me and nobody has called me out on not praying along.

    When it comes to family, things are a bit more complicated. My grandfathers both died at home when I was a kid and coming from a very religious family on my mother’s side I was swept along in the proceedings. My brothers and I learned what was expected of us and nowadays I have the feeling that I was well conditioned. So when my mother in law died 4 years ago, I managed to go along with a church funeral, because it was expected. One doesn’t disappoint one’s family. I still twitch a little at the thought of reading the intercessory prayer at the memorial…
    After that I told my parents that if they want a religious ceremony for their funeral, they’d better organise it themselves – my dad was actually (big surprise for me!) relieved and asked for a burial at sea without any fuss. My mum took a bit longer to get used to the thought, but we talk about her wishes on and of. Haven’t talked to my father in law though. He found comfort in his church after his loss and I am perfectly happy to let his sons handle his wishes.

    But the one death that still haunts me today, wasn’t a death at all, but a suicide attempt during my years at a catholic all girls school. My best friend tried to shoot herself. I am still angry with her (she succeeded a few years after her first attempt) after 25 years, but I’m even more angry with the nuns and my teachers. It was well known all over school that my friend came from a seriously dysfunctional family (alcohol, drugs and strongly suspected abuse). But the moment her suicide attempt was announced there began a mad scramble to shift the blame.
    I still don’t to this day understand how I was the one to end up being blamed as a bad friend. The nuns talked about sin, the teachers were questioning our friendship and everybody asked me (at age 17) why I didn’t do anything to prevent it.
    During that time I thought a lot about the unfairness, but I never tried to blame an imaginary higher being. I know perfectly well who was unfair – outwardly faithful and observant catholics.
    Ultimately my catholic upbringing and school experience formed my view on religion and although I could have done without that chapter of my life I can live with the way it shaped me very well. Except that I panic at the thought of letting friends down and my not too healthy solution is to not have too many friends (make that 3 including my husband, best friend of all).

    As for being left behind – it happens. One day I will be the one who’s gone. No sense in argueing with the facts of life. But until then I have memories that I can revisit as often (and as rose-coloured) as I like. ;)

  • geocatherder

    I lost my mother in 2003 at age 83, and my father in 2006 at age 93. Both were ill before they died, but both died fairly quickly in hospital settings. I regret not being there for either of them at the end, and in both cases it was an almost-thing. Late at night, with my mother in a coma and seeming stable for the night, I drove my exhausted dad home. As we walked in the door the phone was ringing. Mama had died just after we’d left the hospital. With Daddy, I’d left him the night before fairly stable if a little incoherent; I got a phone call early in that morning that he’d taken a turn for the worse and to get to the hospital NOW. I drove as fast as I dared, but it was still a 20-minute drive. Daddy died while I was parking the car.

    The two funeral services, held at the same funeral home, were very different. Mama was Catholic, and they arranged to have the local parish priest come hold the ceremony. He didn’t know her, didn’t discuss her with either myself or my dad, and basically gave a canned eulogy filled with annoying godder cliches. It might have comforted my dad, although I think the hymns and poem he chose for her were more comfort.

    Daddy wasn’t Catholic — he’d been raised Lutheran but really wasn’t much of anything — and I was in charge of organizing his service. I knew most attendees would be Christians and so I chose hymns and a poem with Christian themes. But I wanted a really good, god-free eulogy, and so I gave it myself. Managed to do it with only a couple of breaks into tears. But there was no question, Daddy got a much better sendoff than Mama.

    How did I deal with losing them? There was an emotional roller coaster ride that lasted far longer, especially after my dad died, than I would ever have thought possible. I could be just going through the day and suddenly get hit by wave after wave of utter sadness. There was nothing to do but ride out the waves. Later I spent many nights awake struggling with whether I was a good enough daughter, whether I’d done enough for my parents. I still do that occasionally.

    When I remember them, I try to remember the good times and forget the bad times, which is harder with my mom because she and I disagreed so often. And I talk to them — and no, I don’t have some vague notion that they’re really there, they’re not — but I still talk to them. I’ll manage to cook a difficult dish really well, and say, “what do you think, Mama?” Or I’ll prune roses and talk to my dad while I do it. “What do you think, take out this cane or that one?” I don’t get answers, but there’s comfort in just talking.

  • Carlie

    Are you interested in religion-adjacent deaths? What I mean is that someone I didn’t really know well, but that my family was very close to, died last year. It was wrenching trying to personally deal with what to say and what to do, because everyone else involved was religious and I wasn’t, and my child was one of those very close to the person who died. So I guess mine would be more how to be an atheist parent when someone dies, rather than how to deal with it myself. That might be a little far afield of what you’re looking for.

  • Gordon

    I’ll tell you something hard about dealing with death. I’ve twice been asked to read at family (religious) funerals. My family know I am an atheist.

    Something else that is hard, nobody feels bad coming up and offering the “better place” or “you’ll see them again” lines and you are *not* allowed to punch them even though it feels like they have just punched you.

    But I remember dealing with death as a religious person, and it was worse. Back then I had to pretend to myself that heaven was the only option, because you cannot acknowledge that a single loved one could end up in hell. Not if you want to live with yourself. But pretend as hard as you like, that notion i there.

    Religous people might find the reality of death cruel, but it is a mercy compared to either heaven or hell!

  • Cuttlefish

    Check your email–sent you some stuff. In prose, even.

  • Makoto

    My grandfather died (fairly) recently due to complications after cancer. He and I were “cancer buddies” – twice over, with a bit over a year in between sessions, we had cancer at the same time, chemotherapy in the same time ranges, and even fairly equivalent predictions about our recoveries (my cancer was far more severe than his, despite me being 50 years younger).

    His death was both sudden and expected. He had been fading for some time, and the last time I visited him, he even said that he hadn’t expected to see me again. But then, one afternoon at work, I got a call from my father saying that his father had died in his sleep, at home.

    I’m an atheist, he was what he called an “energist” – he believed that we were made of energy, and that energy flowed. When he died, the energy that was in him would eventually flow out into the rest of the world, and someday perhaps be part of one or more people. Actually, that seems rather apt to me, and not a religion at all, but just a different way of looking at matter/energy and what comprises a body/life.

    Since my grandfather didn’t follow a traditional religion, and my family is quite the odd mix (Jewish, Methodist, Buddhist, Baptist, Jahova’s Witnesses, etc, etc), we had a “life celebration” rather than a funeral. People who knew him got up and just.. talked. I talked about how I got to know him well rather late in his life, and how I taught him how to use computers by tricking him into playing FreeCell. It was sad, but also very uplifting. I felt like I got to know more dimensions of him through what his other friends said, and got to share some of the fun times he and I had together. That was a primary antidote to the grief we were all feeling, I think, and I’m glad we had that.

    I say he lived a good life, was a good person, and was a positive impact in other people’s lives. Really, what more can any of us ask for?

  • magistramarla

    My beloved mother-in-law died in 2006. In her later years, Mom was not very religious at all, unless you count her interest in kooky “new-age” stuff, such as Reiki.
    She had everything all set up ahead of time, including a simple little non-religious service at the funeral home, which pleased my husband and I. However, near the end of the service, one brother-in-law, who was taking his Mom’s death very badly, blurted out – “I know she’s in heaven, because she found Jesus – she told me so.” We know that Mom would not have been pleased at that outburst. The same brother-in-law insisted on keeping her cremains. I often wonder what happened to that urn when he went to jail a few years later.
    Mom’s death was hard on both my husband and me. He felt helpless and guilty that he didn’t do more for her (we lived in another state). The month of her death was when my autoimmune issues started to surface, probably because of the stress. She had been the real mother in my life, since my own was cruel and abusive. BTW, when my mother died, being an atheist made it much simpler for me. I did not have to grapple with any beliefs about her going to hell – she was just gone and finally out of my life completely. I was very matter-of-fact about dealing with it. I did do one thing to please my religious cousins, though. We took the little box of ashes and buried it at the foot of her mother’s grave, next to her sister’s grave and that of her beloved aunt. That made them feel better.
    After the incident at Mom’s funeral, I’ve given some thought to my own wishes. I need to write it all neatly in a letter to be opened after my death, but it’s one of those things on my long-term to do list.
    My husband and I have both decided upon cremation. He wants anything that might be useful for donation to be harvested first. I have a rare chronic disease, so there is a research group that would like to study my brain, and I would like to contribute to that research, since there is a good chance that my children and grandchildren could inherit the disease.
    We’ve told our kids that we don’t want any kind of religious service. In fact, we both would prefer that they hold a wake or a life celebration at our favorite bar, or theirs.
    We’re asking them to please place our ashes together in the same container and then to scatter them in a place near the ocean that is dear to us. That way, if the kids choose to honor our memories, they can do it by taking a vacation to a place that we loved.
    None of our children are religious types, and the one that we will most likely appoint to take care of things is as strongly atheist as we are, so we’re fairly confident that they will carry out our wishes.

  • Barry Berghaus

    If you’re interested in some philosophical literature on the subject, I think Lawrence Fraley’s work is excellent. You could start with this article and Google others –

    All the best,

    Barry Berghaus

  • Tamsin

    I have several anecdotes to share. Apologies if this turns into a wall of text, but this is a subject which is very important to me.
    My best friend’s father died very suddenly when I was 11 and she was 12. I don’t know if he identified as atheist, but he certainly wasn’t religious; if he believed in anything supernatural it was some sort of weak pantheism. I don’t know what his wife believed, but she certainly wasn’t Christian. However, the celebrant who conducted his funeral was, and went on about commending his soul to Heaven, got us all to say the Lord’s Prayer and couldn’t even pronounce my friend’s or her mother’s names properly. At the time if felt slightly wrong to me but I couldn’t explain why – now it seems horrible.
    My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 13 and died just after I turned 18. I was still not a fully-fledged atheist at this time but an agnostic who opposed most forms of organised religion. Mum was in hospital for only a week before she died, and it’s almost miraculous that she lived as long as she did – at the time of her diagnosis the cancer was so advanced that the doctors thought she had only weeks – modern medicine, primarily in the form of Herceptin, allowed her to not only live five more years but have mostly very good quality of life. At the time of her death I was in rehearsals for a play, a production of The Taming of the Shrew with a local amateur theatre group. I chose to stay involved in the play after she died; the creative expression and the support of my fellow castmembers was therapeutic for me.
    Mum’s funeral was beautiful, if such a word can be applied to a funeral. We held it in a cafe/function centre at a local park next to the sea. None of my immediate family are religious, so we were determined that it would be a fully secular service. Several people sang and we told stories of her life. We buried her in a natural burial ground, unembalmed and in a plain pine wood coffin, and planted a tree on her grave – she loved plants and growing things, and it felt right that her body should be “recycled” back into the living world.
    This was nearly 3 years ago. In September, Mum’s only sister had a cerebral haemhorrage and was already brain-dead when she reached hospital. It was completely out of the blue. If I hadn’t already become an atheist I think my aunt’s death would have made me one – if only because of how horrifically cruel it is for my grandmother, who is 85, frail, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has now lost both of her beloved children. The idea that such a cruelty to a kind, loving old woman would be part of any god’s plan is absolutely repugnant to me and I was quite upset when a co-worker told me to cheer up because my aunt is probably in a “better place”. This is an empty sentiment for those who do not believe in life after death, and who are grieving a permanent loss rather than one they perceive as temporary.
    What I find comforthing is that my aunt was an organ donor, and that after her death her heart, lungs and kidneys were donated. She saved the lives of four people. It doesn’t come close to making up for the hole she’s left in our lives, but it comforts me to know that at least some good could come of this for someone.
    One of the strongest feelings I have had since losing my aunt, besides grief, is a sense of urgency to live. Death can come at any time, even if you’re young and healthy, and life is not a dress rehearsal. I am determined to live well, and to live life to the fullest, because I will only get one chance.

  • alnitak

    The answer to death is to celebrate life. My epitaph: “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

    When my atheist dad died, I thought back to all he’d done for me, and with me. I remembered how much love we’d shared. And I affirmed that I’d remember him, pass on the lessons he taught both when he was teaching and when he was just living.

    That’s the way through death-the survivors live on and do better because they sprang from someone who was doing their best. Who in turn sprang from someone who did their best. Not 2 generations, or 3, or 3000, but “all the way back”, until all people are cousins, and then all primates, and..

  • Cathy W

    Two times I’ve typed up a long, long, comment, but I think keeping it brief might be better. I grew up irreligious, but with a cultural-Protestant background, and if I have “religious baggage” about death and what comforts me, it’s that I seem to expect a funeral to follow the basic mainline Protestant format: Bible verse. Eulogy. Lord’s Prayer. Amazing Grace. File by the coffin. Hug the bereaved. Go have lunch with friends and family. That seems to be my own internal signal that yes, Aunt Minnie is hereby Officially Dead, and I have permission to grieve. That permission seems to be something I need: I’ve been to two Baptist funerals for relatives of my husband’s, and left both feeling hollow, because I was supposed to be happy that the deceased was with Jesus instead of sad that the deceased was no longer here, and the pastor taking the opportunity for an altar call felt tacky if not entirely unexpected.

    That said – dead is dead. My father’s been gone for twenty years. (I can’t tell you how I felt about it at the time, because even though I was a college student at the time, I have maybe fifteen minutes of memories to cover about four days starting from my mom waiting for me in the hallway outside my chemistry class, crying.) I’m still occasionally sad that he’s not here to share some part of my life with me. (Why shouldn’t I be sad? He missed my and my sister’s weddings. He wasn’t there to cuddle his new granddaughter, or see her play in the playhouse that he built for me when I was her age. I don’t get to share this awesome book that I know he would have loved with him. And so on. I think I get to be sad, or sometimes angry, about that kind of thing.) But I’ve never been to his grave – he’s not there. The only place there’s anything left of him is the memories of the people who loved him. My mom firmly believes that she’ll be with him again someday, and that belief got her through the loss – but I don’t, and can’t, share it.

  • Scott Butler

    My father died almost three years ago, and I find the experience has left me with no further tolerance of religious services. My mother is Jewish, and ever since I realized I was atheist she would try to rope me into small bits of Judaism, as if to pull me back into the fold – a prayer here, a raffle sale there, every few years she would even cajole me into attending a Friday night service. I would go along with it, to the extent that I did, just to humor her, until I had reached the limits of my tolerance for religion. Then I would refuse for a while, and over time my tolerance would build back up until I didn’t mind humoring her again. This continued until my father died.

    After my father died, we had shiva services for three nights at my mother’s house. And having to sit through services three days in a row, at the same time I was trying to deal with my father’s death, was the end of me humoring her religion. It’s like something scarred over in my mind, and I have no tolerance left for it anymore. By the end of the third night of shiva, it was all I could do to stare at the floor an ignore the world rather than stand up and start yelling at a house full of people about exactly how much BS they’d been peddling for three nights. And ever since then whenever my mother brings up the subject, I’m repulsed by it just as much as I was that night. I’ve told her flat out that if she has a funeral or a shiva service when she dies I won’t be attending, I wouldn’t be able to sit through it anymore.

  • robin andrea

    My father died 20 years ago. He was an atheist, as am I (the only one of my siblings to so declare). He had liver cancer and knew he was dying. Until the very last day of his life, he was lucid and calm. He never called out to a non-existent god, never cried out for an unknowable mercy, never begged for forgiveness. We sat around his bedside and made up games of our familiar past to play with him, like our family version of Jeopardy. It was not easy to say good bye to him. He was only 73 years old. I wanted him to stay longer and grow much older. The last words he whispered to me, “I love you,” through his gasping lungs. What does an atheist do after the death of a parent? Write poetry. Take a hike. Gather his favorite flowers on his birthday. Plant Forget-Me-Nots and Sweet Williams. Remember him with love and sadness. Never pretend there is a heaven.

  • Rikitiki

    Hank, not gonna tell you a tale…but I wrote this not long after my mom died and thought it might help you –

    To Know Again

    Unexpectedly, at odd moments,
    The tides rise up,
    Flooding me with memories, dialogues,
    Shared times both good and bad—
    never to be again.
    I miss you and it hurts.
    Though that past remains with me,
    Now it has the tarnish of loss
    As well as the glow of remembrance.
    I’ve already stopped, breath in my throat,
    So many times—thinking to call you,
    Ask how you are, hear your voice,
    Just let you know I’m okay,
    Or maybe not so okay,
    But still here, still alive.
    Then I realize once more you’re not there,
    And this internal flood rises up,
    Overwhelming the dam of my reserve
    To wash me in sorrow.
    Yet happiness mingles with the hurt
    Because I know that my tears
    Are the best monument,
    And in my heart you’ll always be home.

    © Christopher G. Doyle

  • Hazuki

    I’m the inverse case of all this…I was basically a Deist for most of my life, despite a Catholic upbringing; I apparently repressed all the hellfire and brimstone from age 6 to around age 24, which let me function superficially but was responsible for a lifetime of panic, anxiety, etc.

    As a child and teen, I read a lot of science. I remember my last real fear of death was at age 8, having had a bad night and asking my parents what should I do when they die (the answer was plant dogwood trees, apparently…). The concepts of conservation of energy, entropy, and feedback cycles made perfect sense even as a girl in third grade. I understood, then, that we die because we’d overpopulate and everyone would suffer horribly otherwise. Basically, that death is the price for being more than a brainless population of asexual single-celled organisms, whose relative “immortality” I also understood.

    Yes, I was a creepy little girl in a lot of ways, with way way WAY too much of an adult perspective.

    Things had been bad from 2003 to the present, and I had a religious-themed nervous breakdown in early 2009 which I’m still not completely clear of. I’ve gotten free of the Abrahamic religions, but the Dharmic ones still bug me as it’s not so easy to disprove reincarnation or generic heavens, hells, etc.

    Basically, my problem is that simple cessation of existence seems too easy. I’ve been through some awful things, and my paranoid, cynical brain both a) wants to see justice done and b) refuses to believe there’s any such thing as merciful as oblivion.

    What do you think should be the way forward?

  • CC

    My atheist grandfather died in 2001 when I was a fundamentalist Christian. My Christian grandmother died in 2005 when I was an atheist.

    I was close to both of my grandparents. They meant a lot to me and I grieved when each of them died. I had a much harder time with my grandfather’s death, however. Because he was a non-Christian and I believed strongly that only “saved” people went to heaven, I struggled with how a good and loving god could send my grandfather, who had as much goodness and integrity as any Christian, to hell. That struggle was part of what caused me to question, and ultimately reject, my religious beliefs.

    When my grandmother died four years later, I no longer believed that there was any God to reward or condemn. She was simply gone. Under my former, fundamentalist beliefs, she too would probably have gone to hell because she wasn’t religious *enough.* But because I had relinquished those beliefs, I had no anguish about her fate in the afterlife. I was sad. That’s all.

    In my experience, grief was easier without God because I had no anxiety about how a good God could let my loved one die or send her to hell. My mother, who is a more moderate Christian, says she experienced God as a comfort when her parents died. Maybe if my god weren’t so vengeful, I would have shared her point of view. But my former god came from the Bible just as much – probably more in fact – than hers does.

    You can tinker with the concept of the Christian god to make it comforting, but I was beyond tinkering. I had questioned the whole religious enterprise and found it wanting. In the end, I’m satisfied with having no belief in an afterlife or a god that rewards and punishes because I don’t have to twist either my beliefs or the facts to fit the mold of a good, loving and all-powerful god.

    When I am sad, I am sad and that is all. I allow myself to feel my feelings and to let them move through me. If grief overwhelms me, I can talk with a psychotherapist who will help me work through it. When I am sad, I know that I will not always feel that way and I will see the world in color again when the time is right.

    • Hank Fox

      CC, thank you. That was especially beautiful, and especially insightful.

      I haven’t had time to thank everyone for their heartfelt stories, but I do thank all of you for responding here.

      Something I just this morning realized, in processing the aftermath of Dan’s death, is this Big Picture view:

      I wouldn’t be having these sad moments if it hadn’t have been for all the great, good, happy ones that came before them.

      This guy MEANT something to me, something special and grand. The sadness isn’t a PRICE of loving, it’s the affirmation, the proof, that life has such glory in it as deep love.

      Death of a loved one is SUPPOSED to wreck you, to beat you about the heart and head for weeks and years after.

      To try to put a happy face on it as religion does, to interject a goddy paradise picture into it in order to minimize the pain, is to cheapen and deny the years of joy that went before.

      On the other hand, if you take an honest, real approach, it becomes easier in the way you describe — the grief passes through you at its own pace and intensity, and in your own individual way — unsullied by distracting, superstitious nonsense that demands so much else of you in one of life’s most difficult times.

      • geocatherder

        Damn straight.

      • CC

        Well said.

  • Rising Ape

    I wrote this to help process the grief when my son committed suicide six months ago.

    Goodbye Son

    A sadness has descended
    dark upon my heart.
    Wish that I could understand
    just why we had to part.

    If only I could adsorb the pain
    the blackness that you felt.
    On that fateful April night
    as on the ground you knelt.

    No price to pay would be to high
    my life I’d surely give.
    For you my son I’d gladly die
    to know that you may live.

    You’ve made a choice that after
    for you I can do no more.
    Waves of grief crash over me
    tears down my face they pour.

    Fade away into the void
    where no more pain you’ll feel.
    I must stay behind
    and find a way to heal.

    So I’ll remember love and warmth
    your smile that shined so bright.
    My memories of you
    will turn this darkness into light.

    Love, Dad

    Grief Beyond Belief is a good place to find out how other atheists deal with loss.

  • Giliell, the woman who said Good-bye to Kitty

    In two weeks, my grandfather will have been dead for a year.
    A whole year.
    When he died it was not unexpected, with him suffering from COPD, having a pacemaker, being 89. But it was unexpected, because there was no indicator that this would be the end.
    He’d been in hospital, but, well, he’d been in hospital about every other month. They humored him, they pampered him, they made minor adjustments to his medication, he came back home again and everything would be back to normal for several weeks. So when he died it was a bit like the bad old joke that the hypochondriac in room 216 had died.
    I’m glad for him.
    I’m not glad that he died, but i’m glad that he died quickly and unexpectedly, because his prognosis was a slow and painful dead by suffocation as his lung would have slowly collapsed. Nobody would force such suffering on a dog, but apparently it would have been Ok for a human.
    I took my grandma to the hospital to say goodbye. He was the first dead person I’d ever seen and he looked so peaceful. Death had relaxed the muscles, he seemed at rest. We talked to him, we caressed him, we stroked his hair and kissed him goodbye, knowing that we’d never meet again.
    My whole family is atheist, so there was never any question of a church service. The funeral was held by a friend of the family who talked to all of us and asked what we would always remember about him, what was important, so the speech was about his life, not his dead.
    I miss him. He could drive you nuts being stubborn as a mule and old-age had rendered him a tyrant, but he still had his humor, his love for nature and that rascally smile he’d put one when he’d come up with a novel idea for cheating at whatever boardgame we played.
    But even shortly after he died I could be simply glad about the fact that I had him, that he made it through a pretty tough life to become 89, 2 times grandpa, two times great-grandpa.
    The only thing I wanted from his belongings was his chessboard. He could even cheat at chess.

  • http://na Puck

    Hello Hank,

    I lost my husband, the love of my life, just over two weeks ago. I was never religious, and have been a confirmed atheist for many years now. He was diagnosed with lung cancer just last February and frankly, we thought we had more time.

    I had asked a Celebrant to officiate at his memorial, and he had to cancel at the last minute, so I asked a dear friend who knows me well, and he flew to GA from TX that day. I also asked two preachers, one my husbands BIL and another that my husband said had never preached at him during his visits when he was ill.

    The kids and I picked the music, and I half wrote what I wanted said, then I entrusted my TX friend to take those basics and create the program. Other than the one preacher, it went very nicely. I asked the preachers, because my MIL is still alive, and I knew she needed the familiarity of some preaching. My husbands first wife, a dear friend to us, spoke and was absolutely beautiful and made me feel so good through tears. At the end, our Grand Daughter wanted to speak, and told the story of when she was little, her “Poppy” told her he had lost his little toe to a gopher. When she was about 16, she was at dinner with her parents and some friends, and our Daughter told about how he had cut his toe off with a saw. Grand Daughter became indignant and said that “my Poppy told me it was bit off by a gopher, and he’d *never* lie to me!”.

    We left in laughter and tears.

    And now, I have finally had some days alone, without the house full of family and friends, and I reflect on so much. Although I know without a doubt that my beloved husband is well and truly gone, and there is no heaven or hell to meet up with him again, I do find myself ‘talking’ to him sometimes. I will light a candle for him, and it gives me comfort to think of him as the flame flickers.

    I was divorced from my first husband when he died, but we remained friends, and I wrote him a long letter after his death, and took it outside and burned it, sending the words to the sky. Again, I have no belief in any after life, but simple little symbolic rituals that I create, bring some bit of peace.

    I think it would behoove us all to share the things we do after the death of a loved one that help us. No one way is right for everyone, but I found myself at such a loss as to how I wanted to memorialized the man who was my best friend, lover and companion, and was well loved and respected by many. I searched as best I could online, and found bits and bobs of things that were useful, but they were few and far between.

    My sympathies on the loss of your Dad and Friend. I am so glad you were able to go to him, and to have had him in your life.

  • M.N.

    You don’t have to wonder why. Why did my friend Jake die? Because a man had a diabetic seizure and caused a head-on collision with Jake’s motorcycle. That’s all the why there is. I love him and I miss him and I don’t have to justify any strange beliefs. A huge relief after trying to be religious as a child and reconcile unfair death and illness with a loving God.

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