Saying Goodbye to a Parent

Greta Christina recently lost her father, as I’m sure many of you know, and she’s written a beautiful essay about him. You really should read it. It brought tears to my eyes because the man she describes is so much like my own father, who is 77 and, thankfully, still going strong.

Like her father, mine became an atheist as a teenager, without the benefit of billboard campaigns and organizations to provide intellectual stimulation and support. I wrote something similar about my father many years ago. I was fortunate enough to get to say all those things while he was still alive. In fact, what I wrote was actually a toast I gave at his 70th birthday party, which left both of us in tears. And I meant what I said then, that he is the best man I know. I can only wish I were more like him in many ways.

I especially liked this of Greta’s essay:

My dad, like me, was an atheist. And when you’re an atheist and a non-believer, and the people you love die, you don’t get to tell yourself that they aren’t really dead. You don’t get to tell yourself that you’re going to see them again someday, in some hypothetical post-death existence that somehow both is and is not life. You have to accept that death is really permanent, and really final.

This may be surprising to many believers… but atheist ways of dealing with death and grief are not actually dire, or hopeless, or without consolation. I’ve been surprised, in fact, at how comforting my humanism and my naturalism have been during my grief. And one of the many consolations in a humanist view of death is the idea that people who have died live on: not literally in a supernatural afterlife, but metaphorically, in the ways they’ve changed the world. The people are gone, but like the water in a pond when a rock is tossed in, the ripples continue to radiate out, even after the stone has sunk to the bottom. My dad is dead, he is gone finally and forever… but the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive.

16 years ago I gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral (I wrote about that too). And during that eulogy I said that while I’d like to think that I will get to see my mother again someday after I die, I don’t see any reason to believe that to be true. But she still does live on in my life and in the lives of her six children and more than two dozen grandchildren. Every time I hear a Barbara Streisand song, I think of her. Every time someone talks about going fishing, I think of her. We live on in the lives of those we touched, as Greta says.

And let me say this too: The world is different, and I am different, for having known Greta too. Her dad was a lot like mine and he helped make her the wonderful person she is today. I admire so many things about her, and this essay and the grace with which she has handled this painful situation only gives me one more.

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  • standancer

    Thanks Ed for this piece, and for sharing your own story of loss. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Greta only once, but was touched then by her grace and honesty and have always felt that in her writing, and yours as well. This was an admirable tribute to her and an insightful commentary on her article about her father.

    We will indeed live on in the memories of those who love us and in the lives of those we have changed when death inevitably claims us, as those who have loved us and helped us and changed us live on in ours. This, to me, is a far greater consolation than the fairy tales of eternal life in some dream land. My mother died right before my thirteenth birthday and yet rarely does a day pass that I don’t think of her, and I’ve just turned 61. She taught me to smile at strangers and to be kind to people I don’t know, and that has stayed with me and served me well these past 48 years.

    I’m sorry for Greta’s loss, and appreciate her ability to articulate her grief so clearly, and your ability to sympathize and commend. Thanks for your vision Ed. I don’t comment often but read regularly.

  • geocatherder

    Indeed, I lost both my parents (Mom 2003; Dad 2006). Reading Greta’s writing brought it all back to me: the Should-Have-Dones and the Shouldn’t-Have-Dones that still haunt me about the weeks and months leading up to both of those deaths, when I was part-time or full-time caretaker. Sometimes the pain just never goes away. Sometimes it’s more bittersweet, when I wish I could share my new recipe with my Mom or have my Dad come admire my garden. It gets easier. It gets better. But they never come back.