From the Vault #2: How Do Atheists Deal With Death?

We scattered my grandmother’s ashes today.  She was a magnificent woman who denied herself better things to save nickels and dimes, yet never hesitated to eagerly dump thousands of dollars on us.  It is to her enduring sense of selflessness for those she cared about that I owe my education.  She was always happy, exceedingly generous, and very tough.  Even in the end it seemed her primary concern was to be as little a burden to her loved ones as possible.  She was tough, but it was a toughness masked by kindness.  She raised the most amazing man I’ve ever met who, in turn, raised two good kids.

Before when people in my life have died I’ve had regrets.  When Pearl, my first and most influential voice teacher died, I found myself wishing I had worked harder as her student.  I suspect that almost all people have similar regrets when those close to them die, and that it’s simply the best among us who later make up for them.  But when grandma died I had no regrets.  I had gone down to see her towards the end at every opportunity.  I had crawled into her bed, hugged her, and told her I loved her.  I teared up and thanked her for everything she had done to make me who I am.  And I know she died proud of me for all I have accomplished.

There is an oft-asked question by the theist: how do atheists deal with death?  The answer is that we bravely acknowledge that death is just as much a part of life as living. We gratefully remember our loved ones and work to be the type of person they would be proud of in life, and even prouder of in the fullness of our lives. We hug our loved ones that remain and let those who have passed live on in our actions and conscience, so that their lasting influence can continue to improve us.

And we cry.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • larianlequella

    Interesting that this post happened. I too just had to deal with the death of my sister. This is what I said about it:

  • mazeRunner

    Oh, thats sad. But very touching JT. Belated condolences.

  • Timothy (TRiG)

    That’s an excellent write-up. Thank you.


  • Gordon

    I find it easier to deal with death as an atheist. Theists feel the same grief we do, but they have to feel guilty about it.

    After all, they are meant to be happy that the person the love is “with god” and they are meant to believe they will see them again.

    My experience with death as a believer is that those claims offer no comfort in the clear absence of someone you have loved.

  • Andrew Simpson

    Mr Eberhart:
    Sorry to hear about your Grandma Bro.I know mine were pretty special too. I liked your comment about death being as much a part of life as life itself. I’m sure that your grandmother had a purpose in her life, hence her direction in life. She spent little on herself and alot on you. I’m still praying to my “little Onion Bulb” because I think that He isn’t finished with you yet. Good thing is that you sound less depresssed…

  • FlyingTeaCosy

    I’m so sorry for your loss. You know, I’ve gone through something very similar in the past couple of months, and what you say about regrets resonates deeply with me. With the death of either of my grandmothers came incredible sadness. But no regrets. I miss them both every day, but that missing comes with a deep sense of joy and peace. I know that I loved them as best I could. I know that they loved me. I’m so, so proud of both of them. And then just keep on loving the people who are still here.