Response to a comment on grieving.

I got this comment from Mary a few days ago:

Has anyone here experienced the loss of a parent? Has your atheism helped or hindered your grieving process? I’m going through a very difficult loss right now and am having trouble reconciling my stated belief (or non-belief as the case may be) with what I’m going through. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

And, as usual, you commenters offered up better responses than I could come up with.  My dad left this one:

I have lost both my parents. I was sad, I grieved, and I will miss them both. I am so happy that we got to be family together. My atheism helped me accept that is just the way of the world. When my times up, I hope my kids can celebrate that we had our time together as family, and that that helps them through the natural mourning and grieving process. I do not want my kids to barter their reason for false promises about an afterlife. Good luck to you.

Other commenters pointed toward Grief Beyond Belief, which is another good outlet for help with grieving.

The best thing I have to offer was in response to Dan Fincke’s question about grief.  I’ve yet to lose a parent, but I lost a grandmother for whom I cared very deeply.

Battles are often won long before the first shot is fired, by strategists who scour the environment beforehand and manipulate the conditions to give them the greatest advantage.  It doesn’t guarantee victory, but it seriously ups the winning percentage.  People dying, when it’s not sudden, is that way.  Don’t wait until someone dies to set yourself up to grieve – do it in the weeks beforehand.  When my grandmother was dying of cancer, I drove home every weekend I could.  I thanked her for helping me to attend college, and said all the things that came to my mind (even I struggle with that sometimes).  I told her I loved her repeatedly.  I sat at the side of her bed and hugged her during her few waking hours every day.

That way, when I went to war with my grief, it was on my terms and with as few unknowns as possible.  Pre-planning doesn’t mean you’ll always win, or that grieving will be easy, but it’s a heaping dose of emotional anesthetic.

Best of luck to you.  *hug*

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.

  • Carol Eberhard

    Very good blog post and very good comments. Like the song Ned wrote, “Lucky Ones”, we can be thankful that in this short period of space and time, we were alive and that we had this time together. Losing someone we love is sad, but the happiness is that we knew each other and those memories are ours. Peace to you, Mary.

  • becca

    I lost my father just about a month ago. Through his last illness, his atheism never waivered. He asked for no memorial service. My mom is collecting people’s memories of him, however, in a note book with photos.

    Shortly before he entered hospice, my Dad pointed to his oxygen mask with an uninflated bag under it, and asked “how does this work?” That kind of questioning is one of his greatest legacies to me.

    In my family, we are each grieving in our own ways, but none of it involves the flase hope of an afterlife.

  • otrame

    I have a grief battle coming up. My dad, whom I have adored all my life (even when I was really mad at him as a teenager), is suffering from some sort of dementia, is in his 80s and will not live very much longer. As time goes on, I have found myself grieving more and more for the loss of my dad, because the man he was is gone. Oh, every now and then we get a glimpse of that man, but most of the time he is either napping, or wandering around, sure there is something he is supposed to be doing and frustrated because he can’t remember what. My mother spends a good part of her day finding little things for him to do that he can complete before he forgets what he is doing because the only satisfaction he gets these days is finishing some task.

    I know that when he dies I will grieve, but the truth is I am already grieving.

    Here’s the thing. Believing in an afterlife doesn’t really make your grieving any less painful. It just makes you ashamed of your grief, because, after all, “they’re in a better place”. When a dear friend of mine died a couple of years ago I was GUTTED. And I should have been. It should hurt to lose someone who is important to you. Don’t be afraid of the pain.

  • BabyRaptor

    I don’t know if this counts as lost or not, but I’ve been living with no contact from any family but my half-sister for 8 years running. I’ve literally only spoken to my grandfather (grandparents raised me) once, and that’s it.

    It was your typical Fundie Christians booting out the “gay deviant” situation. I’ve not yet totally come to terms with it, and there are a lot of times where I sincerely wish things had gone different, or I’ll get a nice bout of jealousy when a friend talks about how supportive their family is being during X thing. But I’ve managed to make life work thus far.

    • M

      *Hugs* No one deserves to be cut off from family because of who they are. I’m sorry this has happened to you, and I’m glad you’re making life work. I know I’m a random Internet stranger, but if I can help, I will.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    My father died of cancer 6 years ago. Our relationship had been strained from the get go and there was even sevral years I would have as little contact with him as possible. The last year and a half of his life he had started to make an honest effort to change things, in both his life and our relationship. When he died there were still many issues unresolved between us. I ended up pushing them aside, throwing them away really, so that I could just enjoy my last moments with my father in a way that I wish we could have had to begin with. If I had a belief in an afterlife or gods or what not, I seriously doubt that I could have dropped the issues and past hurts that would never get fixed or addressed since I would have labored under the belief that we would get that chance in the “hereafter” or something. Ultimately, I would have set my self up to live the rest of my life carrying that baggage in a false hope of correcting things long after any chance to actually do so had since past.

  • Mary

    My apologies — I didn’t see this post until just now. Thank you, J.T., for highlighting my comment. I’m flattered you would take a moment to bring it to wider attention.

    After I left that comment, I was a bit embarrassed that I would just kind of barge into a blog and leave a comment that was so off-topic to a post. It was very emotionally motivated, and I just kind of blurted it out there. I came back some days later, hunted down that particular post, and left a follow up comment. I’ll repost it here, unabridged, for those who missed it:

    Thank you for your kind words and your responses. I appreciate your taking a moment to share your thoughts.

    It’s a tricky thing, navigating the roaring rapids of a traumatic event. You have to wonder at some point what is real and what is just the impulsive, emotional reaction that is desperately trying to cling to whatever solid ground it can grasp ahold of.

    Funny enough, my biggest challenge hasn’t been the idea of an afterlife (or the emotional bartering thereof), but instead coming to grips with this life. The whole “why am I here/what is the meaning of existence” thing.

    I don’t know why I’m bothering to tell this to the internet. You people don’t know me, and I don’t know you. But I guess I’m taking advantage of the anonymity to at least get this off my chest and release it into the world, even if it is of a digital variety.

    I’ve been an atheist for going on 20 years now. I was brought up Catholic, but fell away over another traumatic event my sophomore year of college. It was an event that drove a wedge between myself and my father, one that drove me out of the church and into non-belief.

    I embraced being an atheist with angry enthusiasm. I supported free thought and skepticism, even going so far as to aggressively challenge believers at the drop of a hat, delighting in their inability to rub two thoughts together when confronted with direct challenges to their belief system. I reveled in it.

    Thing is, all of that was about my father. It was about me getting back at him. Don’t misunderstand — he didn’t do anything directly to me, didn’t abuse me or anything like that. But that wedge was something that so hurt me that the only way I could think to deal with it was to use it as a weapon against him. And I did.

    And now he’s gone. I tried to reconcile with him, tried to repair that which I had torched, but I don’t know if I did it very well. I can’t begin to describe the emotional desolation. As angry as I was at Dad, the fact is, I was angry because I loved him. And I knew he loved me. But I — I — made the choice to keep him at arm’s length. Until it was literally too late.

    He died two months ago. It’s forced me to face my family, my anger, and the decisions I’ve made in my life. It’s forced me to ask why I made those decisions, and, yes, what is the reason I — we — are walking upright on this planet, sucking in oxygen and bothering to procreate at all.

    One of the things that always struck me about being Catholic growing up was the awareness, the focus, on death. I didn’t really understand it, the worrying about the end of one’s life. It all came across as some kind of big scare tactic, “believe or else” kind of thing. But now, going through this grief, this loss, I don’t think I had it right. And that’s what I can’t reconcile. I can’t reconcile that atheist point of view with what I’m going through. I don’t know if I can do this.

    I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess I’m trying to sort it out before I talk to an actual person. But I appreciate your having this here. You can delete this if you’d like, but at least I was able to get it out there.

    Thank you to everyone here who left such thoughtful comments about your experiences. I can particularly relate to Jeremy. The idea that, at a certain point, you just have to shove the baggage to one side is very similar to my own experience. It’s so very, very true.