As the entire world grapples with the threat of coronavirus, many of us have found ourselves thinking more about death than we ever did before. Many of us are struggling with grief and loss and trying to find some way to cope. Some way to get back to normal. I get a lot of questions about dealing with death normally, but now I am getting them more than ever. I wish I could tell you how to cope, but I don’t know any more than you do.
I do know that in my experience with death, it’s sort of like Plinko. You just kinda fall and randomly land on brief plateaus and you end up where you end up. Every effort to direct your free fall fails miserably, and you know this, but in spite of that, you grasp at anything that looks like it will save you from your inevitable hard landing. With each knock against an obstacle as you fall, you build up a callous. Over time, that callous surrounds your pain and keeps it from crippling you in life, but that pain is still there. It’ll always be there.
There aren’t really words or ideas or thoughts that help. We like to think that if we just find the right way to look at it, that the pain will subside. But even the religious, who believe they will be reunited with their lost loved ones in the afterlife, feel just as much grief as us atheists, who know the loss is forever. It’s no solace to think of Heaven. Your pain is still monstrous, crippling and unbearable.
This is more or less why I know that anyone who tries to tell you they have advice for coping is full of shit. There is no easier way to cope. You are feeling the grief you are feeling because you lost a love that deserves no less.
To be honest, I lie awake some nights, paralyzed by the thought of death or losing someone I love. It is, by far, my biggest fear. Losing a loved one or leaving my loved ones behind.
There’s only one way to look at it. That is to understand that we are lucky enough to have had it all in the first place; to realize that it is its impermanence that adds value. I mean, if life just levelled up instead of ending completely… if we all got a second chance, the first one means less. We don’t need to live and love to the fullest because we can make up for lost time “up there” in eternity. It is the very fact that we only have life for a finite number of years that makes us realize time ought to be treasured and we ought to cherish what time we do have.
How lucky are we to have had someone in our life who mattered so much and who we loved so much that losing them caused such grief? We would not face such grief if we loved no one, but what sort of life would that be? The pain we feel is a testament to what we were lucky enough to experience. A love so deep and so cherished that its loss has crippled us. Not all of us are so fortunate to know that kind of love.
There is no way to make the inevitability of an eternity of no longer existing less terrifying, but when I feel my mind going there, I redirect it to all the things I am so lucky to have. These people, places and passions are finite – and that’s what makes them valuable. We are lucky to have them for the fleeting moments we do. The very fact that we are finite is what makes us so special. It’s what makes life so worth living and so worth experiencing to its fullest. Part of that experience is grief. Another part of that experience is love.
As for Heaven, lying to oneself for comfort doesn’t really work. It masks the feelings we ought to be feeling and sweeps the reality of life and of death under some magical, celestial rug.
The truth is: we are not forever. We are fleeting. We are finite. That’s what makes life so precious. When it’s gone, we go right back to where we were before we were conceived: to a painless, grief-less nothing.
It’s not pretty. It’s not easy to swallow. It’s not wrapped up in a pretty little Jesus bow. It’s just reality and it’s precisely what makes appreciating every moment of this life necessary. The joy and happiness and the pain and sorrow. All of it means we are alive and we are so lucky to be so.
As Dawkins once said,
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
To all of you who are lucky enough to have loved so deeply that you are experiencing grief in its loss, cheers. We are truly the lucky ones. The sad, heartbroken, grief-crippled lucky ones who knew love so deeply we still feel its loss.
In our paralyzing losses, we know we have truly lived.
This is not meant to make you feel better. This is just how it is and as an atheist, I prefer to see the world how it is, in it’s wild, harrowing beauty. As life comes and goes all around us, we live another day, sentenced to feel it all. The best advice I can give is to cherish this painful gift and feel your feelings.
Do you have any advice for people wondering how to cope with death as an atheist? Let me know in the comments.
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