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A Loved One's Impending Death: A Test Of Non-faith


Guest Escaped From Catholicism
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Guest Escaped From Catholicism

I published this essay on my blog....

 

 

In my nearly 25 years of life, rarely have I had the displeasure of looking death in the face. Unfortunately, that is the situation with which I currently must contend. My maternal grandfather, who has been sick with cancer for about a year, has been given a terminal prognosis. Although we are not sure how long he has—it could be weeks or months—everybody’s emotions are welling up as we prepare for the inevitable.

 

Although I never would presume to think my grief is comparable to that of my mother and her numerous siblings, it is a rather strange period in the life of an atheist, as well as a reflective one. I have some relatives who have put their faith in prayer as a method by which to help my grandfather, and who, at the very least, take substantial comfort from the notion that he, after death, will bask in the warm glow of Heaven. It is my judgment that prayer is ineffectual and the afterlife does not exist but, even armed with my scientific knowledge and a dogma-free mind, I cannot help but sympathize with the grief that motivates such behavior and ideas, among both my relatives and all families enduring the heartache of loss.

 

This clearly is not the appropriate venue to “disprove” prayer’s efficacy or the existence of an eternal soul [Anybody wishing to know my stances on those can read "Last Refuge for the Desperate" and "Soul Searching," respectively.] However, I believe I have something to add to the discussion with respect to why people respond with unreason when faced with impending tragedy.

 

First, I will address prayer. In my judgment, people pray in order to create the illusion of power when, in reality, they actually are powerless. When a loved one is dying of cancer, or trapped on a mountain after an avalanche, or lying in a hospital bed after suffering a terrible accident, one is not satisfied simply to invest one’s hopes in the doctors, or the mountain climber’s skills and training, or the accident victim’s ability to fight back from grievous injury. People, on an instinctual level, actually want to help their endangered loved one. When all accepted methods of support are either unavailable or exhausted, people pray for divine intervention. Although it has been proved that intercessory prayer does not actually do anything, it gives the praying person comfort, and a soothing illusion of renewed power in the face of prior powerlessness.

 

If this illusion makes people feel better in their time of greatest need, then I can endorse it. Comfort, even when it is attributable to a complete fabrication, is not something against which to fight.

 

The second issue—that of the afterlife—is even more emotional for me, as an atheist. When my grandfather dies, I recognize that I never will see him again. The day on which I die shall bring no heavenly reunion. Indeed, since one’s memory, personality and character reside in one’s brain—and cease to be when one’s brain dies—all the wonderful characteristics that are my grandfather will vanish entirely when his long struggle ceases. This is a reality from which I get no pleasure, to be sure. On this day, I certainly am not the brash atheist happily tearing down theistic constructions.

 

It is quite easy to see why people cling to ideas such as the afterlife, Heaven and an immaterial essence that survives corporeal death. It has been said that, without the fiction of an afterlife to which to look forward, big-brained animals such as we would live in a depression, endlessly wasting our lives thinking about the end of them. The illusion of Heaven is a way to avoid having to say the final goodbye to somebody to whom one does not want to bid farewell. In a moment of grief, of course, this bit of self-trickery is wholly understandable. I only hope that, among those preoccupied with an afterlife that does not exist, memories of happy times during earthly life are not forgotten.

 

On that sad final day, I know I will be left only with my memories. But those, luckily, are countless.

 

I vividly recall school events to which he gladly accompanied me. I remember family barbeques, innumerable birthday parties and holiday celebrations, and quiet times just chatting with him about my life, the family, politics or sports. For a very brief period of time, I actually lived with my maternal grandparents, and I recall that he always would be proud of me when I brought home a good test score or shared some knowledge I was fortunate enough to gain that day. At night, we would watch Married…With Children together, both appreciating the ability of good comedy to cross generational gaps and bring people closer together. I always shall remember his smile, his chuckle and his ability to warm the hearts of the many people he loved.

 

Although I know I will miss him terribly when he no longer is here, I take comfort in the reliable continuity of it all. Every living thing—plant or animal—is born, lives and, eventually, dies. The sad irony of life is that, at the moment of birth, one begins one’s trek on the long, winding path to death. But, to borrow a phrase, the “circle of life,” birth and death among all living things, unites us in a profound way with Mother Nature and the small blue planet on which we live. From this planet’s soil—the soil from which we sprang—came Einstein, the Tyrannosaurus rex and all manner of other wondrous creatures. This simple truth, wholly lacking in the supernatural or the metaphysical, is beautiful and ought to be admired.

 

When my grandfather dies, it will be a tough road, but, I am sure that with the help of my family, I will be able to move on, taking great comfort in the memories he has given me and the joys I have shared with him. For now, my family and I will focus on making him happy, comfortable and secure. And, of course, building more memories with which to keep warm.

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*Hugs*

 

I agree with you about the illusion of prayer and the afterlife. People believe in those things to comfort themselves. They are, in essence, a security blanket and teddy bear for grownups. It is very difficult for many to deal with the idea of death being forever, but I do think it is emotionally healthier in the long run.

 

My mom died from cancer over a decade ago when I was in HS. I was Christian at the time. I think that is part of the reason I had unresolved grief issues for so long. At her funeral, I assumed that I would see her again. Now I know I won't, but it's taken me years to get to the point where I can accept that and deal with it. As a teen and young adult, I couldn't deal with it.

 

At least you will have the memories of your grandfather, so he will live on, in a way. Just not in a way that Christians think.

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Excaped:

 

I lost both my parents, they passed at 37 and 51, when I was 15 then 25. Dad and I were at loggerheads all my life, his passing didn't bother me quite as bad as Mom's premature death.

 

Thing is, even tho I was *religious* then, the times they were living, when they died, there was no 'religious relief valve' on/in my life to allow pressures and anxieties to pop off and allow things to cool off.

When the Help Desk from Hebbin was called jebus was out on the back nine or otherwise occupied with other chores, my requests were ignored.

 

Best we can do when faced with mortality is to know that we've done what can be taken care of, try not to regret the fuckups, wastes of time, terrible words said, actions done and not taken care of.

 

The game we played is the game we were dealt, and hopefully at its end we can go knowing that those inheriting the part of our actions will know we gave them the best we had to pass on.

 

kL

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Guest Escaped From Catholicism

Thank you for your personal accounts and words of wisdom. They're much appreciated in this tough time.

 

Just writing this essay was therapeutic for me, so I'm glad it's stirring thoughts in other people, as well.

 

This is a challenging period for any atheist, but grief need not handicap our reason or sense. And, this thread helps to prove that atheists are just as warm and caring as any other group of people.

 

Thanks, again, for contributing your stories.

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I don't have much to add except I am so glad that you have a happy family. I don't. But even so it was possible to get something good and precious from the situation. My mother was the first person of my immediate family to pass away so it was a totally new experience and I was a lot older than you. I cannot imagine what it must be like losing a parent earlier in life. It happened exactly half a year after my deconversion. As I stood at the graveside for her burial I felt perfectly at peace with the knowledge that this is the end. For me, it is a relief not having to measure up to some heavenly book of life operated by an unpredictable god with unpredictable moods and unpredictable rules. All I have to cope with is this life. And it's enough.

 

Now that I don't have to worry about an afterlife I have energy to enjoy this life. My parents sacrificed so much for their faith. When I realized some years ago that there probably was no hell and that God would probably not measure obedience according to the length of one's skirt or hair, I felt so much pain for my mother because she sacrificed so much in the belief that the next life would be better. I have wanted so much to help my parents make the most of their senior years but they fear that they break God's rules and forfeit eternal life.

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When the Help Desk from Hebbin was called jebus was out on the back nine or otherwise occupied with other chores, my requests were ignored.

 

Sad, but true. Same with my brother and sister. I wasn't even alive yet to witness the tragic events, but during their premature deaths, my parents were on the line to the Heavenly Help Desk also, and Jebus was apparently out on the green even then.

 

If only there really existed a god who would hook us up with only a request from us to get the ball rolling, no questions asked. What is tragic is many people are taught to believe just this, and then have to suffer needlessly when tragedy strikes and all their prayers achieve nothing. It makes me loathe the disgusting Xian cult even more, on account of all the unecessary pain it encourages.

 

But that's another topic. As has been said, it's good that you've got a loving family. That will help get you through the tough times ahead better than any mythological lies. The support of loved ones, rallying around each other in times of crisis, is beyond worth. That will produce the real miracles you'll need in these days.

 

Like Skip said, the best we can do is to not focus on the negative. Plenty of that happens during life. But now, just center on the positive and the uplifting, the things that have made your grandfather's name noble amongst your family. It helped me when I lost mine a few years back.

 

I wish you the best during this trying time. You'll get through fine, I think :)

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Guest Escaped From Catholicism

It's true ... the support of family (my grandfather had six children) is of amazing value during this trying time. We, indeed, get comfort from one another. And, surely, he gains comfort from the fact that his children uniformly are bending over backwards to make his life as comfortable and happy as possible. Surely, he knows that he's done something right by them.

 

I count myself lucky, indeed.

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I am so sorry.

 

Grief stems more from the loss and being left behind than it does out of concern of what's happening to the dead. We know that logically, even if our loved ones go to oblivion and cease to exist, then they are still at peace and there is nothing to worry about.

 

But we're stuck here without them, and we rattle from minute to minute trying to cope. Eventually we adjust and the tightness of grief eases and life continues. When we get the news that death is coming, we start our grieving process early. One benefit of this is being able to work it out along with the dying person, so by the time death comes, it's welcomed more.

 

If nothing else as an athiest, knowing that my loved one would never have left me if they had had the choice was a comfort.

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Guest Escaped From Catholicism
I am so sorry.

 

Grief stems more from the loss and being left behind than it does out of concern of what's happening to the dead. We know that logically, even if our loved ones go to oblivion and cease to exist, then they are still at peace and there is nothing to worry about.

 

But we're stuck here without them, and we rattle from minute to minute trying to cope. Eventually we adjust and the tightness of grief eases and life continues. When we get the news that death is coming, we start our grieving process early. One benefit of this is being able to work it out along with the dying person, so by the time death comes, it's welcomed more.

 

If nothing else as an athiest, knowing that my loved one would never have left me if they had had the choice was a comfort.

 

 

You've hit on a very good point here...

 

My paternal grandfather died rather suddenly. He suffered an aneurism and died within a month of being hospitalized. At least, with this terrible cancer battle, there truly is time to grieve and cope while my grandfather still is alive. Things that need to be said and done can be. It's a small comfort, but a valuable one that I thank you for bringing up.

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