Afternoon Inquisition 2.7

I’ll warn you in advance, this one is a bit heavy.

Yesterday I found out that an acquaintance of mine from high school suffered a sudden and unexpected heart attack (at age 31) and the doctors weren’t able to save her. She comes from a religious background, so it didn’t surprise me that the well-wishes on the website they set up for her were overflowing with people saying they were praying for the family, or that she is in a better place now; all the usual Christian ways of coping with a death and comforting the family. I realize that this is how they contextualize it and try to make it alright, even if I might find it a bit sad and empty…they’re doing what they have to to move on.

It made me wonder if nonbelievers do something similar.

How do you think about death? Is there any line of thinking that you find comforting? Do you think we should seek comfort after the death of a loved one, or does that somehow diminish the loss?

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  1. How do you think about death?

    As a simple, sometimes sad, inevtiable part oflife.

    Is there any line of thinking that you find comforting?

    Just trying to accpet it is an inevitable part of life, and carry on from there.

    Do you think we should seek comfort after the death of a loved one, or does that somehow diminish the loss?

    Of course we should seek comfort. What a strange question. Perhaps you meant should we seek comfort through empty bromides, homilies, and platitudes, in which case I would say NO.

    But, seeking comfort while maintaining a grip on reality is surely a fine thing to do. And remembering the dead with fondness, wherever possible, seems to me to be a pretty good way to get comfortable, so to speak.

    Both of my parents are on their final road, and will be dead soon. I certainly don’t look forward to it. But I am quite certain I won’t feel the need to go searching for god when they die.

    I am hoping I can, as I said above, just remember them fondly, try to avoid the agony of “what-ifs” and “could-have-beens” and carry on from there.

  2. The difficult part of medicine is the death of a patient. Empathy to the family and friends is an important part of our treatment – -or the last kindness that we can do on behalf of the patient.
    To think of death is to realize there is an end to this happy trail we have, and to remind us that we are not immortal. It reminds me that life is for the living, to do what we can while we live – there isn’t another chance. Comforting does not diminish the loss – comforting can remind others of the good things that the individual offered. In my case a few x-wives might think otherwise.

  3. The word “should” in the question troubles me. I think a person certainly can seek comfort if they so desire. Death of a loved one is an occasion when family and friends are duty bound to step up.

    Personally, for whatever strange way my brain is wired, death doesn’t bother me that much, my own or anyone else’s. Having a friend die is only slightly more painful than having a friend move away. I suppose from a dispassionate point of view this makes a certain amount of sense. I also like to deal with my negative emotions on my own so I don’t seek out condolences. Having someone pat my head and say “There, there, dear” just makes me want to slap them. I much prefer to reach out to other people when I have something positive to share.

    Thinking about this brought to mind two types of people who I try strenuously to avoid. There are the pity junkies who something bad happened to years ago “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” and they trade on it at every opportunity. Then there is the the pity junky’s cosmic opposite, the emotional vampire, who feed by gnawing open other people’s emotional wounds and applying warm compresses to keep the blood oozing for as long as possible.

  4. Death, I think is a sad part of life, though the thing I don’t like the most about death is that most of them involves pain, sometimes a lot of it before one dies.
    As for comfort, of course we should seek them. We can’t just go on grieving for the rest of our life, we have to get over it and continue to live, while at the same time remembering them.

  5. One is born, lives for hopefully a long time :) and one dies. Death itself has never worried me, after all it is only the cessation of life and having spent most of my life in jobs and pastimes where death was always a distinct possibility, HMRM, solo extreme wilderness winter climbing etc., the possibility was something I came to terms with a very long time ago. In fact I won’t even have a funereal or memorial as any useful bits that I will still have will be used for transplants and the rest for science.

    The only two issues I personally have is, firstly, I don’t want to die just yet as I still have many things I am interested in :) Though I am probably on the final leg and while I will likely see out Obama’s first term I will be surprised if I see out the second. The other is the manner of my dying and is the only thing that has ever truly bothered me having, unfortunately, seen too many friends and relatives die badly from serious ill health, injuries or Alzheimer’s. Though modern palliative care does remove some of that worry.

    As to the death of those close to someone, grief is mainly a selfish but perfectly natural emotion. I.e. one feels the loss of not being able to share things any longer with a friend/relative. To friends or relatives who have suffered the death of someone close to them I usually just offer my condolences, offer any help they think I can give and leave it at that.

  6. I’ve developed a common, all-purpose sentiment for use in those sympathy cards they pass around at work when someone suffers a loss. I always write “May good [or great, or fond, or special] memories bring you comfort.”

    I can’t be hypocritical and say I’m praying; I don’t like saying “I’m sorry,” because it sounds too much like an apology for something I didn’t do, and I also don’t like asking if there’s anything I can do, because there isn’t and everybody knows it. Every now and then, if the circumstances are especially awful, I’ll say “You’re a lovely person and don’t deserve to have such a terrible thing happen.” And if I actually knew the person, there are plenty of opportunities for some sort of tribute. But most of the time, I fall back on the “good memories” thing, because that’s how our departed ones live on in our minds — through memories. We should teach our children and ourselves early to start making memories — by making the most of each day we have with someone and not to take them for granted.

    It’s somewhat easier now with blogging and social networking to keep people in the forefront of our thoughts and stay connected.

    Another thing that comes to mind on this subject is that the way we respond to death is intensely individual. I don’t like funeral services and memorials where everyone is somehow “expected” to display the same emotion. People, theist and atheist alike, will say such things as “So-and-so wouldn’t want us to be sad.” Fine, but what if you are? At such times, I’m tempted to say “If so-and-so is so interested in how I react to her death, why doesn’t she come on back and confront me about it? She’s been awfully silent through this — wonder why?” Even the death of an acquaintance can take a year or more to recover from, just in terms of how their passing makes you think about your own life. There shouldn’t be timetables and we shouldn’t harass one another. We should have enough perception and caring to catch a hint of what’s going on with the bereaved.

    As for my own death, I’m hoping it won’t be painful or prolonged or embarrassing, but as for what comes immediately after: the lights will go out and I will finally get some decent sleep. Period.

    …good post, btw.

  7. The only comfort I have been able to find in the deaths of my parents is that they no longer have to experience pain and suffering.

    All the surrounding platitudes (religious or secular) just seem like a denial of the reality of death and a diminishment of the true agony of losing people you love.

  8. I know people don’t believe me when I say it, but the prospect of my own death really doesn’t trouble me much. I much more dread the prospect of loved ones dying.

    Fortunately, in the five years I’ve been an atheist I haven’t had to worry about what I would say to the grieving. I’m not sure what it would be: maybe something on the order of, “Find comfort by investing your time in the lives of surviving loved ones.”

  9. Wow. Carr, first of all, so sorry to hear about such a tragic death.

    Second of all, I was going to ask this exact question here on the site, inspired by today’s A Softer World strip.

    Third of all, I used to struggle a lot with the idea of a permanent death, and still do from time to time. One thing I found very comforting is the idea that we’re all part of the universe in a very literal sense. Our atoms were forged in stars, and everything changes constantly. Dying is just a part of that.

  10. @mikespeir “I know people don’t believe me when I say it, but the prospect of my own death really doesn’t trouble me much. I much more dread the prospect of loved ones dying.”

    I think this is pretty common especially with skeptics. I had a brush with my own mortality at the end of some minor surgery last year. One lung collapsed and the other wasn’t working so well. My wife was a little freaked, understandably, and wondered aloud after I had woken up and heard the story why I wasn’t. “I was unconscious. What’s there to worry about? Now I’m awake and I’m fine. Again. Nothing to worry about.”

    In fact I thought the whole thing was rather cool. Three hours of my life just got completely erased like a file. The anesthesia fogged my brain up enough that my memory stops about 15 minutes before they gave it to me. When I woke up I thought I was still waiting for surgery. Now this is a drug I’d pay good money for! It wouldn’t stop me from being an idiot, but at least I could delete the memory.

  11. “So a hundred years from now, I won’t be anywhere, right? Okay. Now where was I a hundred years ago? Before I was born?” (from )

    I guess the hardest part for me was always that I thought of it as an ending, but not in the sense of going back to how I used to be. When you think of it that way, it’s a lot less scary.

    The other thing, I think, is like Rebecca said. Sure, our minds aren’t here, but all the little bits of us are. We’re made of star dust, and eventually the atoms in us will return to a star. And probably they’ll go through countless other living things before then. I’m not here, but what was me is connected to the rest of the world.

  12. When our mom died of cancer, all five of us were with her (ages 20 – 28). She died in the morning and I suggested we all go out to breakfast at a restaurant none of us had ever been to before. It helped to get the reality to sink in that we would never see her again. We spent the meal telling our favorites stories about her.

    Death, meh.

  13. A detailed memory of a life well spent – with loads of fun and zany moments – is good comfort, I have seen.

  14. Not concerned about being dead, although I’d like to live for at least 40 or 45 more years. Not believing in an afterlife, it sucks when other people die, especially if they are young. I’ve lost several friends and family members in their 20s and 30s and I guess nothing is sadder except for children dying.

    I think it’s fine to seek comfort after the death of a loved one, especially if that’s through talking about them and visiting with their other friends and loved ones, and reinforcing how they will live on in your memories.

  15. Oh, and my aunt died in a tragic accident when she was about 20 and my grandmother never got over it. I would not have robbed her of any of her belief that she would get to see her daughter again for anything. That hope might have given her the only joy she could find after that point in her life.

    Yet, I also think it’s better to not count on an afterlife and to realize how precious and short this life is.

  16. @carrd2d: That’s an interesting coincidence. A co-worker of mine died this week of an apparent heart attack at 28. She was found unconscious in a parking lot by a Good Samaritan that called 911. I didn’t know her, but it’s tragic that such a young woman should suddenly die, nonetheless. Of course, there is the usual “God’s will,” etc. floating around the office. I say little, nod, and look wise and somber.

    I see no reason not to seek comfort in the shared grief and company of those that knew the deceased. We each have to grieve somehow and I don’t see that it diminishes the loss, but makes it easier to bear. There is truth in the old saying that “a burden shared is lightened.” I do agree that platitudes and cliches about death are pointless and can be insulting at times.

    One thing that has stuck with me is a comment a cousin of my wife’s made about death and funerals. He owns a funeral parlor, so he has the chops…He said that the funeral is for the living, not the deceased.

    Make it a celebration of a life now over, and a time to remember the good times that you had with that person. Personally, I want a good old-fashioned Irish wake. Sing bawdy songs and break whiskey glasses in the fireplace, if it makes everyone feel better. Do what makes you feel better about it. If crying helps, then please, do so. I think other cultures have healthier ways of facing death than Americans do: Irish wakes, “Dia de los Muertos,” etc.

    I don’t fear death anymore, but I do respect it. I feared death much more when I was of a religious frame of mind. I have noticed this in others, too. Some of those I know that are most afraid to die (by their own admission and actions) seem to be the ones that are the most religious. It seems contradictory to me.

    As has been stated above, death is part of life. It takes a long time to get used to the idea that one will eventually die, I think. I personally think that the realization and acceptance that there is no afterlife is the best argument for cherishing the time we have and celebrating those that live around us.

  17. I think the question of death and how to react to it is very personal and case by case.As an atheist I try to look at it from the grand scheme of things,and how any living thing is bound to have an end. Me and my then eight year old son came across a floating corpse in our lake two summers ago (don’t worry,we were aware that this person had been missing for a week),and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to apply my philosophy in front of my son, by remaining calm and composed, and simply laying the facts straight-up. I answered any question he had and that was the last I heard of it.No nightmares.No post-traumatic after effects.Period.

  18. Having deconverted from Christianity a number of years ago being diagnosed with cancer this past may gave me plenty of opportunity to ponder this issue. I have many Christian friends and non religious friends and it was interesting seeing their different responses. I think offering platitudes or asking,” can I pray for you” are among the most irritating, disingenuous excuses for actually doing something. I really appreciated someone just saying ‘sorry, that must be tough’.

    My wife just had a good friend and colleague die of pancreatic cancer when I was diagnosed and another friend and colleague of hers was diagnosed with brain cancer and died three months after my diagnosis. Clearly she was experiencing loss and quite understandable anxiety regarding my diagnosis (I’m fine thanks). Grief is normal, and when this happens to a friend or family member just being a rational and supportive friend is the best and often most appreciated response.

    The whole dying thing doesn’t bother me that much; but it is an odd occasional irritation realizing there is nothing when so many years were spent believing there was a whole lot of amazing waiting after death. I’ve made my wishes about a big wake with no speeches and lots of good ale on tap when I’m gone. I think as someone who has no beliefs in things supernatural there is a somewhat different agenda then most people have when it comes to death. Caring for those still living seems the rational priority regardless of the circumstances.

  19. I’ve lost two people in my life who were very important to me and whom I loved dearly. I lost one when I was a Christian and another after I’d become an atheist.

    I lost my father to a sudden heart attack when I was 15. There were all sorts of things that I thought helped me at the time. The fact that I had prayer, the thought that he was in a better place, that he might be looking down on me, that I might see him again, etc., etc., etc.

    Then, at 38, I lost my dear wife to a drunk driver. I didn’t have any of those crutches to use. I went through the denial, and went through all the phases. They’re there to help you deal with things, so it doesn’t overwhelm you all at once. But one thing I found this time was that, as an atheist, it was actually a lot easier for me to accept what happened and move on. You never, ever, ever get over something like that—you grieve for the rest of your life—but getting to that all-important acceptance phase was much easier for me when I didn’t have things to extend the denial.

    That’s what gets me about John Edward and his ilk. They are not helping the grieving in any way. All they are doing is prolonging their denial and preventing them from accepting it and moving on.

  20. Death is simply a natural part of life. On average, we live much longer than we ever have in history, and most of us live lives of relative plenty and comfort. The death of someone at a young age is tragic, but the death of someone at an old age should be appreciated for the natural event is.

    It’s also perfectly natural to mourn, and to seek both comiseration and comfort. Each person mourns in their own way, and some will need more comfort, while some just need support.

    We mourn our loss, but we should also remember to celebrate the life of those who are no more but in our memory.

  21. I’ve always liked the comparison of death to the time before birth. It was fine with me, I still get kind of frequent “Holy crap, I’m alive! There’s an ‘I’ to be aware of this! Look! Hands!” Like a firework, life isn’t for long, but it can put on a good show before burning out. It lives on somewhat in memory, and longer still in how it’s made other people’s lives nicer. So while I live, I try and do what I love, which is cramming my brain full, enjoying the shiny things, and giggling at all the wiggly bits.

    As to comfort, I tend to take comfort in thinking that whatever suffering there was in life for the dead is gone, and there can be no more. It’s the ultimate release, peace that can’t be disturbed. And hey, if I’m wrong, the dead at least have the advantage on me, they already know what happens when you die. That’s comforting, to me.

    I feel really at a loss when comforting others, though. My sometimes pedantic sense of honesty won’t let me offer prayers, I don’t pray. Saying sorry sounds wrong, offering my condolences sounds too clinical, and I don’t like cliches or false hope. The other person’s beliefs can be a barrier, too, so I stick with something about them “knowing peace now”, as I’d call oblivion peaceful, if nothing else, and they can make of it what they will. I told a friend who’d lost a loved one that I wished I could do anything, even offer a sincere prayer, but I couldn’t. We’re close enough that she understood and found it touching that I’d even say that. That’s hardly something I can say to most people, though.

    @Volly: “May good [or great, or fond, or special] memories bring you comfort.”

    I really like that one, I hope I remember it when it’s called for.

  22. That’s a great question. I recently had a close loved one die, and I thought the same thing myself. Relatives were saying the same “he’s in a better place,” or “i’ll be praying for you” things as they were passing through the receiving line.

    I said “He was a great uncle, and I’ll miss him.”

  23. I will soon be facing the death of a loved one; my first of the kind as an atheist.

    I have come to terms with my permanent separation from those I love who went before me. The thought of meeting in an afterlife used to be my comfort. I didn’t understand why people grieved – it’s a temporary departure in the light of Catholicism after all – and I’ve had to face that when I cast off my mind-virus.

    It’s hard to face, the knowledge that you will be forever sundered from one you love so much. What can give solice in such a situation? I don’t think anything can, and I don’t think anything should. I will always miss and regret the loss of my father, but I will cherish his memory and the things he has taught me about myself, humanity, and the universe. What more is there to do?

  24. How do I think of death? End of the line. Discontinuation of the person that died… but not the end of their effect on the world. I had my father die relatively young of a sudden heart attack. I sometimes think, “I wish that I could tell dad about this.” But, though it sometimes makes me very sad, it is for my sake, not his. Life, the Universe, and Everything goes on. If we can make it better even after our dying, by the ripples that spread out, then so much the better.

  25. I encourage thinking of positive and impacting memories, if the mourner is receptive.

    There isn’t anything you can do to change it – so you consciously review your reactions and recognize them for what they are. It is as marvelous an experience as birth.

    I feel badly for the people who have to make mazes of ‘on the spot’ fairy tales to cope. When we lost a fetus mid-term, people thought they were being comforting with us by making up little stories, in mere seconds. One person said how the fetus (which they called a baby) was now playing in heaven with the pets we had which had died. Someone told us how the fetus was waiting for us in the clouds.

    WTF? No they aren’t! It died. We didn’t think it was going to, and it did, so we are upset about our hopes having been dashed. It is no time for fairy tales – its time to empathize and comfort with reality.

    The reality that we are still here – and that we ourselves survive the experience to go on to enjoy what we have left.

    When my deaf great-aunt died, the entire memorial service was about how “she could now hear in heaven – and was talking all day with Jesus”. The woman hadn’t heard since she was 12 – she didn’t care to hear. She coped with that situation quite well, and it was a wonderful thing about her as a person. The need to project personal ideas and preferences onto this dead woman, whose life was full to bursting with wonderful attributes and experiences, made me more sad than losing her (at a ripe old age). It was such an obvious and blatant example of how religion fails people at times of grieving – by not addressing that which they have lost and instead playing “let’s pretend” with their precious memory.

  26. The event that confirmed my athiesm was the death of my mother to alzheimers. I will say that the religious have a hand up at first. The idea that they are in “A better place” is certainly comforting, but in the end hollw. The fact is you have lost a loved one, and that sucks no matter what you beleive.
    I do beleive that a well lived athiest life looks at life as precious because it is so ephemeral. Life will end for all of us one day, so making as much as you can out of each day is important. The memories you have of your passed friends and loved ones are that much more important. Just because they are no longer with us does not lessen their impact on our lives. I still hear my momma’s voice when I do something I think she’d approve of, or not approve of. I don’t think of this as an “Out of body experience”, or attribute it to angels or spirits, I acknowledge it as a memory that helped shape who I am. I am doing and will shape others even after I’ve gone on. It’s the brevity of life that gives it beauty and intensity. We get one chance to squeeze as much out of life as we can, so I say live while you can, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

  27. At this point, I haven’t really thought about death much. When I was a child and first fully came to realize that death applied to me and those I knew all I could do was sit horrified to think that someday my parents would die.
    When people I have known have died I haven’t really felt anything. It just doesn’t seem to sink in, I don’t feel sad, but I feel guilty; as though I were doing something wrong.
    No one really close to me has died yet though, so I haven’t seen if it will always be that way. As painful as mourning may be I think I’d like to experience it normally and not just be empty.
    As for my own death, I’m not really worried about it. It will come, and there’s not much I can do to stop it so I might as well enjoy myself. I hope to live long enough to see some drastic lifespan improvements but that’s mostly just me being unreasonable.

  28. I don’t like death, and I think it sucks that everyone has to go there. But I acknowledge that that’s how the world is, and avoid dwelling on it too much.

    I don’t find any line of thinking comforting, except when I’m dead I won’t worry about being dead, so there’s not point in worrying while I’m alive. That will just steal time away from enjoying being alive.

    I used to like the “live on in other people’s memories”-line, but no longer find that particularly comforting.

    Oh, and certainly one should seek comfort. What’s the point in toughing out grief?

  29. I’m with these guys :

    “I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

    – Mark Twain

    “I wanna live til I die : no more, no less.”

    – Eddie Izzard

  30. I take comfort in the fact that I have lived my life, albeit not perfectly, but to the best of my abilities. Whether thru excesses in many things, or by just being good, I know that I wasn’t anywhere as evil as Cheney.

    As for seeking comfort… I like to remind people of the funny, hysterical, happily memorable times/experiences/ stories of whomever passes. At the family dinner after my fathers passing, things were downbeat. (No? Really? After a FUNERAL?) But when I had a chance I started to ham it up and tell a few stories about his foibles which got a few chuckles. After a few slow starts, everyone joined in and was laughing and remembering the good stuff, not the bad. (He wasn’t a nice man over all, but he had his moments…)

    That’s my take on it.

    When I die, I’d like there to be a BBQ and a keg and loud music and lots of laughter in recalling how I was able to go ‘from zero to dumbass in 3 seconds flat.’ (Yes, someone described me that way more than once…) None of that maudlin crap for me, TYVM.

  31. >How do you think about death?

    It’s the end of the only life you have.

    >Is there any line of thinking that you find >comforting?

    When I get depressed about this, I remember that we all have an affect upon the world, and I hope I would have left a positive influence before I die.

    >Do you think we should seek comfort after the >death of a loved one, or does that somehow >diminish the loss?

    Seeking comfort is perfectly acceptable. We will never see that person again.

  32. For the (precious) few friends I’ve buried so far in my not-quite-30 group, the comfort I have found is to say “They were living.” Which is to say that they had meaning in their lives — they made use of the time they had. In the last year three of my clients have died. All of their families used religion as the backdrop for their mourning. I could only respectfully nod and stick with the “Memories live on” bit. I don’t know if it helped the family members. But, it helped me to know that my clients will live in my head as long as I am around.

  33. I’ve found that the gesture that sometimes “speaks loudest” is the gesture of saying nothing at all, but giving a hand squeeze or a long hug to those grieving.

    Though I am a professional writer, I recognize the fact that there are no words for some things. We are social beings and sometimes touch communicates more solidarity in grief than any words can.

  34. I’ve always liked Ingersoll’s line “become part of that eternal silence” describing death (as well as the Mark Twain quote already mentioned).

    When comforting someone who’s lost someone I try to do something tangible if appropriate (bring them take out food or something), listen, etc. Sometime a “wow, you were lucky to have them in you’re life; they’ve given you great memories to cherish” has worked.

    As far as my own funeral, I’d like all my organs to be donated and then, my body put on a raft and covered with herbs and something flammable yet biodegradable, then pushed out into the ocean; as my body is going out on the tide toward the sunset I’d like someone to do the pseudo Viking flaming arrow bit, and I and the raft and herbs would burn and blow up before the sunset.

    Then everyone on the beach can have a sunset/night beach party.

  35. @Tressa: The EPA may want to have a word with you about thatViking funeral thing… :-D

    Doing the tangible (meals, housework help, child care) during a crisis like this is always a good idea. You don’t necessarily have to wait to be asked or called, as many people don’t feel comfortable with doing that in our society.

    Seriously, I am also an organ donor. I think every healthy person should be one. It’s another version of “You can’t take it with you.” There are so many people waiting for transplants so that they can live that I think it’s selfish to just burn or bury usable organs. If you haven’t checked that off on your Driver’s License, please think about it.

  36. @mxracer652: I’d better have them sign a disclaimer about all the metal and nylon in me, first. I wouldn’t want them to hit that stainless steel with a bone saw…! ;-)

  37. My dad said he wants to be freeze-dried and propped up in his easy chair with a six pack.

    I’m donating my body to the TARF.

  38. I had my brother die of cancer a year ago and it cemented my Atheism, I was sitting on the fence before that. Death will come to me when it comes and when I die my body will be burned, my life will be recorded in a few places and I will live through my daughters and families memories.

    To this day I still grieve for my brother because I miss him so much and I know that he will never call me and say “hey what’s new?” or come over for dinner. I also know that I will never see him again because he is dead and death is final for us. But I am glad and happy with the time I did spend with him on this lovely planet and that is all that matters. He lives through my memories and the stories I tell of him.

  39. I didn’t want to contradict the religious ones in my family when one of us died. “She’s happier now” and “She’s in heaven” gave them comfort and helped them sleep at night. In the weeks leading up to her passing she told me that she felt lucky to be alive, and screw the Pope.
    To have lived at all is a privilege. All the good things that come with life are a bonus. Best of all, to have helped others without consideration of actual or supernatural reward is the best gift to give to the world.
    And the mass of atoms that form our bodies are free to rejoin the universe (much quicker if you’re cremated).
    That beats sitting on a cloud singing to a bloke with a beard for eternity.

  40. I like Woody Allen’s line: I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens…

    Within 1 year, my wife, my mother, and my sister died – my wife and sister far too young. I have my own view on loss, comfort, and grief from that period.

    I do not believe that skepticism requires calm acceptance of death’s inevitability. For me, it is fight long and fight hard – my wife and sister shared this concept, even when they endured “pain and suffering” from their chemo treatments and surgeries, and mental trauma – they were not interested alleviating their pain to hasten their disconnection from life – who am I to substitute my judgement for theirs?

    Some of the discussion about quality of life reminds me of a study (I have not been able to find the reference so it may be rubbish – but I like the story nonetheless): Many people when asked about their preference for living as a severely physically challenged individual are said to choose death over such challenges. When severely physically challenged individuals are asked the same question, living is their choice. Until you are facing your own mortality squarely in the face, I do not believe you know what you are going to believe.

    Not to be antagonistic, I am not quite sure what to make of the “born again atheists” comments above. I have been a life-long atheist but that does not prevent me from understanding the seduction of eternity or of talking with my late wife one more time…

    Earlier in life as a young boy, supernaturalism was cool, but Little Jackie Paper needed to become a naturalist and put away those fanciful things. I do not believe I have any particularly valuable insights into naturalism as a consuquence of those earlier supernatural days.


  41. I definitely want to be useful once I’m dead. I’d love to end up at the Body Farm (yay for the link, Chew! And yay for anthropology.). Or harvest whatever’s needed and give what’s left to a med school. If there’s anything left, cremation would be nice, and offering the ashes to whoever may want them (for rememberance or fertilizer purposes). My aunt’s ashes were put into glass paperweights–I love that idea! There’s a bit of Aunt Ann, on my mom’s TV set. :)

    When I hear of a death, I generally tell the bereaved “I’m sorry for your loss.” I think funerals/memorial services should be celebrations, ideally with some laughs. Have a party. When my mother’s mother died after many years of Alzheimer’s, my mom and uncle got drunk. Works for me. We sent her off with grave goods in her casket: her Bible, a bouquet of garlic, a paper collage of vegetables (she had been an avid gardener), and a photo of a rototiller (hers wouldn’t fit in the casket). It was therapeutic for me to put all that together, and my mother and I had a lot of fun planning it. Neither my mother nor I believe in any sort of afterlife, but we included things that were important to my grandmother. The process was what mattered for us.

    It’s funny how you can find comfort in odd things. My father’s been dead for over 20 years, and my mother recently rediscovered some of his papers. Included was the letter that the local university medical school eye bank sent to us thanking us for his donation.

    Being useful–that’s my general goal in life. And death, too, I suppose.

  42. I think this is a wonderfully poignant question. I knew I was truly an atheist when I was at my Grandfather’s funeral and I wasn’t thinking about him in terms of an afterlife, but in the fact that the matter and energy that made up the man I knew and loved so much was still a part of the universe, but in a way that I could barely begin to fathom (a la conservation of mass and conservation of energy). That alone made me realize that life and death are so much greater than the sum of their parts.

  43. I don’t think about it much, though I’m reading “The American Way of Death” right now, so it’s on my mind by default. Mostly I just want to make sure my decisions are made up front (I have a living will and advance directives) so that my “survivors” aren’t left with too much confusion or too many bills, and that there won’t be any arguing over the disposition of my remains or -FSM forbid!- should I be in a persistent vegetative state.

    What scares me is dying before I am ready and ‘leaving’ the planet too soon. I wouldn’t want to be without my husband and just thinking of him without me makes me sad, too.

    Death is inevitable, and sometimes unexpected, so we should be prepared for it, but we can’t live in fear of it. I’m not ready to die right this moment, but it’s not really me that I’m worried about -it’s the people I’d leave behind. They are the people who are going to be affected by my death, not me.

    But I absolutely think people should seek or offer comfort after the death of a loved one. There is nothing wrong with feeling sorrow or loss, even if you think you’re just being selfish.

  44. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson has a fantastic section where he talks about atoms and how they’re essentially recycled. It’s similar to what PHSPhilip said above. I find that comforting.

  45. I find it curious how so many people find comfort in their mass being recycled. Ever since I learned about it, I’ve found it incredible that we, and all the heavier atoms, were made in stars and supernovae and other massive and much older things, but that our carbon has also been a previous creature’s carbon and will be a future creature’s carbon (just to pick one) seems kind of insignificant. Of course my meat stays here when I die, and doesn’t really change between those last moments when I’m living and those first when I died, it’s the mind that goes away. And small pieces of that mind can live on, too, in the effects you’ve had on others. Leaving behind ideas, writings, performances, and memories (immortality, or at least life extension in fame), and the good you’ve done others, especially those good things you’ve done that have inspired others to do more good (immortality through virtue). Those have always been more appealing to me. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to change their mind, just sharing my view for anyone that might care to see it, since I liked learning how others see the elephant in the room that is death (I pity the poor person who can only see the elephant’s ass).

  46. @CatFurniture: I don’t like tattoos except on other people, but I want to get one before I die. I want to get the autopsy Y-incision tattoed on me with “Cut here” and “Do not open until dead” labeled along the dashed lines.

    For a living will, I’d love to have my body used to test the JFK head shot theory that a neuromuscular spasm caused his “back and to the left” motion. But probably too many people would object to that.

  47. Chew, I’m pretty sure several groups of investigators have already determined that there was nothing magical about the bullet, that the shots were completely plausible, and that there was actually no “back and to the left” motion -that was pretty much an Oliver Stone invention. Penn and Teller debunked all of that on their show, didn’t they?

  48. Chew, that is a hoot! I suppose the key is timing–a sharpie just wouldn’t have the same effect.

    I find the atom recycling comforting because I’m a big advocate of recycling as a concept. :)

  49. @Elexina: I think you’re confusing the “magic bullet” with the head shot. There has been a slew of recent shows testing the magic bullet but I haven’t seen any that tested the head shot. The Zapruder film does show Kennedy jerking back and to the left. But there is overwhelming evidence that the shot came from the rear and zero evidence a shot came from anywhere else. If I wind up brain dead (i,e, car accident, conversion to creationism, etc), I’d still like my brain to be good for something.

  50. Chew, I saw a recent Discovery Channel special that debunked the impossibility of the head shot, and I have heard that Penn & Teller did it, too, but I haven’t actually seen that…

    I completely agree, though. I have specified that all needed parts of my body (tissue, eyes, heart, hands, whatever) are to be donated, and the remainder will go to do science at the University of Tennessee. I certainly won’t be needing it anymore, it might as well do someone else some good!

  51. @Chew: Just check your organ donor box. They’ll use everything they can. If you donate your remains to The Body Farm, sometimes they have special brain experiments. If you become a medical school cadaver, the brain is always useful for study in situ, as they say.

  52. I love my grandmother very much. She’s very ill right now and I’ve been told that she could die at any time. Even though she hasn’t gone yet, my grief started as soon as I heard the doctor tell us that there was nothing they could do to save her. Even though she’s alive right now, I’m very much upset about this. I don’t want her to go, but I *really* don’t want her to be in pain and she’s in a lot of it right now.

    This is the first time I’ve had to deal with a loved one dying since becoming an atheist and I’ve found it to be very different than when I was a believer. When I believed, I could deny everything and say that she was going to go to heaven or that the Lord wouldn’t let her bear more than she can take and I could beg God to spare her. I now know that is a load of crap. I have to deal with reality.

    Right now, I’m not in the state of mind to think that anything can comfort me. I don’t want my grandmother to just be fond memories, I don’t want her to turn into stardust…I want her to live forever and I don’t want her to suffer. I know this isn’t reality, but for me to pretend that I find any comfort in anything else would be a lie. I don’t know what can or should be said to someone when a loved one dies. All I can say that, in my case, the only thing anyone could say to me that wouldn’t completely piss me off is “This is the worst thing that could happen.”

    BTW, a church on the route between my home and the hospital recently put up one of those 150 foot crosses. I feel almost like the damn thing is mocking me every time I drive past it on the way to see my grandmother. I feel like burning that damn thing to the ground.

  53. Many people today seem to think that a proper skepticism also means an automatic rejection of spirituality.

    I have no intention of trying to push the ideas of any particular religion or mythology here. I simply want to point out one thing, that anyone who is versed in logic must admit:

    Absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence.

    Rejection of bogus arguments for the existence of somebody’s pet God does NOT imply that there is none. It only means that nobody can prove that there is one. Admittedly, if there were to turn out to be one, it would indeed have to work in mysterious ways, but so be it.

    The existence of a Creator is neither proved or disproved by science. And in fact, due to the nature of science itself, it is not possible to disprove the existence of a Creator.

    Of course, this has no bearing whatever on the exposing of charlatans and false priests and other sorts of liars and frauds. And I am sure there are a great many very well-meaning people who completely believe in their spirituality. The problem of course is when their spirituality (or chatlatanism, or fraud, or “business”) contradicts the facts.

    If there is (or were) a Creator, then it follows that this creator also created the seeds of science. I see no reason whatever that a rational creator would allow the existence of science, then insist that people not follow it. And if the creator did turn out to be that irrational, I wouldn’t want to believe in or follow him/her/it anyway.

    I am not a religious person myself. My point is simply that although creationists necessarily fail in their effort to deny science, so must science fail if it tries to completely deny spirituality. A great many friends of mine are atheists, and that is fine. But if they believe that their belief is supported by science, they are mistaken.

  54. Death is the worst part of being an atheist. When it comes to my own death, the only idea that I find comforting is, “Well, if I lived for an extended period of time, imagine the horrors I would see on this planet! Even worse, if I were immortal, what would happen to my consciousness after my body perished? Would I float around forever in the night of space?” …. I don’t want that. Lol! So that leaves me feeling perfectly happy to be finite.

    As for everybody else’s deaths, I tell myself that it’s pretty much the most natural thing about life on Earth, it’s inevitable, and I should’ve expected it from the beginning. (And I do! I’m ready for anybody’s death, at any time.) Funnily enough, you’d think being an atheist would make death harder to deal with, but I’m actually so good at it that people always think I’m in denial when I lose a loved one. Lmao!

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