Life is a precious gift that we are lucky to have experienced. It can end at any time. We are not entitled to life at all, let alone any specific lifespan. As Richard Dawkins begins in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: “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 only rule about life and death that deserves the name of ‘natural’ is that children should not die before their parents. That statement could be interpreted wrongly as expressing the idea that one wants welcomes the death of one’s parents. But any parent will understand the intent of the sentiment because losing a child is a terrible blow.
There is something about the grief that a parent feels at the loss of a child that puts it on a different plane. My grandfather lived to a ripe old age and outlived three of his five children and it was sad to see the effect that had on him. I would hate to outlive my own children. I definitely expect and hope that I will die before my own children do. I find it hard to even contemplate outliving Baxter the Wonder Dog.
With my own parents, my father died suddenly of his first heart attack when I was 28, when I was not thinking of such things. My parents sacrificed a lot on my behalf to help me recover from my childhood polio and I like to think that it gave them a great deal of satisfaction that their efforts paid off and that I was able to lead a ‘normal’ life, whatever that means. I think it would have been devastating to them if I should have died or experienced some serious problem while they were still alive, and for them to think that all their heroic efforts were somehow not enough to give me a full life.
As a result, I developed quite a cautious outlook on life, not taking risks, careful not to do anything that might have disappointed them or worried them or caused them any grief, even though they were strong enough to deal with it. That one thing that I feared about death was that I would die or have a serious illness before my mother died, because I know that it would have hit her hard.
There was only one topic that I did not discuss with my mother, and that was my becoming an atheist. (My father died before that happened.) She was a Christian in the best sense of the word, someone whose faith was inclusive and tolerant of others and who saw her belief as requiring that she work for social justice and the welfare of those less fortunate. That is the only form of religion that, to my mind, can be debated to have any value at all. All the rest, such as worshipping god, following rituals, ‘saving one’s soul for eternity’, etc., is just fear-based, self-serving nonsense.
My parents were pleased when I became an ordained lay preacher in the Methodist Church in my early twenties and preached that same kind of social gospel message. I thought that my mother would have felt a pang of disappointment if she knew that I had later rejected the faith she valued. Although I have been an outspoken and open atheist, she was the one person with whom I did not discuss this, although she was a forgiving and understanding person and I know she would have accepted my decision as a personal choice to be respected, the way she accepted all my decisions. I was grateful that she did not use computers and so would not know about my loss of faith by reading my blog. I underestimated her, though. My sister told me after my mother’s death that she had known about my atheism all along and had accepted it but just chose not to raise the topic with me. I wrote about what I learned from my mother about life and death here.
But with my mother’s death in 2008 that last concern disappeared. Whatever I do or happens to me now cannot hurt or worry my parents anymore, and in particular my own death cannot cause her any grief, which takes a lot of the concern over my own death off my own shoulders. This is one of the side benefits of not believing in an afterlife. Of course, there are other people in my life, both family and friends, who may feel a sense of loss when I am gone, just as I would feel if they should no longer be a part of my life.
All this talk of death may sound somewhat morbid to some. But it shouldn’t be and I don’t see it that way. Death is inevitable. We cannot cheat it. The only thing we have control over is how we face it. What is strange to me is that some people try to ignore the topic of death even more as they get older and death looms closer and try to avoid discussing it until they are forced to.
But it really should be the opposite. The best time to contemplate death is when it is not imminent. Then one can make rational decisions about what one wants to do with the rest of one’s life without all the emotions associated with it getting in the way and The Conversation Project is one such effort to encourage people to do so.