On Death And Comfort

When tornadoes hit our city;
When our friends or family died,
Though we knew they’d gone to Heaven
Still, the congregation cried.

Lots, after the jump:

So I was watching CNN yesterday, and their coverage of the tornado devastation. They interviewed the pastor of a church, who spoke of a family who had lost, I believe, two members (looking on CNN.com now, I don’t see the video, so I am relying on my poor memory). They had told the pastor (already!) that they wanted the memorial service to be a celebration of their lives, rather than a mourning of their deaths. I am, of course, in complete agreement with this, although the mourning will assert itself no matter what you try.

What got me was that the pastor, in speaking of the fact that the family was taking comfort in their faith, ended with (I am trying to get the words exactly, but I can’t promise it) “the important thing isn’t where they were when the tornado struck, but where they are now. Now, they are in Heaven, where we will see them someday soon. It’s a sad, sad day for all of us.”

Ordinarily, I’d point out the 180-degree turn between those last two sentences, but Shakespeare did that long ago (Twelfth Night, I.v.). But of course we mourn, and of course it is a sad, sad day. The alleged comfort of religion may work for some people in the face of the death of a loved one, but I have yet to see it happen. I have, instead, seen religious faith add the pain of betrayal, the insult of self-doubt, to the anguish of grief. I have seen devout believers blame themselves for not praying hard enough, or for selfishly doubting God’s goodness; I have seen them rage at God, adding a misplaced anger to grief; I have strong men with strong faith cry like babies when the knowledge that their sons (three very different circumstances, but the same grief) were in Heaven did nothing at all to assuage the sorrow over losing them from Earth.

The pain of losing a loved one is one measure of how well your metaphorical heart works. If you love, you will grieve. This goes for atheists who know they will never see their loved one again, and for devout believers who know they will meet in Heaven. I have not seen faith help. It may; I have not seen it. I have seen it hurt. My heart goes out to the families who have lost loved ones in yesterday’s tornadoes. I can’t offer anything to make it hurt any less, unless you think somehow it was your fault. In that case, I can tell you that this wasn’t God’s punishment for anything you or your loved one did.

It’s still going to feel like someone ripped out a piece of your heart.

I’m sorry.


  1. JDStackpole says

    12th Night, I.v., line 72ff., to save (lazy) folks some time. ‘Course, the context is lively, too.

    (At least it’s line 72 in my old Kittredge edition.)

  2. carpenterman says

    Of all the unsubstantiated accusations made against atheists by the pious, perhaps the one I hate the most is their insistence that love of, even veneration of, human life can only flow from god; that atheists must be cold and miserable people because if we think that this life is all there is, then human existence is ultimately meaningless and futile. As if our own existence, all by itself, in a vast universe and against all odds, isn’t enough to be of value. In this, as cuttlefish has expressed so eloquently, they are dead wrong.
    I add my sympathies for the people who have lost loved ones in this tragedy. There will be no comfort from god, so may they find it in the people around them, who will cry and mourn with them, and help them to heal and go on afterward. Human love and compassion is all there is in the world. That just makes it all the more valuable.

  3. Mimmoth says

    I have seen them rage at God, adding a misplaced anger to grief;

    With all due respect, there is absolutely nothing misplaced about it. If God really exists as described, of course he could have stopped the death of their loved one and of course he didn’t lift a finger to do it. Fury is the proper response and God is the proper direction to point it in.

    The problem comes when the rightly furious believer also believes, to add insult to injury, that God will punish them for being angry about it. That adds the burden of fear and undeserved guilt.

    Under the circumstances I really don’t see how this belief set could provide consolation of any sort. But some people say they find it consoling.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    You are quite right, Mimmoth–the “misplaced” did assume my world view and not theirs.

    It has to be confusing, when the grief overwhelms but the belief system insists that this death is a good thing, that this fragment of your heart is in a better place.

    I have heard, as you say, “some people say they find it consoling.”. One was my sister. I also witnessed her reaction. If that was “consoled”, I would hate to see her reaction without consolation.

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