In Memory of Grandpa


Grandpa Sal as a Young Man in ROTC

Grandpa Sal as a Young Man in ROTC

On the morning of Friday, December 1st, I had dropped my parents off at the airport. They were heading to Atlanta for a conference. Later in the day, I drove over to work to get my schedule for the coming week. While I was heading there, Dad had rented yellow Mustang convertible for their week, and had texted me a picture of it. So I got to work, got my schedule, and hung out for a bit.

Then I got a phone call from my mom, who was crying. At first, she could barely talk, and two horrible thoughts went through my head. First, I thought she and Dad had gotten into a bad accident. Then I thought my brother, and best friend, Aaron, had gotten into an accident.

What she finally told me did not make me feel better.

At all.

Her dad, my grandpa, in Connecticut, had had a heart attack. He was in the hospital on life support.

Not long after, Dad called me. Grandma was taking him off life support, so he wouldn’t suffer.

I picked up my parents and my brother at the airport the next morning, and we went straight to Connecticut.

That side of my family is Catholic. The wake was Wednesday. The funeral was Thursday. And we came back home on Thursday night.

From left to right: Grandpa Sal, Aaron, Grandma Aggie, and Me, sitting at a table, posing and smiling for the camera.

From left to right: Grandpa Sal, Aaron, Grandma Aggie, and Me, sitting at a table, posing and smiling for the camera.

It was a bad week. A devastating week.

I’m lucky in that I have an amazing relationship with all sides of my family. No one was really alone. Even Dad’s side of the family came to the wake. It was hard, but no one was alone.

I am so happy that I got to see Grandpa at Thanksgiving. I got to tell him that I love him. But… I also made him promise me that I’d see him at Christmas. That… that isn’t going to happen.

One thing about my family is that, as far as I know, I am the only one who’s an atheist. I’m the only one who does not believe in a higher power, or in an afterlife. I cannot bring myself to think that I will ever see him again, except in pictures, videos, and memories. Everyone else gets to believe that they’ll see him again. And I envy them.

I wish I could believe that. Not believing it makes me feel so alone, despite not being alone, in my grief.

The last death in my family happened when I was still a believer. There was retroactive regret when I lost my faith a few years later, but not the level of grief I feel now. I didn’t think I was ready to handle death as an atheist, and this has only proven me right. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Greta Christina’s “Comforting Thoughts About Death that Have Nothing to do With God”, and it helps. As does remembering Richard Dawkins’ (I know, I know) amazing passage in “Unweaving the Rainbow”.

But in the thick of grief, it’s not enough. There’s a soothing calm with thinking death is not a final goodbye, but simply an informal “see you later”. It makes things easier to think that while Grandpa may be gone from life, we’ll get to see him again on the other side. It’s fun, perhaps, to imagine what he’s doing now. Maybe he’s enjoying music from artists he loved. Maybe he’s playing games with long-departed friends and family.

The appeal of that… it’s enticing.

Yet my skeptical brain objects. It tells me that, while admittedly not provably untrue, it’s also not been proven true. There is no verifiable, testable evidence for the supernatural, for an afterlife, for any of that. Based on what we do know, Grandpa is truly, completely, gone. Death is final. And that… that is not comforting. That is not beautiful. That is not uplifting.

It’s tragic, harsh, and hurtful.

For the first time in, I think, my entire life, I want it to be true. I want there to be an afterlife. Not so much a higher power as such, but a place where Grandpa is now, and where I’ll get to go when my life is over (hopefully) many decades from now, and spend eternity with him and all of my loved ones, my friends, my family, those I admire, and so on.

For a few years I was saying to Grandpa (and Grandma, and Bubby and Zadie) “it’s good to see you. I love you. And I’ll be seeing you soon, right?” I kept saying it and keep saying it because, really, I’m scared.

I know that being alive means having to say goodbye eventually. I know that I’ll be writing more posts like this for this blog in the future, and, tragically, probably the near future.

And I got 30.5 years with Grandpa. Grandma, Mom, and my aunts and uncles got longer with him. But my brother and cousins got less time with him. No matter how little or how much time there is, it just isn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Grieving as an atheist means coming to terms with the fact that that’s it. There will never be more. Death really is final. It really is “goodbye”.

And that makes it harder. That makes grieving more painful. And unless someone tells me otherwise, I have a feeling that, within my family, I’m alone in this form of grief.

I had such a great relationship with Grandpa, but my atheism was always a point of mild contention between us. I think it bothered his Catholic heart a bit that I could be skeptical of the existence of a higher power. Grandpa was a Deacon, but while he did not necessarily expect those he loved to be Catholic, he certainly expected them to believe in some sort of higher power. I don’t think he cared if you were Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Wiccan, Hindu, Buddhist, a Deist… as long as you had faith. I… I did not. And we would talk about this sometimes.

It was never an argument. It was never completely contentious. We both respected each other’s views, and often the discussions were even fun and fruitful. But it was something we did discuss, and something I know picked at him subconsciously.

Is it bad that I feel slightly guilty for that? That I almost wish he had believed that I believed in a higher power? That I almost wish I wasn’t honest with him about it? It is, of course. I had to be honest. I must be true to myself. But part of me worries that it hurt him, and that worry hurts me.

Sadly, it no longer matters. That worry will probably pick away at me, or at least my subconscious, for the rest of my life.

I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with this death thing. Luckily, atheists have been building amazing communities for dealing with such things, like Grief Beyond Belief. And luckily, amazing atheists like Greta Christina have tackled this.

But there’s a comfort in believing in an afterlife. Such a belief definitely makes this easier than it is.

That said, I can’t bring myself to believe what I don’t know to be fact. Gods, angels, souls, heavens… potentially beautiful ideas, but ultimately unevidenced. And so, I must deal with my grief the best ways that I can. I must take it day by day, and be as good a person as I know Grandpa was, and as I know he’d want me to be.

Grandpa… you may not have realized it, but you were a major influence on my life. Your example at least partially informs my ethics. Your determination to work with others, and your compassion with others, helped to build mine.

I love you, Grandpa…

And, at least in pictures, in memories, in videos, and in family, I will see you this, and every, Christmas.

Aaron, Grandma Aggie, Me, Mom, and Grandpa Sal at my graduation from FAU in late 2014.

Aaron, Grandma Aggie, Me, Mom, and Grandpa Sal at my graduation from FAU in late 2014.

 

Grandpa's ordination as a Deacon, back in the early 2000s, with the Bishop and Mom's entire side of the family. Grandpa is standing behind my brother, Aaron. I missed it. I don't know why. :(

Grandpa’s ordination as a Deacon, back in the early 2000s, with the Bishop and Mom’s entire side of the family. Grandpa is standing behind my brother, Aaron. I missed it. I don’t know why. 🙁

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    I’m so sorry for your loss. And your grief sounds really lonely. I’m sorry you’re going through that.

    When my father died, and I know it sounds strange to say this, I was really glad that I believed he was dead and could no longer experience things. WE were experiencing loss and grief and so on but he was not. There was a nurse at the hospital who was very religious and kept trying to interfere and tell us crap like, “he’s in a better place” etc. which I found very disturbing. The idea that he was still alive somehow, but yet not with my mother, was NOT a comforting idea, at all. My father would have wanted to be with my mother, no matter what, and we all knew that.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    Virtual hugs for you and your family.
    Grandpa lives on. You look alot like the young him.

  3. says

    I was going to say what chigau said @#2.
    For some reason, I always love looking at family pictures and trying to piece them together based on resemblance. (That, as entertainment, can go badly wrong, so don’t share those thoughts.)

    My sympathies for your loss.

  4. says

    Oh Nathan, I am so sorry. It sounds trite, but your grandpa lives in you, and your brother, and your parents, and he will always be a part of your experiences, knowledge, love, and wisdom. All the hugs.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    I’m sorry for Your loss. These aren’t easy things and everybody is different in coping with the grief. When my dad died seven years ago, I had a boring and somewhat physical job while also being a student. The work I could do in autopilot mode, so I was able to process his passing while working and school meant having to think another things.

    Life will go on around the gap he left. You will live on and continue your way, whatever that is for you, building on the part of him that lives in you.

  6. says

    I’m sorry for your loss, Nathan.
    My grandma died about a month ago, the 12th of December would have been her 96th birthday, so it was a sad day yesterday.
    I don’t know about losing the comfort of the promise of heaven, never having been a believer myself, but I know about secular mourning. It’s about celebrating the life of the person. There is grief, there are tears, and this is good. But I always find consolation in the fact that they lived, and they are with me in my memories.
    Maybe it’s easier when the people around you share that sentiment.

  7. StonedRanger says

    I am sorry for your loss. I did not grow up in a family where love was much of a thing. I only knew my moms dad for a short time, under ten years. I only remember meeting my fathers dad once. So when they died, it had little sentimental meaning to me as they were virtually strangers in my life. My father was an abusive asshole and when he died in 98 it was kind of a relief. Im 62 now and I was fortunate to have married the one person who ever gave a shit about me. My wife and her kids taught me more about how to be loved and how to love than my family ever taught me. You are fortunate to have lived with and loved your grandfather and to have lived with the knowledge that he loved you right back no matter what. That was and is a priceless gift that is more valuable than any afterlife could ever be, at least to me. While I understand the sadness and loss you feel now, maybe in a few years time, when you’ve had a chance to deal with your grief you will come to understand the gift he gave you and that maybe that will help lessen your grief. Death is never an easy thing for anyone, so there is no right or wrong way to deal with it.

  8. says

    “It was never an argument. It was never completely contentious. We both respected each other’s views, and often the discussions were even fun and fruitful. But it was something we did discuss, and something I know picked at him subconsciously.

    Is it bad that I feel slightly guilty for that? That I almost wish he had believed that I believed in a higher power? That I almost wish I wasn’t honest with him about it? It is, of course. I had to be honest. I must be true to myself. But part of me worries that it hurt him, and that worry hurts me.”

    I don’t think it’s bad to feel slightly guilty. I feel like this with my mom and have come to terms with it. We hardly ever talk about religion anymore, and haven’t in any kind of meaningful way in 15 or so years. When we do, she talks about her faith and how great it is, I listen, she says she wishes I believed, I respectfully demur. She thinks that some small part of me believes, but she has to know on some level that I don’t and never will. Part of me would like to completely disabuse her of that notion, but I’m content to let her think that if it brings her peace of mind. Just last week she asked me to pray for something health-related for a relative and I said I would. And I actually did -- I have no problem thinking to myself “god if you exist help (insert person’s name). Took two seconds and this way I don’t have to lie if she asks me about it later. I have no issue with this.

    Anyways, I’m sorry for your loss.

  9. cherbear says

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I too, had a lot of trouble with my mom’s passing last year. I wished, and still do sometimes that I could believe that there was a higher power and that I would see them again. All of my family are either Strict Catholics ™, or at least agnostic. My sister’s seem to believe in supernatural spirits and that there is some form of afterlife. I am not a believer in any of those things. I still kind of vaguely hope for a kind of reincarnation, but don’t believe any of it. I too felt like I was lost without my former beliefs. I wish you strength and self kindness through your grief. Again, my deepest condolences.

  10. StevoR says

    My condolences and virtual (((hugs))) if you want them. I too sometimes wish there was an afterlife where justice could be done and that death wasn’t final for the people we love.