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.
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.
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.