Dealing with death as an atheist

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My friend recently learned that her grandmother has died due to lung cancer, so this post is for her.

Two years ago, in March, my grandfather passed away. He was a lifelong smoker, and it caught up to him. Lung cancer. It all happened in an exceedingly short space of time. Into the hospital for a simple check, diagnosed with lung cancer, dead a few days later.

I was a coward and didn’t go to see him while he was in hospital. I wish that I had. I didn’t want my final memories of him to be a sick, dying old man. That was how I rationalised it, but truthfully I was just afraid. My grandfather was always a very strong man in my eyes, a character, a comedian, a man overflowing with vigour, despite his age, always tinkering and working with his hands. He was, quite literally, a Rock. He was one of the people I was most fond of, and made me feel not as out of place as I usually felt. I was very sad when he left, as were all his children and grandchildren.

My mother would ask me if I thought he was watching over us, if his soul was in some other plane of existence that we were not permitted access to. I respected her too much to lie, so I told her, no, I don’t. He’s gone. Gone forever. People often wonder how atheists like myself cope with losses like this. I can’t speak for every atheist, but for myself it comes down to this: I don’t feel sad that my grandfather doesn’t get an afterlife.

As I said, he was a man steeped so deeply in spirit that he left so much of it imprinted on everyone he met and had no need to stick around. He lived to 70+ years of age, had many children and grandchildren who all loved him dearly. He lived a full life, and when one lives a full life they have no need of cheap aftershows. You only get one life, but if you do it right, once is enough. And my grandfather did it right.

Do I wish he hadn’t smoked? A part of me does, because perhaps then I’d have been able to enjoy his company a few more times, hear a few more of his jokes, feel the warmth emanating from his house as I walked by. But another part of me doesn’t. My grandfather smoked all his life, but if that brought him some pleasure then I can’t earnestly be angry at him for it. Everything you enjoy will kill you.

In another life he may have quit smoking only to be hit by a bus and killed at the age of 30. My grandfather was not a stupid man – he knew the risks of smoking, as does every person. There are countless things that we are told may cause cancer, and we’re constantly finding more. If it’s not cancer, it’s heart disease, or stroke. I’d rather eat food I like and die at 60 than eat nothing but greens and drink nothing but water and die at 100. How I should regret surrendering all the things I enjoy to add a brief extension to my lifespan, only to be killed in a car crash.

Of course I do miss my grandfather. He was one of my role models as a child and into adolescence, and the world is dimmer without him. There are moments where I am filled with a cold sadness and it all just seems unfair. But it is fair. It’s life. People die.

You see the thing I realised at his funeral was that people weren’t really sad for him, they were sad for themselves. Most of them believed him to now be in a paradise spirit world, so why were they crying? They were sad because they were going to miss him. When someone dies, we aren’t sad that they are gone, we are sad that they have left us behind. A corpse doesn’t care how grand his funeral is, or how comfortable the coffin. It’s all a show so that we, the mourners, can feel a little bit better.

I recently read the brilliant Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, and it bestowed upon me this remarkable philosophy about life and death:

“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he
only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to
cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an
illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a
string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad
condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”‘

Enjoy your life. You never know how long you have left, so make the most of it while you can. And make sure the people you love know they’re loved.

Until next time,

Seán

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3 thoughts on “Dealing with death as an atheist

  1. hudapervez March 6, 2018 / 2:47 pm

    Wow! That was a very interesting read. Being someone who believes in religion and an afterlife, I have always been curious as to how atheists regard death and you put it here in such a great way. It really is true that people are sad for themselves and not really for the person who has passed away. I often think of it as people are sad because they know that one day it will be them in that coffin instead of that person. I don’t know if its just me who thinks that way haha! Anyways, love your writing style and great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Em April 20, 2018 / 6:31 pm

    Slaughter House 5 is one of my favourite books and I highlighted the same quote in my copy. I find it a very beautiful way of thinking : “All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

    Liked by 1 person

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