The Heartache of Loss
In my 25 years of life, rarely have I had the displeasure of looking death in the face. Unfortunately, that is the situation with which I currently must contend. My maternal grandfather, who has been sick with cancer for about a year, has been given a terminal prognosis. Although we are not sure how long he has—it could be weeks or months—everybody’s emotions are welling up as we prepare for the inevitable.
Although I never would presume to think my grief is comparable to that of my mother and her numerous siblings, it is a rather strange period in the life of an atheist, as well as a reflective one. I have some relatives who have put their faith in prayer as a method by which to help my grandfather, and who, at the very least, take substantial comfort from the notion that he, after death, will bask in the warm glow of Heaven. It is my judgment that prayer is ineffectual and the afterlife does not exist but, even armed with my scientific knowledge and a dogma-free mind, I cannot help but sympathize with the grief that motivates such behavior and ideas, among both my relatives and all families enduring the heartache of loss.
This clearly is not the appropriate venue to “disprove” prayer’s efficacy or the existence of an eternal soul. [Anybody wishing to know my stances on those can read "Last Refuge for the Desperate" and "Soul Searching," respectively.] However, I believe I have something to add to the discussion with respect to why people respond with unreason when faced with impending tragedy.
First, I will address prayer. In my judgment, people pray in order to create the illusion of power when, in reality, they actually are powerless. When a loved one is dying of cancer, or trapped on a mountain after an avalanche, or lying in a hospital bed after suffering a terrible accident, one is not satisfied simply to invest one’s hopes in the doctors, or the mountain climber’s skills and training, or the accident victim’s ability to fight back from grievous injury. People, on an instinctual level, actually want to help their endangered loved one. When all accepted methods of support are either unavailable or exhausted, people pray for divine intervention. Although it has been proved that intercessory prayer does not actually do anything, it gives the praying person comfort, and a soothing illusion of renewed power in the face of prior powerlessness.
If this illusion makes people feel better in their time of greatest need, then I can endorse it. Comfort, even when it is attributable to a complete fabrication, is not something against which to fight.
The second issue—that of the afterlife—is even more emotional for me, as an atheist. When my grandfather dies, I recognize that I never will see him again. The day on which I die shall bring no heavenly reunion. Indeed, since one’s memory, personality and character reside in one’s brain—and cease to be when one’s brain dies—all the wonderful characteristics that are my grandfather will vanish entirely when his long struggle ceases. This is a reality from which I get no pleasure, to be sure. On this day, I certainly am not the brash atheist happily tearing down theistic constructions.
It is quite easy to see why people cling to ideas such as the afterlife, Heaven and an immaterial essence that survives corporeal death. It has been said that, without the fiction of an afterlife to which to look forward, big-brained animals such as we would live in a depression, endlessly wasting our lives thinking about the end of them. The illusion of Heaven is a way to avoid having to say the final goodbye to somebody to whom one does not want to bid farewell. In a moment of grief, of course, this bit of self-trickery is wholly understandable. I only hope that, among those preoccupied with an afterlife that does not exist, memories of happy times during earthly life are not forgotten.
On that sad final day, I know I will be left only with my memories. But those, luckily, are countless.
I vividly recall school events to which he gladly accompanied me. I remember family barbeques, innumerable birthday parties and holiday celebrations, and quiet times just chatting with him about my life, the family, politics or sports. For a very brief period of time, I actually lived with my maternal grandparents, and I recall that he always would be proud of me when I brought home a good test score or shared some knowledge I was fortunate enough to gain that day. At night, we would watch Married…With Children together, both appreciating the ability of good comedy to cross generational gaps and bring people closer together. I always shall remember his smile, his chuckle and his ability to warm the hearts of the many people he loved.
Although I know I will miss him terribly when he no longer is here, I take comfort in the reliable continuity of it all. Every living thing—plant or animal—is born, lives and, eventually, dies. The sad irony of life is that, at the moment of birth, one begins one’s trek on the long, winding path to death. But, to borrow a phrase, the “circle of life,” birth and death among all living things, unites us in a profound way with Mother Nature and the small blue planet on which we live. From this planet’s soil—the soil from which we sprang—came Einstein, the Tyrannosaurus rex and all manner of other wondrous creatures. This simple truth, wholly lacking in the supernatural or the metaphysical, is beautiful and ought to be admired.
When my grandfather dies, it will be a tough road, but, I am sure that with the help of my family, I will be able to move on, taking great comfort in the memories he has given me and the joys I have shared with him. For now, my family and I will focus on making him happy, comfortable and secure. And, of course, building more memories with which to keep warm.