What is it like to grieve when you don’t believe in heaven or hell, reincarnation, spirits, ghosts or any other form of life beyond the world of the living and breathing?
I imagine some people must wonder if it’s more difficult for atheists to cope with the death of a loved one. There is some truth to that because my belief system means that death is final. There is no epilogue to this story. Gone is gone. Sometimes I think: Wouldn’t it be great if there was something to soften reality and to take the edge off this loss?
Then again… no.
The worst of the shock has passed. Tears have slowed and tend to come in tiny bursts now, like a spring storm. In a few weeks—after the formal memorial for my dad and after the last of the bills have been paid—death will no longer occupy my to-do list and I can get on with getting on. Already, life has taken on an air of normalcy that did not exist even two weeks ago.
My new routine, the new normal, goes like this…
I wake up. A few seconds are spent in limbo between the dreaming world and the real world. And then, like an alarm clock someone has set in my brain, a little voice says, “Remember, they’re gone. Kelly and Dad are dead.” Just as simple as that. I acknowledge my new reality—sometimes with a few tears and sometimes with only a nod to void inside me—and then I go about the business of getting dressed and brushing my teeth and the thousand other mundane chores we humans must do.
That’s the routine. Morbid as it sounds, that’s how I am processing this change. And while thoughts of my father and sister come and go throughout the day, this simple daily reminder is my only ritual. No candles are lit, no prayers are said, no offerings are made, only that brief, stark reminder that life—all life—is finite.
Is it comforting? No. It’s not. It hurts. It’s like waking up to a kick in the teeth every damn day. But it is real and true. To me, that is most important. I do not want this softened. I want to hurt. I want to know, for as long as it takes, that losing the people I love is like losing a physical part of myself. I will let myself feel that pain because it makes me value the living. It makes me value my own life.
I don’t reject the kindness offered by believers, in fact I’m grateful for it, but I do translate it into my own language. Prayers become good thoughts and the afterlife becomes both the life of the atoms that made up those flesh and blood bodies and the memories of those people that will live on with me until my end. My loved ones don’t actually speak to me from beyond the grave, but I have known them so well that I know what they would say in any given situation, and in that way I hear them still and will always hear them. My sister, my dad, my mother, they will always exist in me, inside the crazy, impossible and miraculous brain human beings possess. That’s the gift. For me, that’s heaven: memory.
Memory is the reason I have chosen my unconventional life. I live for making memories, for creating experiences that will weld themselves into my consciousness. When I reach the end of my life, I will not care how nice my couch was, I will care that I swam with wild dolphins and kayaked through bio-luminescence, that I met people from all over the world, that I filled my days creating stories, that I took risks and made mistakes and dusted myself off and kept going.
Life is amazing. No. LIFE IS AMAZING! No epilogue needed.
I want the pain of finality. I would not have it any other way. My disbelief makes me humble, makes me grateful, makes me live more fully and love more completely. Because some day I will also end, forever, and that makes each and every breath in and out a miracle and a blessing.