Friday, 8 March 2013

Bereavement and Dying: One Atheist’s Perspective

This post was contributed by SitP regular Grant Carpenter

My mother in law, Joyce Smart, was a lovely woman. She was the first to accept me into the family when I moved to the UK in 2004, and this is a debt I could never repay even if I tried. She, my wife Janis, and I would all share our stories and life experiences together, and I’d play cribbage with her once a week. She shared in our triumphs and tragedies in addition to sharing her own. For all intents and purposes she, Janis, and I were a three-person family unit. Then tragedy struck on the early morning of 15 February. The nursing home rang and told Janis that Mum had died, and all Janis and I could do was cry and comfort one another before heading off to our respective destinations - Janis to her job, and me to my last day of my second maths teacher training placement (ironically, I passed the placement and was signed off the day before, and I was going to tell Mum the following Sunday). Accepting the reality of Mum’s death was quite hard on both of us that day.

Fast-forward to this week: between Mum’s receiving service at her church Tuesday night and her memorial on Wednesday, I came face to face with the difficulty and weight of responsibility stemming from the implications of being an Atheist vis-à-vis bereavement and death. All around me people were deriving comfort from the belief that Mum had a spirit that would live on past her frail, weakened body, and that her spirit had passed on to heaven to be with her God. As I maintained a respectful silence and listened to the songs and prayers of those around me, I became painfully aware that I could never share in this perceived comfort – as far as I’m concerned, what Mum was no longer exists, and no amount of wishing can give her an eternal life. It dawned on me that accepting her death on those terms was a great responsibility, and a painful one at that. Not only must I accept that I’ll never see Mum again, but I also must keep her in my memories as gratitude for her love and kindness to me over the years that I knew her.

Even despite the added responsibility and the lack of perceived comfort, there was a bright side: I was also reminded of my own mortality and the importance of living a good life whilst I’m alive. People came to Mum’s funeral because they remembered good things about her– how kind she was, how generous she was, her courage in the face of osteoporosis and the accompanying ills and pains. Given everyone’s love and admiration of Mum, I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter that I won’t ever see her again, because the impact of her presence in my life lives on in me. I can only hope to follow her example and live a good life, the only life I have


Plum said...

A very touching tribute, Grant. I share your feelings, having lost and buried both my parents in the last 3 years - and having been the one responsible for organising everything as well, discussing things with priests etc. Not to mention spending all the money!

It was sometimes difficult to keep what I would like my parents' memorial services to be like in check, and consider their wishes and the expectations of my family and my parents' friends.

Death is the ultimate test for us atheists, not only as we come to terms with our own mortality, but the attitudes and reactions of those around us who don't necessarily understand.

All we can do is remember our loved ones in our own quiet way and take solace in the people who are left among us - in your case your dear wife.

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