How an atheist deals with the death of a loved one

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend on Facebook about dealing with the death of a loved one.  This is part of that conversation.

I've been thinking about your note that we as people tend to fear death.

My grandfather was the most ethical man I ever knew. He never went to church and even used to joke that he wasn't worried about going to hell because he would be too busy shaking all of his friend's hands. :) 

He died in December of 2000. I was in Chile struggling with the nascent atheism that was beginning to cast the demon of Christianity out of my mind. When I heard he was on his death bed I raced to the airport and flew to Lansing.

I was at his side when he died.

At his funeral I told the entire funeral home that he was in a better place. I did not believe my own words. I knew that he was dead. Plain and simple. I had his legacy of ethics, and I had his genes. In that sense he lives on in me, my brothers, my mom, aunt, and cousins.

He also lives in my kids and grandkids.

I was one of the pallbearers. As we left him at the graveside it occurred to me that most of my fellow evangelical pastors would say that he was now in hell. Some of those pastors were horrible examples of ethics. If my granddad was in hell, then they would be at least two feet lower!

At that point it became easier for me to simply accept that he no longer existed, except in my memories and when my family and I talk about him.

Anyway, that's how I deal with it.

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Comment by LBGT Atheist/Secular Humanist on December 28, 2011 at 11:11pm

Sounds like your Grandfather was an all around good person and independent thinker. I relish talking to others (especially older folks) who are 'real' and speak from wisdom, wisdom often born of pain. My partner memorializes her Grandmother (who died 3 years ago) by 'rebirthing' her Grandmother's unique sayings and idioms- verbally and on internet blogs... her Grandmother had interesting life quotes that would make for a good book to inspire and intrigue others. 

I've found 'religious' people are often insensitive, prejudiced against difference and phoney/plastic in order to gain $'s. While attending a young man's (let's call him Leo) funeral service recently, the Mom's assembly-of-god preacher talked about what a fine example of a christian Leo was and how god embraces him in death. The preacher spouted canned (obviously solicited from the Mom) personal tidbits cleverly intermingled with scriptures. Via my personal knowledge & hearing after-funeral people's gossip confirms Leo was an Athiest who battled his Mom's forcing him to go to church. He stood true to his beliefs, often standing alone and he was a sensitive kid who desired his Mom's love but never fully got that. He rejected AA's god/religion focus- he had no non-religious sobriety support. His additions caused his death. As we sat listening to the preacher do the god dog-n-pony show to please the Mom, we know that  Leo himself would have walked out of his own funeral service had he heard the Preacher's lies, labels and words he, himself, did not believe in. Yet, the religious hypocrite wealthy Mom was happy that Leo was portrayed as a christian and I'm sure she wrote a nice check for the preacher's performance. You just can't escape the wrath of clergy who unethically take advantage of inappropriate time-frames to saturate captive 'audiences' with their rantings.

Comment by David Raphael on November 28, 2011 at 9:10am

There's a sentiment by Buddhist abbot Ajahn Brahm that goes something like this:


Spending your life/time with someone you love is like attending a concert by your favourite band. When the concert ends you don't feel bad; you never say 'I'm so unhappy and depressed now that it's over' you feel enthused and say 'wow! what a fantastic concert; I'm so happy that I got the opportunity to go!'. It doesn't really matter that the concert ended. All that matters is that you went.

When your loved one dies you should think the same thing: "I'm so happy that I got the opportunity to spend my time with this person!"


Comment by Kevin Benbow on November 27, 2011 at 10:05pm

Thanks for the post, Sentient.

Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.  While I don't buy into the whole reincarnation idea, the concepts of mindfulness and other orientations to the present moment fascinate me.

The brevity of life gives it meaning.

Comment by Daniel W on November 27, 2011 at 7:12pm

Religion messed up how we deal with death and loss.  I think once we are convinced that life can be lived forever, moving back to the default position that life is a brief window of time and then ends as it started, is hard.


My parents died 8 months apart, one in 2010 and one in 2011.  It forced me to think a bit more about loss than I had before.  My mother's alzheimers meant I lost her long before her heart stopped beating.  I used to cry when I visited her, laying in fetal position on her air mattress, occasionally opening her eyes and moaning.  That was worse than just having her die.


The religious organization that checked on her still sends me mail.  I usually say an expletive, and "parasites", and throw it away once I see the return address.   They are having a christmas remembrance.  I wont be there.


Of religious or pseudoreligious philosophies, I think Zen has some of the most helpful thoughts, about loss, suffering, and letting go.  But mostly, I know there is nothing else, just nothingness, then growing consciousness, then nothingness.  And sometimes some fading consciousness before we go, or sometimes out like a light bulb.


I think it takes some honest and courage to acknowledge that.


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