I was taught from a very early age to believe in a heaven, with a god, and the angels playing golden harps while floating on clouds. Heaven was where the people we loved went when they died. Heaven was where you aspired to be.
- Be good, so you will go to heaven.
- Don’t be bad, or you won’t get into heaven.
- God is watching you from heaven.
- There is an angel from heaven right beside you, helping you.
- Jesus is in heaven, and if you are a good girl, you will get to see him when you die.
Grief for a death was consoled by those thoughts. Grandma is in heaven now. Grandpa is with all the people who love him in heaven. Aunt May is in heaven and an angel now.
I was taught to believe in those things, so that when a death came, I could handle the grief, because heaven existed, and I would be able to see that person again. I didn’t need to be sad, but happy for that person – they were with god now.
That did help me when I was 7, and my grandfather died. He was so important in my life, and the thought that he was watching over me, the thought that I would get to play with him again, consoled me.
As I got older, and more deaths happened in my family, I utilized that same idea again and again. They were in heaven. I would see them again. It wasn’t so bad. They were looking down at my tears and unhappy about it, so I should stop my crying. And I did.
The problems came for me when I realized I wasn’t falling for that anymore. I became an atheist at a young age, and have never rectified the solution to death and grieving. There isn’t a heaven. There isn’t a god. There aren’t any angels with harps playing beautiful music. There is just a dead body, sad people, and an empty loss.
For a long time, I was in a place in my life where I could put any emotion away, be it sadness, or anger, and let it go easily. I buried my feelings, deeply. I could not allow myself to feel, or my life (at that time), would have fallen apart in to a mess of pieces. So when death came, I just put the sadness, the loss away with the other emotions and feelings I had. My atheism sustained me then, because I didn’t have to *feel* sadness at a death. I had buried it.
Then divorce came. And I finally could allow feelings back into my life. I’ve had to learn, and relearn, how to deal with them. It hasn’t always been easy for those people in my life. I am sometimes too emotional. Sometimes not emotional enough. It is a learning process for me. During this time, I really have not had to deal with death. The grief and sadness that it threw at me was rather unexpected and strong. I wasn’t prepared.
Which brings me the point of this post. An important woman in my life passed away at the age of 73 and her funeral was yesterday. 73 might be old to some, but she was never old. She was young in her heart, as well as her actions.
I went to the casket and felt like had forgotten what it was I was supposed to do. She looked like she was sleeping – so lifelike. Her red dress looked perfect. Her badge there beside her. Pictures of her playing on a video next to the casket, with beautiful music and flowers surrounding her. Her family behind me, in the first few rows of the church. There for the mourners to greet, comfort, and be comforted by.
And there I was. Thinking Fuck. She is dead and I won’t ever have the chance to sit with her out in her lawn chairs, in the heat of an August summer day, in the cool shade of the maple tree. No more being able to listen to her stories or hear her good advice, while sipping orange kool-aid. I won’t get to tell her news of my son. I won’t get to get a hug from her again, with the whisper in my ear from her, saying “Everything will be okay. Take it from this old lady – I know it’s the truth.”
Here is where I am supposed to say that yes, I know I’m not supposed to feel that way. Because she wouldn’t want that. Because it is selfish to feel that way. But screw that. I AM sad. I am selfishly sad. I am selfishly feeling an emptiness inside.
Death is really the one area..the one aspect of having god/religion that I envy. The ability to not be so sad. To have that dreamy illusion that you will be with that person again — see that person again. That the person is in a better place. That they are with the ones they love. That they are in some sort of heaven. That death is just a beginning to another life. And you know for sure, deep down, that when you die, you will be reunited with the people you love, who love you, and all will be wonderful and grand.
Blah blah freaking blah.
Instead, it’s just Fuck and selfish sadness.
My boyfriend gave me some good advice earlier tonight. He said, very gently to me, that one alternative was to think of all that a person had accomplished. That I should not think of how sad, and empty I feel at the loss of this woman, but instead, think of what a great life she had — how fulfilling it must have been, and all that she accomplished and achieved within the time she had. Think of the jobs she had of which she was so proud. Think of her children, and how great a family she raised. Think of what a fulfilling life she had.
Which is excellent advice.
Except, uhhhhhh…. There is that pesky selfish sadness again.
I’m honestly at a loss here. I don’t know how to allow myself to feel any sort of comfort in her “accomplishments”. I mean great that she lived this life, and that she did good things, had good children, was a good person….. But now she is dead and gone from here. There isn’t a heaven where I get to wave at her while she is surrounded by angels playing those golden harps and her family. I don’t get to return her silly smirk, as I walk on a cloud towards my own family and friends.
I’m really kind of pissed off that I was not taught how to deal with grief, other than to think of heaven. Yeah. That pretty much sums this whole experience up for me. Pissed off and selfishly sad.
I wonder how other atheists deal with death. What are the tricks? What do they tell themselves when they stand beside a casket? How do they console themselves?
I really wish I knew.