Wednesday, 24 June 2009

No point Bereaving an Atheist’s Bereavement.

It has now been a year since my father died and amongst the condolences and sympathies that have surrounded me with much kindness. There is one question which arises time and time again and that is do I have any more of a sense that my dear old dad is waiting somewhere, waiting to meet me again in some presumed afterlife?

To a lesser extent there is another question that is possibly more common than the one above that arises in my mind.Do I believe I will see him again? Would I want to believe that everything that had been a part of his personality had somehow managed to outlive his now non-existent body? A third question might be is it good to believe something you know to be untrue if it assuages pain?

I do not believe it an act of callous insanity to say that after all this time that I do not. I have experienced the circles of grief that all people who have someone close to them die go through. The intermittent stages of shock, disillusionment, despair, guilt, shame and slow cruel repair and back again. However bad it has ever got or however hopeless I have ever felt any potential faith that I could have acquired has never arrived. In fact I cannot see what benefit to me there could be to believe he is waiting somewhere and that I will see him again. For me to believe such a thing is to want to long for my own extinction and worse to put my own life on hold until I supposedly meet him again surely. I have missed him everyday of the last year but I see no relief or optimism to be attained through thinking I might one day see him again.

Such a wish in my view takes the edge of life and in fact abnegates it in the hope that there might be something beyond death which no one can ever know. I will grant that no one can ever be completely certain either way but to build a belief on uncertainty seems absurd to me. Further more there is no evidence that people lack in either happiness or morality through not believing in it. I feel fortunate to not have to live with the hope that my dad is sitting in some celestial room somewhere drinking tea and waiting for me. While he is dead there are so many other people who are still alive. Surely the first step forward for anyone bereaved would be turn there eyes away from the tragedy of having lost a loved one to the fact of that there are so many love ones and potential ones still here. That does not besmirch the memory of the dead but is possibly the best and true honor you can do them. There is one way in which the dead do live on and that is in our memories, our genes and what they did for us whilst they were here. These things until we ourselves die live on. Isn’t that good enough?

The experience of death in close proximity also does something else which actually is very positive. That is it makes us aware and almost too aware of our own death. This might lead some people to be gloomy and pessimistic but that doesn’t have to be the case. Suddenly at the ripe old age of 25 knowing that I only have so many decades left on this planet and I might as well start enjoying it and savoring every day, however tough that sometimes might be. Prior to my Father popping his clogs I had no sense of how finite and fragile life is and it might just be in a perverse way the best thing that ever happened to me. The pivotal kick up the arse that I need. One big part of me longs every day for him to still be here and part of me will always want to give everything to just to have half an hour with him so we can have a coffee together and discuss anything, however trivial. But I did go for coffee with him dozens of times and had dozens of interesting conversations with him about both the trivial and the important. I had him for 24 and a half years and relish and value every moment.

To me his conscience, ego and personality went out like a light bulb when his heart stopped one June day on a London train station and he has since ceased to exist. Tough facts that the most diehard atheists find tough to rest with but like knowing that someone you fancy does not fancy you back one eventually comes to accept it as fact or as highly likely. I am not immune from wanting to believe things that are appetizing to the mind or I would wish to be true. I have seen beautiful insects, which I have for a split second hoped, would be him reincarnated and looked up and seen stars that I likewise wanted to be him. But human psychology is more powerful than any God is. The mind can spin a yarn and tale to make meaning out of anything; that is pure necessity and you do it more when you dream than you do when you are awake. The very presumptuousness of human beings reflects this and it is ineradicable as you think before you even think as a reaction to every event you experience. That capacity is bigger than all the worlds religions and superstitions combined. In fact if the big bulk of theology tells us anything it is the inherent necessity of our minds to make meanings out of the world around us. Whether it is being to get across a road safely or what beliefs we have about the cosmos and our place in it. The existence of a belief in God is a testament to human imagination in human culture. It being held in common belief for much of human history no more proves the validity of a deity than the fact that for most of human history Women have been second class citizens or even worse. It is only in relatively recent history that the later has changed. Does the previous centuries and centuries of male power over women make the assertion of female inferiority any less absurd?

But what does the above have to do with my Father you might ask? Certainly not much at first sight perhaps. But scratch the surface and actually quite a lot. My proposal is that no nice and pleasing belief actually can actually really alleviate the pain of having someone close to you die. Also any belief that cannot be validated is in essence a complete waste of time. No one ever gets over death, all people can do is learn to live with and actually isn’t there something vaguely absurd about wanting to get over the death of your Father? I am only a year on from the brutal fact and my feelings are far from pretty. Bereavement is an enormously heavy meal and all the people who experience it can do is swallow it. Actually my biggest mistake has been to delude myself that you can avoid the horror and pain that must be felt by anyone who has someone they love die. You have to give in and allow it to permeate your entire body and then you can move on and get on with the rest of your life.

Finally I can say I don’t feel like I miss anything through being faithless. I have feelings about my Father and his life and what he did for me while he was here. But I have feeling or thought that he is up on some cloud or that his ghost is following me down the street on some sunny day (a strange idea) or that he has grown wings and is running errands for some imaginary God. I do not berate other people for their own private convictions about an afterlife or a Divine creator but similarly I do not respect their views anymore than I should respect that someone likes Yogurt when I do not. People do not grow in emotional strength by believing their thoughts, feelings or beliefs are somehow so sacred that other people must tiptoe around them. This does inoculate people from the harsh side of life anymore than avoiding newspapers inoculates someone from the harshness of the world. Anguish can’t be avoided in life so perhaps it is best we all whatever we believe or in my case don’t believe start learning to deal with it, however difficult that can be.

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