In January of 2016, my father had several unexplained seizures. Doctors discovered multiple tumors in his brain, and later in other organs throughout his body. He died in March of that same year at the age of 64. In April, my friend Dave was hit by a drunk driver who was speeding in a stolen vehicle. He was 44. In September, my daughter’s friend fell victim to a suicidal impulse that ended her 13 short years here on this earth. Each loss was followed by expressions of sympathy meant to comfort, and those expressions were usually faith-based to varying degrees.
After a brief reprieve from such loss, I discovered last Wednesday that my good friend Doug had died of a heart attack at the age of 45. Doug had been a good friend of Dave’s–I had met them both in high school, but they had met in grade school–and they two of them could usually be seen with together with their omnipresent third, Brandon, who died of chronic health problems at the age of 32. Naturally, many people noted that that the friends were “together again,” which is a hell of a nice idea, but one that I can’t get behind.
And here is where we non-believers lose out over the majority of faiths that exist in this world: we simply do not have a good story for what happens to a person after they die. No matter how you look at it, the fact that your body stops functioning and you cease to exist is simply not as comforting as the idea that if you are really, really good, you get to go to the Invisible Sky Man’s Magic Theme Park. Believers will try to win atheists over with on this premise, because it is the one area in which our empirical evidence is roughly the same as theirs. Because not one person alive can be certain of what happens after you die.
I have heard many atheists attempt to argue that our concept of the afterlife is somehow better than theirs, but, let’s face it, it just isn’t. Given the choice, most of us would choose their imaginary post-mortem eternity over ours. However, comforting lies are still lies, and most of us are atheists because our brains simply will not accept falsehoods no matter how much we may wish them to be true.
How, then, does an atheist find comfort with loss and our own eventual death? In short, we don’t. Or rather, we don’t seek comfort where none exists. Rather, we must be comfortable with uncomfortable truths.
The truth is, the people we have lost are gone, and it is unlikely that we will see them again. But death is a part of life, and loss is a part of love. The fact that our lives are such a miracle–such a beautiful accident of the cosmic events that created us–and we should be just as grateful for a life that ends as for a life that is eternal. Perhaps more so. For people of faith may have a nicer concept of the afterlife, but how often do these faiths ask for some compromise in this life as the price of admission? As atheists, we have the gift of knowing that this life is all that we get, and we have the obligation to make live it to its fullest.
We also have the obligation to honor the lives of those who have passed by celebrating their lives and not simply mourning their deaths. Honor the time you had with them by accepting that it is over rather than disrespecting what you were given by wishing that you had more. For the concept of the afterlife is a comfort for the living, not the dead. Those who have passed on are now in a realm that we know nothing of, and, if their perception has ceased to exist, as I believe it has, pretending that they are somewhere waiting for us it not only useless, it is disrespectful. Indulging in a fairytale may feel good for a moment, but it does not help us process the reality of our loss.
We need to be sad, because it is sad. But we also need to remember that the loss of a person does not negate the significance of their lives. So be sad at your loss, but do not dishonor the lives of the dead transforming the relationship you had with them into one based on their death. You may be a widow or a widower, but you were also a wife or a husband. You may be an adult orphan, but you were also a son or a daughter. You may have lost a friend, but you were a friend, you had a friend. You had people in your life whose loss causes you pain. This means that during their life their presence brought you joy. And that is the truth, and holding to that truth will bring you much more comfort than grasping at a fairytale.