The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dealing with Death

My Grandma died today.

Memories are a strange thing...  So many things I hadn't thought about forever are suddenly at the forefront of my mind.

The Fourth of July.  Every year we spent the Fourth of July at Grandma's house - an all day family BBQ on the Columbia River culminating in watching the big fireworks display across the river.  I always tried to steal Grandma's rocking chair.

Birthday slumber parties.  Every year from about 5 through 8 I would spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa's.  And in the morning, we would eat breakfast at Waddles and go to the mall where I would get to pick out a present.

Grandma was a great lady.  She raised some pretty great kids and got to see her grandchildren.  I'm glad I got to know her.

It is hard to discuss death in our culture.  We seek to avoid actual death at every turn - seek to soften the blow as much as possible.  So our discussions of death are colored by religious iconography, religious imagery, Faith.  It is incredibly difficult to discuss death without unconsciously invoking religion.

If you are an atheist, I could use some advice.  I love my family.  I have no desire to alienate them.  I have no desire to be one of those asshole atheists.  So how do you discuss death with family without invoking religion?  How do you discuss death with family without everything getting weird?


  1. The best way I've found to cope with my family during these times is to just let them say whatever religious things they need to say in order to have some comfort. If the deceased shared those religious beliefs, it's much easier for me. I can at least hope that those beliefs gave some comfort and hope in the final moments even if I believe it was all for naught.

    But I can't listen to all this for very long. I have to find my own space to grieve, to write, to remember. I have to accept that the time I had here was all I'd likely ever have and hope that I made good use of it or else resolve to do better by those still living. I cloak myself in the memories, good and bad, and try to accept that death is the price we pay for having the privilege to live in this wonderful universe for a short time. For me death is also a gift we can give the world in due time so that there will be room and resources for those who have yet to come.

    Try to see grieving religious family members with eyes of compassion. Whatever doubts or fears or bile you have, share with us here. It's all part of the process of letting go of someone you love.

  2. Jeff,
    I'm so sorry to hear about your grandma.
    My grandpa died almost a year ago, and I am still very sad about it. One of the hardest things about dealing with his death has been trying to explain it to my two oldest children (aged 3 and 6)without the luxury of "heaven" and getting to "see him again when we die."
    I agree with Skepticat that it's often best to just let family members say what they need to say religion-wise without comment, out of respect for them. The one good thing about religion is that it provides comfort to a great many people.
    That being said, I always find that spending more time reflecting on the life of the person we have lost is far more comforting and uniting than spending a lot of time discussing death.
    I hope that you find lots of comfort all around you and in the fond memories you have of your grandma.

  3. Sorry to hear about your loss :(,

    Recently (This time last year) I had to go through my father dying, he was quite agnostic bringing me up - however knowing he was going to die, he re-affirmed his baptism. Personally I thought it was fucken' ludacris, but I put my sourness aside and helped him through his last days. Some of the last months where the best time I had with him, simple things seemed more important like taking him for a drive to the beach and watching him smile.

    Some of my family are religious, dealing with them was a pain - It was also painful to watch this so called priest talking rubbish in front of my fathers lifeless body at the funeral, however these where his wishes I had no right to interfere.

    My father also loved scotch, so my fathers best friend (An ex Scientologist, now angry old Atheist) and I bought a ridiculous amount of single malt and had a rather large toast to his life. His wake was something else ;).

    Back to the family part, I dealt with the religious family members in my own way - they would be talking about god and how he was in a better place, I would be reflecting on his interesting full life and the times we shared. This seemed to help get the religious parts of my family on the same level.

    I think grieving, reflection and communication are rather important for a freethinker - just because we are sharp and logical doesn't mean we are without feeling, compassion and love.

    Keep your head up aye, keep the memories of your grandmother alive and smile now and then! =)

  4. Hey Jeff,
    Long time no talk to. I've been trying to extricate myself from the debate we enjoy with theists... As I'm sure you're aware, it gets tiring sometimes... In any event, I'm sorry for your loss brother. I recently lost my mother to the aftereffects of cancer. She lived 26 years past the time she was supposed to (had Oates Cell cancer in her lymph nodes in her neck and armpit). When she was diagnosed, the survival rate for small cell carcinoma was like 13%.

    My mother was a special lady though, she took the news of her impending death (they gave her 6 months) with a grain of salt, flipped the doctor off and told him she would outlive his ass. Sure enough, she did! 26 years! I'm glad for those extra years but it was hard in her final years going into the hospital so much. Her system was seriously ravaged by the cancer and subsequent treatments. She went through a year long chemotherapy and 6 months of radiation to beat it.

    Either way, know that my thoughts (not prayers) are with you and yours in this tough time. I hope you can all think only of the good times and the joy that she brought into your lives.

    Best wishes to you and yours Jeffrey! Keep on trucking my brother, keep on trucking! And don't let the idiots who rail against you, and atheists in general, get you down.