Philosophy with Attitude

Death and the Atheist

The death of a loved one is a difficult experience for virtually everyone. Grief and the other emotions associated with loss are often far stronger than the feelings we experience on a day- to-day basis, in large part because death is so final for those who still live. Never again will we touch them, laugh with them, hold their hands... experience anything with them.

If nothing else, this recognition is a powerful motivator for the inception or strengthening of religious beliefs. It seems that it would be so much easier to cope with death if one knew they would, in fact, be with that person again after death -- to think that the separation was only temporary, that some day they would be together again, be able to share again. Indeed, the concept of an afterlife is one of the more universal features of human religions, which are otherwise quite diverse in their tenets; I believe that it is the finality of death and its impact on the human psyche which makes that feature so common.

What, then, of the atheist? Very few atheists or agnostics profess an active belief in the possibility of an afterlife. Those who do are generally unable to justify their beliefs on the basis of proof or reason: they believe in one simply because it hurts too much to do otherwise -- the cessation of existence is unthinkable, or even unbearable. Life is short in comparison to the duration of the universe; we have such a small chunk of time within which we exist! To admit that after this time we must simply cease to think and be... it is a difficult prospect for even the most emotionally-fit of us; not much less to admit that those we love have and will also no longer exist.


My grandfather, Glenn Herbert Wahl, died at the age of 81, at the end of July, 1997, early in the morning. He had been ill for quite some time: in 1995 it was discovered that he had a rare form of pancreatic cancer. The cancer itself, combinded with the stress of radiation and chemotherapy, rapidly weakened a man who had been active and healthy well into his seventies. He and my grandmother had owned a summer cottage on Conesus Lake in New York for about forty years; every year when they returned, it was he who opened up the place, laid out the docks, brought out the boats, and made it into a home again.

My memories of my grandfather go back many years. Even though we lived far away -- sometimes all the way across the continent in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada -- we still saw Nana and Bompa at least once a year. If we didn't drive out to the Lake in the summer, they would come visit us for Christmas, and my siblings and I would joyfully unpack our stockings on their bed early on Christmas morning. Summers at the Lake were even more special, as we could swim to our hearts' content, go for motorboat rides, watch our mother waterskiing, play with our father in the water, and if we were lucky, canoe to the far end of the Lake with Bompa. Those trips were amazingly special; Bompa was a quiet man in general, one with whom you could feel perfectly comfortable without saying a word, and when we went out with him early in the morning, fog still rising from the water, the only sound was from the soft splashing of our inexpert paddles -- of course, he was the motive force on those trips, but he always made us feel that we were helping, too.

Bompa was always like that -- as I remember him, a gentle, kind, patient teacher. He taught us how to paddle the canoe (eventually), how to drive the motorboat -- a real treat for a pre-adolescent! -- how pulleys work... and more importantly, the value of hard work, sacrifice, unconditional love... He was a playful spirit despite his quiet facade; for some reason I was always surprised when he was doing something serious and then would suddenly turn to us and make this little kitten-like noise from no where! That's still one of my stronger memories of him, and I like it that way -- it might not have been terribly significant, but it was Bompa.

I don't know if his deterioration was harder on his family, or on him. My siblings and I drove out to Rochester to say goodbye to him in the middle of July, knowing that we would not have another chance. As a biologist, I am well aware that death is a necessary part of life -- it simply can't be avoided, for there is no evolutionary mechanism to prevent it -- but it was still very difficult to see this man who had always been so strong lying in his hospital bed, struggling to breathe, struggling to talk with us. But despite all that, we were able to talk with him as we should have done before.

It's sad that sometimes you don't really get to know someone until it's almost too late. That was the case with my other grandfather, Alfred M. Nielsen; I was in high school when he died -- that was about the time that most of the short stories were written, so preoccupied with death -- but had never really taken the time to talk to him about the important things. It was only at his memorial service that I learned what kind of a man he had been; involved in several charities, a lover of classical music, an active member of his church. These are things that I never saw as a child; we never really saw them in Bompa, either, but we could glimpse them through the time that both he and Grandpa spent with us.

Life is fleeting, and death lasts so long! Talking with Bompa at his bedside, I knew for the first time how hard it is to be the one dying. He had several bad fevers before he died, and they had taken their toll on his mind; he spoke to us of the disappointment and shame that he felt, no longer being able to do what he had before. He never needed a map: show him once how to get somewhere, and he could do it forever afterwards... but not forever. He was the one upon whom his family could lean... but now he had to sit passively as others fed and bathed him. I had never seen him cry before that day; but I don't think any of us were embarrassed by it. It was necessary, the release of all the hurt that he and we felt at his loss, at our loss.

I didn't ask him what he thought would happen after he died. For just this once, it didn't matter -- I am normally very critical about the unreasonable, irrational beliefs to which people cling; but seeing him like this, I wanted him to be comforted if he would have it, or realistic, if he could bear it. I did ask him what he liked to think about, lying there in bed; he replied that he liked to remember everything that he had experienced during his eighty-one years. He didn't say that he looked forward to an afterlife, or being reborn; instead he preferred to contemplate the events of his life, and for that I respect him greatly. It might be my bias, but it sounded to me as though he had not picked up the crutch -- he faced death the way he faced life, without fear and with patience and dignity.

I know as an atheist that I will never see Bompa again. When he died on that morning -- at home in the cottage on the Lake, with his family, not alone in a hospital bed -- his life ended. The parts of himself that he shared with us are still strong, and I still love the man who was my grandfather, and taught me much about life without saying a word. In this way, trite as it may be, there are facets of him still living -- the only afterlife an atheist may hope for.


So, what of death and the atheist? Is it more difficult for us to bear than it is for believers? I began this essay thinking that it was, but now I'm not certain -- it is hard to accept that he is truly gone, that I won't ever be with him again; but at the same time, I know that he made a difference in this world, for us and the hundreds of other lives that he touched. I know that what he taught us is still alive; that we will remember him for as long as we live; and in such a way, his death is easier to accept, even if we will never communicate again. It has been perhaps more difficult to come to terms with this; but in the end, I am at peace, and stronger myself for it.

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