This piece was written last spring when the author’s aunt died. It was written to help us through some recent periods of grief in the atheist community, so we can get through the hard times.
Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
~Mary Elizabeth Frye
This past spring, one of my favourite aunts died. My Father’s sister, she was only 64 years old. That’s younger than her own mother was when she passed. My uncle has already been gone a number of years now, but my aunt, while it hit her hard, never let that phase her. My aunt was fiercely independent and tough as nails. She always did her own thing and fuck anyone who tried to get in her way. Her life was a lot shorter than it should have been, but I think she had a good one, and I think she was happy. She loved animals and kept horses most of her life, as well as dogs. She had her own little hair salon in her home and did hair for the community for decades. She was the first one to ever cut my hair and the only one for my entire childhood. She raised my two beautiful cousins and enjoyed her three grandsons. Again, far too short, but it was mostly a good life.
I know that death and loss is one of the hardest things we all have to go through in life, yet it is an integral part of life. Unless we die at far too young of an age ourselves, we will all experience loss and grief at some point. I am also keenly aware that this heartache and fear is primarily what drives belief in gods and religion. What wouldn’t any of us do to be able to see and spend time with those we love whom we have lost? It’s a hell of a lure. The idea that we can divest ourselves of some of that pain and anguish with the knowledge that our loved one has just moved on, and we can eventually go with them. It’s a beautiful sentiment, it’s a comfort to millions, it inspires people to do incredible things, and it’s all a fucking lie.
Those we have lost are gone. They are never coming back in any form, and we will not be going anywhere to see them in the future. This is reality, and in all honesty it fucking sucks. Which is why billions of people in the world refuse to accept this reality. Religion has known this for millennia and to me, one of the most despicable practices of religion is to manipulate and capitalize on that. Religion takes people’s deepest fears and pains and uses it against them and it is reprehensible.
I’ve heard it said frequently that if religion provides comfort to people, then we should just let it be. Allow those people the comfort they seek because it doesn’t do any harm and it helps them. Bullshit! It absolutely DOES do harm. For every person we allow to believe this shit, they sell the same pack of lies to everyone else in their lives, especially any who have children. By allowing this mirage to exist, we are harming billions of people who hang a good deal of their emotional well-being on something that is false.
We have allowed generations of people to cling to this ideal, that death is not death and that all have the possibility of more. In doing so, we have deprived ourselves of the true value of life. The pious deprive themselves of true living, and the fundamentalist often seek to deprive others of experiencing being alive. Beyond that, we have also deprived generations of the opportunity to gain emotional strength through experiencing loss as it truly is.
When people say we should allow a grieving person that solace of believing in eternity, it sounds like a kind thing to do. We think that it will ease the pain of the loss if we allow them to think their loved one will be waiting for them in the afterlife, whatever that means to them. But it doesn’t. It only deprives them of the ability to fully process and accept that loss, because they always doubt that it is actually a loss. They have hope that it is only a temporary separation, so why would they seek to really accept the finality of death?
As a refresher, I looked up the stages of grief. I’ve been through it enough times that I don’t even follow the stages as they are anymore so it had been a while since I thought of them. Some schools of thought even claim there are more stages than I remember, but two very important things stood out to me. One, is that the final stage, acceptance, is not reached by everyone. Just think about that for a moment. Millions of people will experience grief and never be able to fully accept the loss. I have to wonder how much of that is caused by religion and the notion that the loss isn’t final. I ache for those people who will never know what the peace of that acceptance is like, for those whose emotional pain will likely never ease. If religion causes even a small fraction of this, it is an evil thing. I suspect it is the cause of a lot more suffering than this.
I am a firm believer that adversity breeds strength. I’ve lived it enough to be sure of the concept. In the time immediately following my aunt’s death, I had a couple of good friends tell me that I am a strong person. I don’t mean to toot my proverbial horn, but I believe them. I KNOW it. I always tell them that I had no choice in the matter, that it was adapt, cope or die. This speaks to the other thing that really stood out for me when I was researching grief.
In that piece, it said: ” As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs.”
THIS is how I manage, how I get through every shitty situation that life has to throw at me and come out ready to take more. I have to look that pain in the face and go through it. Let it wash over me like a tsunami until I am left there standing. And you know what? I’m always left standing after it passes. I cannot fear to feel these things, or it will consume from the inside out. It will fester like a cancer, an infection that will slowly eat you alive. That’s why I call the experience “lancing the abscess”. It isn’t pleasant, it’s downright agonizing at times, it can be very messy, but it HAS to happen for me to remain healthy and strong. I suspect this is the same for a great many people.
Yet what does religion do? Clergy will give you platitudes meant to sooth your pain and encourage you not to feel bad because “god” will fix everything. I have been to far too many funerals that I have seen this shit time and time again. Your loved one is “in a better place,” “god wanted to take them home” “god needed a new angel,” and of course, the idea that your loved one will be waiting for you in heaven or be “risen” on judgement day. Clergy assumes this is true, and does whatever they can to get the bereaved to believe it too. The intent might be good, but in the end, the bereaved would be much better served by learning how to process that raw emotion, instead of pretending they don’t have a reason to feel that way.
Grief is not a standard issue item. Grief is a mixture of emotions that evolves over time, from when the loss occurs. Just like love, which I talked about in a Facebook Note, there is no fucking way billions of people experience grief the same way. I get so pissed when I hear people talk about how someone isn’t reacting “normally” to a death or that they are grieving too long or not long enough etc. Hell people have been suspected of and I might say even convicted of murder based on how they grieved the loss of the victim. Sorry but there is no “right” fucking way mourn the loss of someone.
As I mentioned, I have lost a lot of people in my life, and I have even experienced grief differently over the years. I don’t follow the known stages of grief, and I’m not sure that I ever have. I see nothing wrong with that. Different people mean different things to me, regardless of DNA or affection or love and I’m an individual, not some kind of carbon copy person.
I’ve mourned people very profoundly, like my father; I’ve mourned people more for the loss they created in the lives of others around them, like my brother. I’ve been relieved that the suffering of some people was relieved by their death, like my maternal grandmother. I’ve been dismayed and shocked by loss, like my college friend who lost his battle with mental illness.
And yes, I have rejoiced in the death of someone, the grandfather who molested me.
How anyone grieves a loss is their own damn business, and no one should be trying to tell them they’re doing it wrong. And religion shouldn’t be trying to tell people their grief should be muted or held in. We have to let it out or we risk being consumed by it.
No one in my father’s family was ever religious. I never had cause to discuss it with them, any of them, but judging by their actions, I would say they were likely a mixture of deists, apatheists, agnostics and maybe even the odd atheist. Whatever their beliefs, church was only something you did when someone got married or died.
Except this time, there was no church. It is often the custom to have a clergyman at the funeral and say some kind of religious shit like I mentioned above. My beautiful cousins are apparently smarter than that. There was no funeral, no clergy, no religious shit whatsoever. We gathered together as a family and remembered my aunt, talked about good times with her and were happy we knew her. THAT is how it should be. Find joy in each other; celebrate the life gone and the lives that are still here. Fuck the sky fairies and their false promises.