Thursday, October 26, 2006


Healthy three month old babies shouldn't have to die, but they do, and I went to the funeral of one of them the other day. The infant son of a nurse I know, he was put to bed fine and normal but was dead when they went to awaken him in the morning.

At the funeral, which happened to be Catholic, I was struck by how much beliefs of an afterlife or opportunity to be together again sometime with the deceased are used to try to comfort the bereaved. We attempt to soften the blow of death by saying we'll see him again. I think that just about all religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on, have some belief of resurrection or reincarnation, some idea of persistence of the soul.

It makes me wonder what a funeral in a truly atheist family is like. Without any thought of reuniting with the loved one or any notion of living on in some other form, the finality of death must be stunning. I suspect that ideas like "His energy will persist," or "We'll see him in the wind and trees" or some such thing come out because we need some sort of defense mechanism against the awful thought of not seeing the person again.

I hadn't been able to go to the family visitation at the funeral home because I was working, and there were so many people at the funeral that I was a little concerned I wouldn't get to see the nurse to express my condolences. After the funeral, though, I was standing in the church lobby when she came up to me and touched my arm. As I turned to her, all I could do was say "I am so sorry," and give her a hug. In the face of such a tremendous loss, our words and gestures of sympathy seem so feeble, but they are all we mere mortals have.


Blogger Unknown said...

I've wondered that about athiests as well. It must be so hard to be a non-believer. I hate funerals. Any kind. I've stood there by my deceased loved ones awaiting the endless line of condolences and I've been in the line of consolers. It sucks both ways. When offering our sympathy all we can say is that we are sorry and hope that they see that we really mean it and really empathize with them. When you are accepting condolences what do you say? Thank you? I'm sorry, too? All I've ever been able to muster is, "thank you for coming, this sucks.". Funerals suck. I couldn't imagine having a funeral without my religious belief. What could that be like?

5:08 PM  
Blogger Sarabeth said...

My father died very suddenly this past May. I'm an atheist. He is just gone. It makes the time I spent with him that much sweeter.

My mother is not an atheist, but she is not comforted by the idea that she will one day meet her husband again.

The rites for my father were done quietly over his body as he requested. The services at the internment were what some would consider absent of of religious ceremony. Each person who could spoke of what they loved best about my father, the memories that meant the most. It was what he wanted.

Funerals are truly difficult. I stood there at the visitation thanking people for coming all the while feeling odd thanking the people. But, I was thanking them for caring, for being a friend. What they said to me is a blur and honestly, except for a few people, I will not remember what was said. However, I remember every person who was there to pay respects to my father and to my family. In the end, that was what mattered to me--a visual representation of how many people cared for my father.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Alison Cummins said...

You mean neither of you know any atheists? You not only live extremely sheltered lives, you clearly don’t get out much on the Internet either.

Ok. Atheists don’t believe in god or God or an afterlife. At all. They don’t believe that the person comes back as the wind in the trees. The person they knew no longer exists. The end.

Yes, loss hurts. More than we think it’s going to. More than we can rationalise. But other people don’t exist for the purpose of making us happy. And their deaths are not something we need to pretend didn’t happen. They did die, and now we need to continue living without them, just as we live without people who aren’t born yet. One day we will die too, and the people we know will continue living without us. None of us is that essential.

For my part, I’ve often wondered how people picture those pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die family reunions. You and both your spouses (you remarried after your first spouse died) all living together? With everyone’s kids and parents and grandparents? Are there fights about whether Granny lives with you or with her Granny or with her first boyfriend?

Very unbiblical if you’ve read your Bible. The New Testament is quite clear that the afterlife is nothing like earthly life and that you shouldn’t expect to be recreating your families. (Mark 12:18-25) So Christians can’t use this to comfort themselves either.

If Christians don’t believe in reuiniting after death and manage to deal with loss anyway, then why would atheists be a special case and need recourse to special atheist fantasies about the wind in the trees?

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how very sad for the nurse and her thoughts are with her in this difficult time.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Clark Bartram said...

I am an atheist as well and the only thing I accept as a form of afterlife is the memories of those who still live. I don't need religion to find solace in times of grieving. I understand that some do. To each there own. I have no qualms about the finality of death. I try to make every minute count.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

My heartfelt sympathy to your friend and colleague for her devastating loss. I am so sorry as well.

It is my experience that faith seldom brings much consolation in the immediate aftermath of loss. Grief runs deep, and even deep faith is often no match for the despair that can emerge after a tragic loss. But genuine faith has never been about consolation, or comfort. The disciples of Jesus were certainly afforded very little comfort for their faith during their time. There is nothing easy about true faith, and its purpose is not to make us feel better about death, but to guide us as to how to live in both joy and sorrow.

What faith offers in the midst of tragedy, is the belief that there is a bigger story being told. That even in the deepest pain, we can still find a foothold of strength, hope and companionship for the journey ahead. It is choosing to embrace the mystery that we can't possibly know all there is to know, and that the mystery is in and of itself beautiful.

Is this life all there is? Is that sweet baby boy simply gone? My faith tells me no. But as a simple human being I would never profess to have all the answers. I choose the mystery.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Fat Doctor said...

Once again, a powerful post.

I worked in a funeral home for a year during college. Those who had no religious belief system seemed to grieve the hardest.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Fat Doctor said...

Why is it on this blog my posting name is just "fat?" Do youj have blogger beta? Just askin'.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Alison...why make such a comment? I didn't say one bad thing about an atheist...why make such an assumption that we must live sheltered lives? Honestly, I don't talk to people about their religions. I may know many atheists and just not know it. It was an ignorant assumption. And as far as getting out much on the, I guess I don't. I've got a real life. I have two or three places I visit online. I guess if that's sheltered, I'm ok with it. It's also irresponsible of you to say anything about "unbiblical". I didn't once reveal my religion nor did I attempt to preach the gospel to anyone. Why the bitterness towards a believer? My faith comforts me. If you feel you are superior because you are somehow more enlightened or intelligent then here's to you. But seriously, you don't sound intelligent when making such comments, you just sound desperate.

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are right - as a humanist I did not have a ready made religious consolation when my husband died - but I supect that such consolations console those who are feeling completely impotent in the face of another's grief.

What gives me consolation is the knowledge thatI had over twenty years of happy life with my husband ( far more than many people) - starting from a passionate love afair which became a mature, caring and still sensual love - that I was loved far more than I deserved - and that with him in his mid eighties and with a failing heart it was time for him to die, and that I could support him in his dying so that he was content to the end.

From the begining we knew that our relationship was time limited and we lived our lives accordingly. I therefore feel blessed as well as extremely sad. I do not need to believe that we will meet again.

5:55 AM  
Blogger sailorman said...

It makes me wonder what a funeral in a truly atheist family is like. Without any thought of reuniting with the loved one or any notion of living on in some other form, the finality of death must be stunning. I suspect that ideas like "His energy will persist," or "We'll see him in the wind and trees" or some such thing come out because we need some sort of defense mechanism against the awful thought of not seeing the person again.

It's sad, like any other funeral. But one remembers those we love. I don't need to imagine that my grandmother is sitting on a puffy cloud to mourn her loss.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It makes me wonder what a funeral in a truly atheist family is like.

The funeral (actually wake) for my partner's father was a celebration of his life and a time to mourn the loss. Yes, it was sad. Yes, it is hard to comprehend that someone who was there, real and vital, is gone. His work (he was a fairly successful professional poet) remains as a reminder of who he was and his two children and grandchild carry on some of his genetic code. But he is gone forever and that is hard to accept or even comprehend.

Without any thought of reuniting with the loved one or any notion of living on in some other form, the finality of death must be stunning.

Yes, but what can you do? A belief is a belief. I can't believe in an afterlife just because I would rather there be one than not. I'd love to believe in a loving god or gods and a heavenly afterlife. But I don't.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, a lot of defensiveness here.

Lori, you said everything perfectly & beautifully.

When you suffer a profound loss, like your own child, faith doesn`t console. Religious people aren`t weaklings who "need religion to find solace in times of grieving." Wheen you think of the suffering God`s own family endured, its easy to see we`re not immune to great pain. In fact, being with someone as they died proved to me that there was a God, by the things that I saw and heard. It didn`t make the aftermath any easier though.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine whose son died recently is an atheist. They chose not to have a funeral. Instead they had him cremated and planted two trees with his ashes.

12:10 PM  
Blogger MM said...

sids is a scary thing and I feel for any family who experiences such a thing.

1:35 PM  
Blogger PaedsRN said...

I withdrew care on a baby in the ICU not too long ago and spent some time with her very large extended family afterwards. The next week they came back to say thank you, and gave me a book explaining the teachings of Islam. Didn't really know what to say to that.

As far as I'm concerned, when they're gone they're gone. My only reservation on that subject is that it would be foolish to assume we know everything there is to know about existence. I suspect it may turn out to be stranger than any of us thought possible.

7:49 PM  
Blogger neonataldoc said...

Thanks everyone, it's interesting to see the different perspectives. I'm not saying that hoping for a reunion is necessarily the best way to grieve - actually, it's probably not that healthy - but I was just struck at this funeral by how much they talked about it.

Fat (Fat doctor?), I have beta blogger. I don't know why you're just called "fat" in these comments, but thanks for the compliment.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Irishdoc said...

There is nothing sadder for me then when parents run in with a blue and floppy baby and walk out with nothing.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Alison Cummins said...


I didn’t say any bad things about believers. You didn’t name your own faith, but Neonatal Doc referred to a Catholic funeral. I’m not sure why you’re so upset.

Yes, I was annoyed and worried that Neonatal Doc — someone who works intimately with the public — imagined that someone “truly atheist” believes in a God and afterlife, just not as part of a formalised religion. Sort of like a public health nutritionist thinking that a “true vegetarian” is someone who eats all animals except cows. It’s not nice to be misunderstood, is it?

It’s a bit strange to me to think of someone wondering about atheists and funerals. You should be able to ask one. Probably right at the funeral and get your curiosity satisfied right away. The only reason I can think of for someone wondering is that they don’t know any atheists well enough to ask. And I have to give Neonatal Doc credit for asking in the form of this blog post.

Personally I’m an agnostic. I don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t believe in a god exactly, but I think that the mystery of individual consciousness is not something that will be resolved by further study of neurological physiology. So my mind is open to the idea that there’s more going on. But I have no idea what that is and I have no basis for concrete ideas about souls, or the departed visiting the living in any form at all, or about post-mortem family reunions.

I have wished I had faith to give me the conviction that my suffering had some sort of meaning. Or so that I could pray for others who suffer, at those times when all that can be offered is prayer. But I have never imagined that faith could reduce suffering.

Like Clark, I try to make my life count now, because pitiful as it is that’s all I’ve got.

And because I believe that suffering has no meaning, that it is not redemptive, I do what I can to relieve it in others. There’s nothing good about it and there is no God to compensate people for it in an afterlife. It’s just bad, and if we don’t alleviate it then nobody will.

I could accuse believers of complacency, of thinking that because suffering has meaning, because it is part of God’s Plan, they are not personally responsible for making the world a less painful place to live. I could suggest that believers cope with the fact of suffering in the world by shrugging it off with a “God knows best.” But I know, because my friends are believers and atheists and agnostics, that this is a matter of personality. Some atheists are geeks who sit at home and snipe at others. So are some believers. Some atheists contribute greatly to making the world less painful. So do some believers. People rationalise their world view by their religious beliefs/non-beliefs, not the other way around.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister died in March. Our family has a mix of believers and athiests. My sister didn't believe, not do I. We had a memorial dinner a few months after her death. I know with all my heart she is gone. I will never see her again and it sucks. Before her death I admit I had mild contempt for those who needed the fairy tale of god. Although I can't imagine believing in a god, I think I have a better understanding of why others want a god and an afterlife to get through their hurt.

12:17 PM  
Blogger amelia said...

I don't know if you are still reading comments from this post or not. I too, recently went to the funeral of a baby that died of SIDS. The mother was one of my childbirth students pregnant with twins. Both babies were healthy and born at 38 weeks. She got up to feed the babies early one morning and one of the babies was gone. My husband and I have always believed that no one can ever come up with the right words to say but that your presence alone can be comforting. I am planning on getting together with her next week since it has been a few weeks since the funeral. I know that most people are generally in shock mode during the funeral and it is the quiet moments that are more difficult.

I am giving her a book on infant loss--Empty Arms--you are probably familiar with it since you deal with infant death.

SIDS is so devastating simply because of the lack of reason. I keep thinking about all the moments she will face (especially when the other twin hits those milestones) remembering that her daughter would be doing those things if she were alive.

I think your presence meant a lot to this mother.

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter died at 3 1/2 months old of SIDS. She would have been 7 this past September. Not one day goes by that I don't feel so very empty. Alison - your comments made me very angry. And all the comments about the "puffy clouds and such" from others. It is not a matter of Christianity or not. None of that matters when you lose your own blood so innocently. I'm still mad at "my God". But you apparantly have not went through something like this. And your shallow comment "others don't exist to make us happy". How do you know? If you don't believe in God, why are trying to act like one? People deal with grief however they can and however they have to. It's not by a matter of choice. My little boy has to visit his sister's grave on her birthday. He brings her balloons and sings to her and lets the balloons go so they can fly up to Heaven. Maybe that is our way of coping with things. And in all honestly, I dont' know what I believe. But I do know that no matter what our beliefs, we'll all not find out until we die. But that doesn't mean to judge others. No matter what, I have to deal with losing my only daughter. And how I choose to comfort myself, my son, and my family should be of no concern to you.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter died when she was just a baby. When you loose a child, there is NO consolation. There just isn't. There simply is no consolation.

I attend a support group for beraved parents. And there is a couple in my group who have whole heartedly, and desperately embraced the Christian idea that the world will end in thier life time and thier son will return in the flesh and again stand in front of them. I think that is much more sad, than my beleifs. I would not limit my beliefs to the word "athiest", which is a word created by Christians, like "Pagan" to refer to people who do not follow the institutions of Christianity. I think it is much healthier that I can feel what is right and real in the spiritual realm, than to be dependent on teachings of an institution to tell me what to believe about my daugher's fate.

My daughter's funeral was not as any of you have described "athiest", nor was it associated with any church or institutional "spirituality"/"religion".

I'm not going to share my personal beliefs about afterlife, specifically the after life of children, and most especially of my daughter, because I can see that this discussion is limited to closed, "Christian" view of all things spiritual, and am sure that I would not be understood.

But I do wish that you would consider your extremely ethnocentric language, such as the statements that anyone who is not christian is a "non believer", or a person without "faith". Don't you think that it just might be true that affiliation with an institution does not actually bring you any closer to god. Can you even begin to see that those you refer to as "non believers" could be so much closer to the spiritual/god, than any affiliation with the institution you assume to be allied to god could ever make you?

11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if it is appropriate to leave a comment in June of 2007 on a topic opened 8 months ago. It may or may not post. As a 55 year old who became a non beliver at the age of 12-13, rejecting christianity, islam and ALL religions that have a deity I would like to comment. I point out that it took another 15 years to realize there is no god period, not just the false stories of a god in the mainstream dogma. So I may only have been a true atheist from that point. It is a display of an active, cognitive mind that anyone would, while attending a funeral, service or internment, wonder how an atheist family would react. It is a mind like this that makes humanity great. We think and explore. Too many just don't think. I am a bit chagrined at the comment of Allison, though thankfully she re-entered the blog to explain. All of you should note not all atheists are alike. Just as the varried composition of any one of your congregations has jerks, x-cons, delivery drivers, saintly and neighborly types, doctors, lawyers or mean or rude members. They ain't mean, rude, driving a truck, mitigating law or delivering babies because they are jewish, catholic, baptist or islamic. Any time someone says: those catholics, those born-agains, freakin' evangelicals, goofy mormons, it conjures all the stereotypes both true and un-true. It also displays the bias of the speaker. I am a very jolly, cordial, funny, motorcycling,fishing, classical music loving, romance loving courteous white male who is a good dancer. I am none of these because I am an atheist. I suspect any of you with a mean or grumpy or convicted murdering uncle, aunt, sibling, parent, grand parent or child thinks any one of those people are what they are because they were born and raised christian, jewish or what ever. Then why would we atheists be a certain way? To finish, I too have never been to an atheist funeral, or wedding. From my own standpoint, grieving is harder because there is no where to go after death. There is no reunion. It is over. Sadly I'll never see my wonder Dad again. A wonderful Dad who died 20 years ago this September. But this is life. Life does what it is supposed to do. When it is over there is no bearded jewish man in robes awaiting you. There are no harems of 72 virgins(for that matter; what are the islamic female murdering martyrs awaiting; 72 never before used, virgin men? GET REAL folks!) awaiting you. Yes, this makes life all that more difficult in some ways. It also makes life alot easier with out the spiritual baggage. It certainly makes those of us moral individuals an intresting lot as we moral and ethical without the fear of a spirit 'getting us'. I have written enough.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lost my wife last month. She was 51. Her death was sudden and unexpected.

I am an atheist, I was born Catholic but by my teenage years the Catholic teachings didn't make sense to me any more or provide satisfactory answers to my questions.

My wife was also raised Catholic. Although in adulthood she remained a believer in god, what exactly is meant by "god" she felt no religion really had a good grasp on. Her beliefs seemed to encompass a wide range of traditions, and ultimately she would not have claimed to have any sort of lock on the ultimate truth. But she believed that there must be something up there, and that this life could not be all there is.

We gave her a Catholic funeral and she lies in a Catholic cemetery now. And I hope that I will someday join her there.

In the past 6 weeks I have talked to her every day, with little hope that she can hear, but I still do it, just in case. I do not claim to know for certain if there is a god, or to know what happens after we die. I just believe that there is no god and that after we die, that's just it. My beliefs are just beliefs, and I freely admit I do not know. I don't think anybody really knows. Some people believe very very strongly, but nobody can truly know.

And yes, it is very hard to deal with her death, because I would so badly like to see her again. I hope for some sort of reunion in the afterlife, although I don't believe it will happen. Still I hope I am mistaken. I think that if I really believed she was in heaven, at peace, in no pain, happily reunited with others who have passed on, like my dad or her grandmother, that would be very comforting. If I really believed that some day I would come to join her, that would be very comforting. But I don't believe in those things, and I cannot start believing just for "wouldn't it be nice" reasons.

So, I am grieving, and it makes sense to me to think that perhaps I might grieve more than a religious person would, with their comforting beliefs in the afterlife.

I don't seek to be critical in any way of beliefs that differ from my own. But to answer the original question that started all of this, yes it would make sense to me to think that the death of a loved one may be a bit harder on an atheist than on a person of religious faith.

9:03 PM  
Blogger sexy said...







1:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home