Dead but not gone (atheists included)
My mother died in 2012 (age 90)
I loved and love my mother profoundly. I have no idea how I was so blessed to have been born as her son.
She led an amazing life, more inspiring than any others I have heard or read about. And I got to be her son. I visited with her for a week just three weeks before she died. She was ready to die. She told me that she wanted to die. I told her I would find a way to assist her in dying if she asked. She didn't ask. Three weeks later she died (my sister and I suspect that she may have helped herself die).
I cried some deep, happy tears of gratitude. I was thankful for her death because of how much I loved her and therefore wanted what she wanted for herself.
I have never felt any grief, regarding my mother's death or anyone else's death. For anyone that I've ever known who has died, I know they are dead, but they are never gone (for me).
Recently a good friend's husband died. She has been grieving and going to grief therapy. I began to wonder why she was grieving (and why many others I have known have also grieved when someone close to them died), even though I have never grieved.
My friend (let's call her Barb) generously explored with me the differences between my response to my mother's death and her response to her husband's death. We found the fundamental difference. For her, her husband is dead and gone. For me, my mother is dead, but not gone (and will never be).
For example, Barb fixed a bouquet and reflexively started to show it to her husband, only to realize that he is gone. She was then struck with grief. In contrast, during this conversation with Barb, I thought, "Oh, my mother would enjoy overhearing this conversation I am having with Barb." Then I felt/saw my mother "looking down" on us talking together, fascinated by our conversation and admiring us both. Yes, my mother is dead. But she is not gone. She's always here with me, even more than when she was alive.
But what if I don't believe in an afterlife?
When discussing this issue with Barb (who is an atheist), she had two concerns with the idea that her husband (in the form of his spirit) was available for commune with her. First, she didn't want to associate herself with those superstitious Christians who don't listen to reason and just take things on faith. Second, she actually felt uncomfortable with the idea that her husband was "watching everything."
Create the belief (fatebelief) just the way it needs to be
To share with Barb how I am able to "be with my mother" in a way that supports me (and I thought could support her), I had to explain to her two types of beliefs. The first type I call factbelief. This is the type of belief that is so important to Barb and she didn't want to risk getting sloppy in believing stuff that she had no evidence for. The second type of belief I call fatebelief. I explained to Barb how some fatebeliefs can be important to have, even though they are not supported by facts. I gave her an example with myself. I believe (fatebelieve) that everything that happens in my life is a gift to me. Sometimes (at first blush) some things don't seem like a gift (for example, when my Internet goes out). But, I have trained myself to ask the question, "How is this a gift? Or how could I create a gift out of this?" I live inside the belief that everything that occurs in my life is a gift to me.
Barb appreciates the power of having a belief like this, even though it's not a factbelief.
"Barb, my belief that the spirit of my mother is always there (whenever I want to be aware of it), 'looking down' and appreciating and curious about what I am thinking, what I am hearing, what I am speaking, what I am doing. And, when I 'smile at her' in my mind, she's smiling back with such appreciation and admiration."
"But I know you have another issue, which I would have too, except for the way I create my belief about my mother. She's a mother 'from the other world.' She doesn't have any of the judgmental biases that my mother may have had before she died. As an example, I can enjoy 'communing' a bit with my mother's spirit even when I am making love...and neither she nor I are embarrassed."
Barb and I need to explore this more, but I think she's beginning to get it.
Grief results from the belief that someone is gone. But that "goneness" doesn't have to be true. It is a result of a disempowering fatebelief that "She/he is gone."
"Death may be the end of a life – but not a relationship."
Postscript on December 19, 2020
My dearest sister Karen, three years younger than me, died on November 25th in a hospital on the Gold Coast just north of Brisbane, Australia. Her husband and daughter Sarah were by her side. She lived an amazing life and I was beyond blessed to be her brother. For many years, we would talk on the phone for an hour every two weeks. I was fortunate that she was feeling up to talking with me just ten days before she died.
As I am sharing this with you, I'm feeling her presence and smile, knowing that she is both with me and even with you too (the reader who is currently reading these words).