Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.
Texas Born & Bred asked:
I am in my sixties. In the last 2 or 3 years, I have attended the funerals of several close relatives and friends that were younger than me. One cousin that died was very close. We were each other’s best man at our weddings. My very best friend in high school died. Several friends my age or younger are struggling with serious health problems.
So death often captures my attention. I am a Christian (what kind? – barely Christian) and I am constantly reminded in church, Sunday school, and bible studies of the glory that await us once we die. That would be nice and does provide comfort. But my problem is that the ones I cared deeply about that have died were not the church-going type. And that is discomforting. Life is not fair.
I took a stroll through an older cemetery one day and could not help but notice the large number of headstones of babies. Back in the 1800s, it was common for children to die in sickness outbreaks. One headstone was simply marked “Wilson babies”. What a horrible thing to go through! But the parents struggled on. They still had crops to work and cows to milk. Their faith must have provided a bit of comfort in such a gut-wrenching time.
How do atheists handle the death of loved ones? Is their grieving process the same as believers who expect to see their loved ones again someday in heaven?
This is a great question. For Christians, when death takes a loved one, they have the promise of comfort from Jesus and the hope of being reunited in Heaven someday. Let’s face it, atheism can’t offer life after death, nor is it all that comforting to think that you’ll never see your loved one again. Yet, knowing there is no life after death can and does motivate atheists to live life to its fullest. If I had one piece of advice to give it would be this:
You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.
Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Someday, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.
Death is quite personal, and how we respond is too. Unlike the Christian who is expected to put his faith in Jesus and claim the promises of God, the atheist must meet death head-on without any buffers or feel-good beliefs. When death takes a loved one, that’s the end. What’s left are the memories made over a lifetime. While I can’t speak for any atheist but myself, if Polly died before me, I hope I would, in the midst of my grief, revel in our shared experiences. We’ve been married for almost forty-two years. We’ve raised six wonderful children, and are blessed beyond measure with thirteen grandchildren. We have had all sorts of experiences, both personally and together. We’ve each stood by the hospital bedside of the other, fearing that we would never see each other again. Our marriage has been tested and tried, yet we have endured. That said, if either of us died today, our testimony would be, it’s been good. While I can’t imagine living one day without Polly, I know life will go one whether I can imagine it or not.
How would you answer Texas Born and Bred’s question? What sage, witty advice would you give to atheists facing the death of a loved one? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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