What grief means to me as an atheist

When discussing the different paths which lead to non-belief it’s interesting to see how much variation there can be, and what so many of us have in common. One thing I have in common with many atheists is that I used to be a christian. Another thing I share with a number of people is that I’ve lost loved ones. My story is not unique in several ways, but my own journey has been strongly tied to death and loss–because they are immutable aspects of life–and I assert that my search to find realistic and reasonable ways to cope with loss led me to my current worldview, and that I am a better person for it.

I could write an entire book (and someday will) about the things that brought me to this point, but my first experience with loss was in the third grade. My friend Nicole died after her father fell asleep while smoking a cigarette and burned the house down. She was afraid and hid under the bed. I remember asking my dad why it happened and he responded, “Daniel, everything happens for a reason.” I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but I do remember wondering what reason there could be for her death. Even at such a young age I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with that answer.

My dad and I lived in the country, and I’d ride my bike to the baptist church a mile or so away each Sunday to sing in the choir. If one can imagine how warmly I was greeted, coming sometimes without my father and happily singing with abandon, then one might be able to understand how appealing aspects of christianity were to me due to positive feedback and association. They also talked about “God’s Plan” as if that were the answer to any and all questions.

September of 1990 was a bad month for me. At almost ten years old, I came home from school to find my dad with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. To this day I can tell you exactly what I said: “Oh God, please don’t let my father die. Jesus, save my dad.” I said this before even calling anyone. Needless to say, that prayer went unanswered.

That loss is what led me to become stronger in my faith as a christian. My earthly father was gone, and I replaced him with the heavenly father promised by christianity, one who was all-powerful and would never leave. This persisted through my late teens, during which time I studied the bible and helped lead youth groups. I was in the worship band at church and was the president of the christian club at my high school. I wrote christian rock songs. Eventually, I started attending an apostolic church. Though it is embarrassing to admit, I have spoken in tongues and at one point in my life unquestioningly believed it was possible to heal someone by laying hands on them and praying.

Shortly after the end of my junior year, a good friend and fellow church-goer hung himself, but he didn’t die. His mom found him and performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. He ended up in a coma in the ICU. This really got the holy rolling among the faithful. I remember prayer sessions in the church, people standing up to say that god had spoken to them and said he would heal this young man. I remember sitting at my friend’s bedside in the hospital, singing hymns and reading the bible to him. I was convinced god would save him.

Isaac Asimov said, “Properly read, [the bible] is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” After my friend died a handful of weeks into June of 1998, I spent the rest of that summer reading the bible. I started at the beginning and read straight through to the end. By the time I finished I no longer believed in god, though many months passed before I was able to admit it to myself or others. Christianity, the very thing that had given me solace in my younger years, became hollow and unfulfilling even as I had yet to emerge from adolescence into adulthood.

One of the most difficult things with which to come to terms was relinquishing the idea that I (my soul, anyway) would live forever. By extension, I had to let go of the hope of seeing those I’d lost and spending eternity with them in paradise. I struggled with this for some time. These and other thoughts brought me to despair. It was a difficult period because there was still a part of me that desired the ability to believe these things, but there was no part of me able to implement those beliefs in any meaningful way. I no longer believed, and no amount of prayer or soul-seeking could change that. It forced me to come to terms with my thoughts on death and loss, and what it really meant to grieve for a time and then move on without the benefit of consoling myself with the promise of a reunion in an afterlife.

Recently a good friend of mine passed away. He had spent the last decade here in Portland, but was originally from South Carolina. His family held a memorial there, which left many of us with no way to mourn the loss of this wonderful person. The night he died I spoke on the phone with people all over the world–Qatar, England, Australia, and other countries–who counted Greg as a friend. As I spoke with those who loved him, I realized they, too, would need to mourn and grieve for their loss.

For me, grieving has always been a social process. I seek out others with whom to share stories and hugs. When my fiancée passed away in 2011, my way of coping was to spend the next day calling her friends and loved ones to let them know what had happened. There were so many who cared for her, and a Facebook message or email just seemed so impersonal, even cruel. It was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done, but I will never forget the kind words and memories shared that day. I remember wishing at the time that I could do it in person, that I could wrap my arms around them and sob with them, that I could look them in the eyes and tell them that eventually things would be all right.

I did something similar when Greg died last week. I was on the phone with people I had never met or even seen, laughing and crying as we shared stories of our mutual friend. We were brought together by our shared affection and loss. Many of the friends Greg had were from the internet. He was a member of an organization that finds people who post animal torture videos online and turns them over to the authorities, and many of the people who knew and loved him were met through that group. As I talked to these people, I found myself wishing I could speak to them face to face or that we could all get together in a room and share stories of our friend.

We live in an age of unprecedented connectedness. The virtual world of the internet allows us to meet in real-time with people all over the globe, so we decided to do just that. The organization Free Geek was kind enough to allow the use of its facilities, and we had a virtual memorial there on Saturday, July 27. With a combination of a chat room and live-streaming video (special thanks to Steven Olsen for helping me figure out how to live-stream a Google Hangout), people from all over the world gathered and shared stories of our friend, read dirty limericks (he requested this before he died), listened to Greg’s favorite songs, and generally had a great time.

We did not need a church and a minister or even a funeral home and an officiant, all we needed was technology and the shared love of a dearly missed friend. I’ve been to a number of funerals and wakes. As far as memorials go, this one was the most fun I’ve ever had. I want something similar when I die, an event that brings people together regardless of their location and is as geeky as possible. While there’s a part of me that wishes I could believe I’ll see my friend again someday, I am moved by how many people thought him an integral part of their lives and honored to be able to put together a memorial that paid tribute to his memory, personality, and life.

Our remembrance and celebration of one another is the closest we will ever get to immortality. The chat transcript and video from Greg Traylor’s memorial were saved and are available at http://greg.overtgeek.com.

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