Tag Archives: grief

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.

In memory of my friend Greg

When I first met Greg, he was living on the streets a few blocks from my office. I hadn’t been in Portland long, maybe nine months, and he had posted to the Portland subreddit about losing his job, then apartment, and eventually becoming homeless. He seemed like a nice guy, and I get an hour for lunch, so I offered him a meal and conversation. I had just started my job–in fact I was able to afford lunch because I’d just received my first paycheck–so I was still in training and working a 7-4 shift.

It looked a lot like this (because this is it).

It looked a lot like this (because this is it).

Greg was waiting for me outside as Old Town Pizza opened their doors. We sat in a cozy elevator shaft that had been converted to a dining area. He brought his laptop and showed me some of the things he’d been reading. (At this point I don’t even recall what they were, I only remember being impressed that he had a number of interests spanning multiple disciplines.) We talked about technology, politics, and human nature while eating warm pizza as the late February wind rattled the windowpane. After lunch, I returned to the controlled comfort of my office building. Greg went to a coffee shop until it closed, then spent the night on the sidewalk.

Truth be told, Greg could have been one of my coworkers. That’s what I kept thinking after meeting him and talking with him for an hour: he could have been any number of people I’ve worked with over the years. It’s a bit overwhelming to realize that, save for a different set of circumstances and poor decisions, you or someone you consider a colleague could be living on the streets. One of the things Greg kept mentioning was how difficult it was to find social services to help, though he did say there was an abundance of food to be had for those who could not afford it. What a sad thing to be proud of in a first-world country.

We spoke often. I’ve known him for a year and a half, and looking back through my inbox there are over a thousand messages traded back and forth between us. Some of them are short, such as, “Sounds good! See ya soon.” Others are long, rambling paragraphs about teaching crows to collect change that would then be donated to charity, how best to hide your trail online in the new reality of constant electronic surveillance, or funny stories from our pasts. He met my girlfriend and she loved him. He was so charming it was almost impossible not to. Even the dog loved Greg, sometimes seemingly more than me.

<3

<3

He found a few different places to stay for short amounts of time, including with us for a few weeks. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburbs, and I think he missed being in the middle of the frenetic energy that flows through downtown Portland. A friend of Greg’s was kind enough to put him up in her basement while he worked to get back on his feet. During that time, he began to volunteer at Free Geek with more regularity, and would come to teach several classes. One of the things so impressing about Greg was how adamantly he desired to help others. In my belief, this desire is what led him to work with the Animal Beta Project and to teach classes at Free Geek. Looking at his reddit history, just a month ago he commented on a post to leave encouraging words to someone dealing with depression. Even while his own life was falling to–no, was in–pieces, he gave of himself.

There’s so much more I could say about him, and I’m sure I will eventually. Right now I simply hurt. I don’t hurt for myself, though there is a degree of pain because I’ll never see my friend again. I hurt for those who will never get to know Greg, for the people who would have walked right by him sleeping on the sidewalk without giving him a second thought, for the people who weren’t there when he needed them the most. I hurt because I am no better than this to others. I walk by people every day who sleep wrapped in newspapers and threadbare blankets. You become desensitized, maybe even to the point you don’t consciously recognize they’re there. But they are there. They are people. Most of them are probably very different from Greg, but they are still worthy of some basic aspect of human dignity.

I’m also angry. So damn angry. Over a month before his death Greg had an accident, followed by another a few weeks later that put him in the hospital. Both of these accidents occurred at least in part due to mental health incidents. I told them as much at the hospital. Since I’m not related to Greg, I had no legal or medical pull while he was in the hospital. He was admitted with a broken arm, broken ribs, and an ankle swollen to the size of my bicep. They wanted to send him home that same night. If you know anything about the American healthcare system you know why. Greg had no insurance. I firmly believe this was a factor in the quality (and quantity) of care he received.

The hospital kept him overnight, but only after I made a big stink about the fact that he lived alone, was in a physical condition that greatly reduced or eliminated his ability to care for himself, and would likely end up dead if he had another mental health incident that resulted in injury. Even talking caused Greg to gasp in pain. They discharged him the next day while I was at work. He wasn’t even able to walk or use his arms, and they tried to send him home with only crutches. He had to beg for a wheelchair. They said those costs are typically paid by insurance or out-of-pocket. Neither was an option for Greg.

I met up with him last Wednesday. We went to Safeway to get a prescription filled. He couldn’t afford the $13 cost. I don’t know if there are social programs out there that could have helped him, but I do know he was not in any shape to take advantage of them without some outside assistance. I am happy I was able to be there for my friend, even though I wish I had done more. How many others have no one? We talk about people falling through the cracks as if they were breadcrumbs in grout or coins dropped down a sewer drain. It’s so much messier, nothing but absolute apathy in the face of the meat-grinder gore of reality. Wednesday was the last day I saw Greg. I think I was the last one to see him alive. I’ll never see him again.

I’m ashamed of my country–the richest one in the entire fucking world–for not having it together enough to catch people before they are broken, sometimes irreparably, by hitting bottom. I’m ashamed of the society that demonizes those with mental illness. While I admit a bias against organized religion, I believe that it is an actual demonization, a holdover of the archaic belief that ill minds are caused by evil spirits rather than chemical imbalances that helps to propagate this attitude. Those with mental illnesses don’t need to be ostracized. That’s the opposite of what’s necessary. They need help without judgment. They need us to give a damn. We are failing this group of people in innumerable ways, and the consequences of it are immeasurable, the losses staggering. I’m ashamed of my fellow humans. I am ashamed of myself.

My friend also struggled with addiction. Some who deal with mental illness self-medicate. This tendency can be exacerbated when suffering from other medical conditions that bring chronic pain. As a non-believer, Greg expressed to me a number of times how uncomfortable he felt in most recovery programs, almost all of which demand an acknowledgement of a higher power and are steeped in other religious language. Overcoming addiction requires peace and support. He did not feel he had either.

I didn't know Greg back when this picture was taken, but I bet we still would have been friends.

I didn’t know Greg back when this picture was taken, but I bet we still would have been friends.

It’s so hard to see what drugs can do to people. I love Greg dearly and do not wish to tarnish his memory, but I also think it’s important that people know what it does to not only the drug user but to the people who care about him or her. It got to the point where I wouldn’t give Greg money, but would instead go with him to buy things. Courtney and I would take him to the grocery store for food. He and I took the MAX to Pioneer Square to buy him a Trimet pass. My friend Greg would have never lied to me; the junkie in him would have said whatever was necessary.

I remember telling Courtney at one point that I didn’t feel qualified to help Greg, that I am just a geek, not a doctor or a psychiatrist or a social worker. He likely needed all those things, but he also needed a friend. I’m glad I could provide that to him for a time.

Illegitimi non carborundum. Don’t let the bastards wear you down. I love you, Greg, and I’m really going to miss you.

So it goes.

If you or someone you know is battling addiction or mental health issues, please seek assistance. (If you’re a non-believer, contact the Secular Organization for Sobriety.) If you’re feeling depressed or having thoughts of taking your own life, please call 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE. If you believe someone you care about is contemplating ending their life, please talk to them. Show them you are there. Their lives may depend on it.