A universal sentiment for atheists and believers alike.
My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly last month. She died from what appears to have been a massive stroke. She had just seen a doctor, and while she had a few relatively minor health issues (as many 50-somethings do), she had just seen a doctor a few days prior to her death. There was nothing to indicate to her doctor or to any of her friends and family that she would suddenly be gone.
I simply could not believe the devastating news at first; this was nearly everyone’s reaction upon hearing it. It just didn’t make sense. From what my stepfather told me, my mom had a very fun night the previous night and had gone to bed happy. He goes to work early in the morning, so as was often the case he didn’t wake her up when he left and just let her sleep.
When he arrived home, she was already dead and had apparently never gotten out of bed. I mention this because it means she very likely died in her sleep and either did not suffer at all or suffered only very briefly. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, my father died just a little over a decade ago after several years of painfully battling cancer. The suffering he went through made me question the existence of an all-powerful, loving God. My mother at least was hopefully not a victim of lengthy, unbearable, meaningless pain before she died. Although it is always difficult to lose a loved one, knowing they went as quickly and painlessly as possible is some comfort.
As you might expect, her death brought up a whole swirl of religious thoughts among her grieving family and friends, myself included. (I will go into these more in detail shortly, including the pastor who nearly ruined my mother’s funeral.) Not being religious at all anymore, and feeling certain that my mother isn’t in a “better place,” brought both comforting and distressing feelings in me. I know that dying is a natural part of life, and that helped me to some extent. A number of people said it didn’t seem or feel “fair” that my mother died so young.
I will admit that a part of me felt, and still feels, that way. Logically, however, I know that there is no cosmic fairness that determines when and how someone dies. Death is just a part of life, and we all will eventually die. Somewhat coincidentally, I had just become acquainted with George Hrab‘s song “Everything Alive Will Die Someday,” which helped comfort and remind me of death being a natural part of life.
But the other side of atheism is knowing that my mother isn’t in some magical place looking down on us, either finally at peace or having fun in paradise. I knew that other people (including family) saw the wake and funeral as a chance to see loved ones and celebrate her life on Earth — and for many if not most gathered there, what they believe to be her new life in heaven. A couple people have said they don’t know exactly where she is, but hope that she’s somewhere.
I don’t feel this way, however: I know with about as much certainty as possible that my mother, as much as I love her, simply doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure most people who knew her don’t share my views on this, though. What was at least a somewhat comforting occasion to most was downright depressing to me. The wake and funeral felt to me overall as a sort of meaningless death ritual taking place around the rotting corpse of my mother. That was very difficult for me. I did what I felt was right though and played along for the most part, talking to loved ones and recounting memories of my mom.
Memories of her and her life will live on as long as we let them, but my mother herself is no more. On good days, I take time to remember and even laugh about fond memories of my mom, although there is still a great deal of sadness that I’m sure, if my experience after my dad’s death was any indication, will take quite some time to subside.
I was surprised actually at the wake and funeral, how few people actually said she was “in a better place.” Maybe it’s become too cliché now to say. Most people either said that they were very saddened and sorry for our loss, and/or their thoughts or prayers were with us. Their sentiments were appreciated. While the wake, conversations, and sympathy cards did include some “God” talk, there was only one thing that very much upset me, and it turned out that it upset some other people as well.
My mother had become more religious in recent years, but still was not a bible-thumping, church-every-Sunday sort of person. There was some basic Christian imagery and words chosen for the wake, but also some more general themes (peace, love). I think this reflected her well and I’m sure is what most of the family wanted. The chapter that was chosen to be read at her funeral was one that I thought was appropriate for a group of family and friends who are nearly all Christians, but also as a general message, too: 1 Corinthians 13.
As many believers and nonbelievers alike will recognize, this is the famous chapter that includes the lines “Love is patient, love is kind […] Love never fails” and ends with “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Of all of the Bible verses that could be used, I was happy this one was chosen since it includes one of the most universal (as opposed to dogmatically-Christian) sentiments in the Bible, at least as it is widely taken by many people. The power and importance of love is a warm way to remember a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and so many other roles she filled for the people she loved and who loved her so much.
But the pastor officiating the service did not leave the verse at this. In his message, he told my stepfather, me, and the rest of assembled grieving loved ones that my mother’s love did fail, and that our love for her also failed. He paused after each of these pronouncements, I presume to allow the full effect of his words to sink in. He then continued, saying that human love always fails, and that it is only Christ’s love that saves us.
I was shocked and infuriated that he would use those verses to deliver a message so dark and drenched in dogma at my mother’s funeral. My mother, despite any faults she may have had (who doesn’t have faults?), was perhaps the most loving person I have ever known. She very well may have believed some sort of afterlife, or specifically in heaven, or even in Christ’s saving love for her. But there isn’t anyone in that room who knew my mother who would actually think she would have approved of a pastor telling her husband and children that her love had failed us, and that our love had failed her. It felt like a hijacking of her funeral.
Fortunately, immediately after the service, when the funeral director was giving directions to the cemetery, he added a few much more positive words to end on a more upbeat and compassionate note. It was still a Christian message, but focused on life and death in nature, and love and memories. A few family members mentioned afterwards that they thought the pastor’s words were overly dark and “depressing.” So even some devout believers felt that message was just too much and inappropriate, although they didn’t put it in those words. My wife also agreed with this and we talked about it briefly. It gave me some comfort to know that I have loved ones who are not totally blinded by what was surely a valid, though cruelly heartless and insensitive, interpretation of their religion at my mother’s funeral.
But here’s what’s most important: I don’t feel the pastor, despite his best efforts to evangelize instead of comfort, ruined the commemoration and celebration of my mother’s life and love. In spite of the pastor’s words, and how difficult her sudden death has been on me and on my family, how much she’ll miss, how much we’ll miss her, there is something that comforts me. Not religion, but love. My mother is dead. But my mom loved me, and as long as I live, I will love her. Life ends, but love never fails.