Monday, 21 November 2011

Sometimes atheism bites hard.

A very dear friend of mine lost her mother last week to a very painful and undignified disease. My friend - I shall call her "Celia" - had been caring for her mother for several months, and I suppose it's natural that she should be more relieved than grieved now that it's finally all over.

Celia and I talked for half an hour in private this morning, and I learned more about her mother's awful illness, which lingered for months and then took her quite suddenly at the end. I've never enquired about Celia's religious views, but I know she's not a regular church-goer or anything like that; if I'd had to guess, I'd've said she was probably a vague sort of fuzzy deist, like most people in the UK. I did already know she harbours some beliefs I would describe as irrational, such as the belief that the brother who died very young and her father who died many years ago watch over her and guide her actions - I learned more about these beliefs this morning, and found it extremely uncomfortable.

Celia knew the evening before her mother died that she didn't have long left, and she woke up at 5am the next morning with a strong feeling that she needed to get to the hospice right away. She ignored it for a bit telling herself that the nurses had her number, and that her sister had been there all night and would call if anything urgent happened. She says she got a resurgence of the same feeling at about 8am, and this time she listened to it; with the result that she got to the hospice and into her mum's room about a minute before she died. She took her mum's hand and told her she was there and that it was time to go; and her mother took one last breath and left. Celia holds that her mother held on until she knew Celia was there, and that she herself was guided by the spirit of her deceased father and that's how she knew to go.

Now, I have no way of knowing how much of this is accurate and how much is down to my friend remembering what confirmed what she wanted to believe - and frankly, it's not even remotely my place to form a judgment on the matter. Celia believes that her mother is now with her son - Celia's brother - and her husband, Celia's father, and that she's happy - what purpose would be served by rational opposition on this point, and in what way would it be MY place to make it?

There are times when being rational to a fault sucks. In talking to Celia, I couldn't avoid recalling the death of my own maternal grandmother, who actually died in quite a similar manner almost two years ago.  I wasn't there when my gran died; although she too died of advanced cancer, hers wasn't spotted at all until the day before she died, when she was taken into hospital for what they thought was a blocked bowel. My mother, one of her sisters and one of her brothers were there; the rest lived too far away to make it to Glasgow in time.

Although I was sad to lose my gran, I was more sad about the way she'd died that about the fact that she was gone - after all, I have no beliefs suggesting to me that she knows anything about it. I never had the slightest impulse to believe she was still around us at the funeral, and although I'm sure her final moments were calmed by her belief that she was going to be reunited with my grandfather - who died before I was born - I consider that belief to be a positive thing for her in its own right, without the slightest inclination to think it was correct. At the funeral, I was sad for my mother and my uncles and aunts, not for my gran.

The one aspect of losing religion that I still struggle with - emotionally, not intellectually - is the loss of belief in an afterlife.  The idea that after death we are reunited with our loved ones was presented to me when I was a child as simple fact, as something that was categorically known to be reality.  I've long since forgiven my teachers for threatening me with hell, for making me feel intrinsically inadequate, scared and guilty at all times, for warping my developing morality... but I've never been able to forgive them for giving me belief in eternal life, because it still hurts to have lost that and I believe it would have been better for me never to have had it - you can't miss what you've never had after all. The idea that someone who has died is simply gone, lost to me forever, makes perfect sense intellectually, academically and logically, and I don't think I even have it in me to fool myself into letting what I want to be true override what I know to be fact - but knowing I can do nothing about it doesn't stop it being the scariest and most upsetting concept I have ever had to contemplate.  Everything else about my christian upbringing can be forgiven and forgotten, but that belief in an afterlife has left a wound that - after ten years or more of atheism - I begin to think is simply never going to heal.

I listened to Celia without saying much, and what I did say was along the lines of "she's out of pain now" and "she's at peace" and "she died knowing she was loved". I can never bring myself to profess belief I don't have in these matters, because it would be not only dishonest but actually very condescending to the person in question - but there are still things like the above that can be said, and people have a fortunate habit of taking silence on matters such as spirits and psychic abilities as assent to their statements. Listening to Celia talk this morning about her belief that her mother is now reunited with Celia's father and brother has left me raw in a way she hasn't realised, and touched on the one single, solitary aspect of religion that can - on rare occasion - make me wish I still had it.

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