Teaching My Son Godless Grief While Surrounded by a Devout Family

It’s been nearly three months since my grandfather died at the age of ninety-one. Despite the fact that he lived a full life, and despite the fact that I know death comes for us all, this knowledge doesn’t erase the pain of losing a loved one.

While that sorrow began to subside as time passed, I was revisited by grief and memories last week when I watched a recording of the wake and funeral with my son who hadn’t been able attend the services in person. As I answered random questions from my inquisitive son, I began to observe these events from a place of introspection rather than relive the mechanical aspects of these delicate moments of ritual.

I previously wrote about my experience at my grandfather’s funeral service, but that dealt with examining the relationship between music and religious beliefs through cognitive science research. Viewing my grandfather’s funeral footage inspired me to focus on grief, something I hadn’t really done before. Watching family members and clergy relay heartfelt sentiment saturated with religious platitudes caused me to revisit my thoughts, emotions, and interactions during that weekend and consider what an isolating path the grieving process can be for the nonreligious.

This contemplation transported me back to the drafty backroom I solely occupied shortly before the “homegoing service” began. Thirty or so of my aunts, uncles, and cousins had packed tightly into the living room and kitchen area of my grandparents’ home, which was directly across the street from the church where Grandpa Moses’s funeral was held. All those who couldn’t fit into the house convened on the porch, front lawn, and gravel driveway. My seclusion was emblematic of my beliefs, which starkly contrasted with virtually everyone else’s. As I looked at old photographs and reminisced about all the summers spent with my grandparents, a silence fell over the main area where my family gathered. They then launched into a customary group prayer. While the devoted communed with what they perceived to be the divine, I was thinking.

I thought about how it seemed everyone around me chose to believe Grandpa Moses was celebrating in heaven and that he was “alive in paradise.” Meanwhile, I was thinking, “He’s gone. His journey is over. He’s alive only in memory.”

I thought about how the hurt I feel for losing someone I knew my entire life and deeply admired, respected, and loved was something I must meet head-on. I know death is a naturally occurring phenomenon for all living creatures. I’m acquainted with the preponderance of evidence that reveals brain death is an irreversible loss of brain faculties that, among other things, regulate memories and personality—what makes me, “me.” Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker once stated, “The mind is what the brain does.” For me, no amount of magical thinking can transcend this reality.

Numbing emotional pain by willing myself to believe he isn’t really gone and that I’ll somehow be able to see him again seems like an extension of primitive defense mechanisms like denialism and rationalization. I can see why this type of anesthetic is preferable to reality for so many people, but I’m okay with accepting that I can only reunite with my grandfather and other dead loved ones through shared stories, pictures, video, and fond recollection.

My son and I watched on the video as the preacher rained down boisterous words of encouragement that my grandfather was “up there” dancing, reunited with my grandmother—my eyes were trained on my grandfather’s coffin, his trusty radio, and favorite “soda pop” tucked beside him. I marveled at how peaceful he looked. No more coughing. No more Albuterol treatments. No more progressive frailty. A warm wave of relief passed over me.

Meanwhile, church folk rejoiced and music blared. Clapping, speaking in tongues, and shouts of hallelujah ricocheted throughout the cramped church. I was almost embarrassed that my son was viewing this spectacle, but then I remembered he, too, was raised in this evangelical environment. To him, this bravado and pageantry was normal.

The minister closed with a message of everyone needing the deliverance only white Jesus can provide. I remember sitting in the pew that day and mentally responding with something along the lines of “the only salvation I seek is deliverance from social inequalities. Fantastical belief provides no magical redemption beyond mental escapism.” I lacked the fortitude and disrespect to say this aloud then, but I did relay this sentiment to my son in a sympathetic, inquisitive tone that got him to think more carefully about death.

I turned off the video. I continued to engage my son. I asked him to jot down his thoughts of the service but, more importantly, to write about what he remembers of his great-grandfather in story format. I have found that seeking creative outlets as forms of eulogizing loved ones helps us cope with grief. For me, that’s writing. For my son, it’s both storytelling and drawing. A day later I came home from work and found a picture he drew in the likeness of an old photograph of my grandfather.

Communicating that death is inevitable helps us think more clearly about it and place more significance on our present actions. I emphasized this and continued to suggest to my son that it shouldn’t be feared. I also shared the commentary on the relationship between life and death offered by comedian Aaron Freeman:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got…. And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

With this assessment, my son smiled. Grief is to be expected when someone we love dies. Grieving without relying on a god can be tricky given our culture, but it’s certainly something anyone can face clearheaded without fear or any regrets.

  • Arjen Bootsma

    “The mind is what the brain does”. In other words the mind is the work of the brain. As it so happens, “work” is a defined term in thermodynamics and is a result of the directed application of energy.

    “the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed”. No energy gets created or destroyed, but energy will get transformed from one form in another.

    There are two primary types of “energy”: energy itself which is represented by a vector (meaning it has both a value and a direction) and entropy which is represented by a scalar (meaning it has only a value but no direction). Energy can perform work while entropy cannot. The first law of thermodynamics means that the total value of the energy components remains constant, but the direction can change and/or get lost. If energy is lost completely only entropy remains. Energy is purposeful while entropy equates to chaos or randomness.

    “According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly”. The “less orderly” part of this statement is correct; the “not a bit of you is gone” is nonsensical. “You” is a person with a consciousness, a personality, a purpose, a direction, “you” is the work of the brain. When the brain stops working that energy is transformed into entropy, into chaos, into randomness; in other words: “you” is gone, completely.

  • ccp

    Nice article. I think it would be a good idea to specify in my will or other document what kind of a remembrance service I would like to have once I am gone, because i certainly would not want it to be a typical religious service. That would be absolutely contrary to who am I and what I believe, and isn’t what that service is supposed to represent, really?

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Sincere, this is a wonderful essay. Thanks for sharing it.

  • psrieth

    My condolences on the loss of your grandfather. This is a difficult subject to write about , but also important.

    The entire sentiment you write about is mirrored in the theological thought of Catholic phenomenology, taking its’ cue from Heidegger’s Being & Time and reflected in philosopher and priest Jozef Tischner’s meditations on the words of Christ at His death

    “Eli, Eli, lema sabathchani!”

    I raise this point not to suggest that you are wrong or that “don’t worry – there is a God”, but rather only to note that within the Catholic faith there is a huge line of moral and theolological thinking which approaches grief and death exactly as you do because it seemed to be, if we believe the gospels, exactly how Jesus approached it at the moment of death, namely fear, abandonment, isolation, the sense that this is really the end and nothing is beyond.

    This is an extremely human sentiment, and no Christian ought to deny it because it was, according to the Christian gospels themselves, the final sentiment expressed by a dying Christ.

    Heidegger, who was a lapsed Catholic, takes this point of reference to argue that we are Seins zum Todd (Beings toward Death) and embarks upon a new coarse in the history of philosophy. Catholic phenomenologists synthesize Heidegger much as Thomists synthesized Aristotle and come to the conclusion that the fullness of God’s love can be seen in the fact that in becoming a man, Christ, God experienced everything we experience, even the numbing finality of death.

    Christ, say Catholic phenomenologists, had no more to go on than we do – which is to say nothing. To Catholics, this is a symbol of great love and sacrifice. But also serves to remind religious people to be humble in the face of death and appreciate grief and finality rather than escape this confrontation by retreating into platitudes about the deceased being in Heaven.