At the glorious age of ninety-seven, my great-grandmother died yesterday. She outlived a husband who was a little loco in the head and hung himself, survived by ten children, one of whom is my father’s father. I stared at the text message that brought me the news, murmured a polite comment of commiseration, and concentrated on my coding.
The shock hit me while on the phone with my boyfriend, telling him the grave news; my knees buckled and I wept. In a dim, distant corner of my mind, safely sequestered behind blast-proof logic filters, I thought why the emotion? For a woman I rarely saw, and never knew deeply; one of my blood, but bedridden for half a year and alive and mobile and spry for the remaining ninety-six point five.
Worried about how atheists coped with death, and the polite way to express condolences. How do you comfort people when they do not believe in the afterlife? Saying to another person (and even to myself) that “she’s in a better place now” rings hollow when your belief enjoins that the person ends when the meatsack collapses in massive organ failure. Blog posts online offered the reassurance that atheists are more law-abiding, moral, and participative compared to slaves of religion, since they are of the opinion that we only have one life, one chance. No glorious resurrection or rewarding eternity. Make it count.
It sounds like what a reader’s quandary would be for “Ask Beatrice” of Slate – “How do I express comforting yet ideologically consistent platitudes to a friend who has lost somebody?”
My answer: I lie. I take the Christian vocabulary and utilize it to devise condolences, because what I believe in does not matter when someone I care for is distraught. “I’ll pray for you.” I do, just not in the way that you expect. And I still believe in god, I just try to live my life without him/her/it. Fear of end-of-days judgment replaced with fear of not-making-every-minute-count-because-individual-extinction-is-as-sure-as-taxes.
Quietly cried on the bus ride home. First it was because of overwhelming sadness, then I launched on one of my agitated hallucinations about my own death, and how excruciatingly sad it would be… Or I’d like to think so. Perhaps the resultant pain would be smoothed over quickly, because I never touched anybody deeply to have anybody agonize much about it. I ate my customary 7-11 spiced hotdog sandwich with chili con carne in between sobs and Techyromantics tracks.
The next day I am now worrying over the cash deposit I forked over for me and my cousin’s Laiya weekend, and whether the burial date would clash with it. The sight of relatives and friends crying over a dead person gets to me, though. It’s the heavy atmosphere, it makes weeping infectious. It comforts me in a way; I like thinking that I still have a heart, and that I am less self-involved than I thought I was.
Funerals are for the living; the dead have no need for them.