The title of this blog post, is a quote from that great sage of the 23rd century, Captain James Tiberius Kirk. He was facing the possibility of death and was trying to explain why it is important to understand that our actions and reactions in these situations can be so critical to, not only our survival, but to who we are as a person.
Of course, Kirk cheated death in that scene, as he always did. The rest of us won’t be so lucky. But it is not how we deal with facing our own death that I want to talk about, but how we deal with the death of others and, more specifically, how we help others deal with the death of someone they know.
A co-worker’s father passed away this week. He had traveled from Omaha to Georgia, driving all day and night, to get to the hospital where his father, who was dying of brain cancer, lay. He got there in time to spend some hours with his father listening to music that they both loved.
My co-worker and I aren’t particularly close. In fact, except for both being big Apple Mac fans and Army vets, we are about as different as you can get. He is an Obama blaming conservative, I’m a liberal. He’s outgoing and extroverted, I’m quiet and watchful. He is a very devout Christian (as are the majority of my co-workers, but that is a story for a different blog post) and I am an atheist.
This seems to have caused some tension between us, although he’s never said anything about my being an atheist outside of some very vague “well, I know you don’t go for that kind of thing” when talking about church or gospel music.
When I heard that his father passed away, it truly pained me. I remember how devastated I was when my own father died over 20 years ago. He had heart disease and we all knew that he had little time left, but expecting the end didn’t make it at all easier to deal with.
So I knew what my co-worker must be feeling and I felt the need to reach out to him and express my sympathy and let him know that I empathized with him.
The problem was not so much what to say, but how to say it. I refused to use say things like, “he’s in a better place” or “he’s at peace now”. I believe that when you die your brain ceases to function and you thereby stop experiencing anything like a feeling of peace or anything at all, actually. I needed to find a way to provide some modicum of solace without allusions to anything beyond this life here on earth. So instead of focusing on his father, I realized that I must focus on my co-worker and what he must be feeling. After all, death is really an affliction of the living, not the dead.
So I sent him an email from my personal email account to his personal account. Here is what I said:
I want to express my sincere condolences on the passing of your father.
I know how difficult it is, even when the passing is expected and, perhaps, even a blessing. No matter how much consolation we try to find in knowing that our loved one is no longer suffering and is at peace, there will forever be a hole in your heart that never fully goes away. That you must experience this is what pains me, and though my words can’t minimize the pain, I hope they might bring a bit of comfort.
I want you to know that my thoughts are with you and your family. Please offer everyone there my condolences.
I think the most important thing we can try to do to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one is to focus on them and what they are feeling, not on the loved one lost.
They say that religion gives people comfort in times of loss, but I think it only prolongs the grieving process by taking the focus off what they need and how they feel and focusing on the deceased who no longer needs or feels anything.
As an atheist, I believe that we must focus on this life, cherish every moment of it, and deal with it head on. This is how we can make the most out of life. After all, life is for the living.