My grandmother is dying. Fifteen years after suffering two heart attacks, congestive heart failure is finally going to take her life. It’s a matter of days at this point, perhaps a few weeks at most. Sooner rather than later the fluid collecting around her heart and in her lungs will overwhelm her, and she will die.
This is the first family death I’ve confronted in a very long time, and the first ever since I concluded that god does not exist. At first I thought this would be a test of my convictions, a time when I would feel that “god-shaped hole” in my heart that Christians speak of and long for the comfort of a supernatural counselor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although certainly sad, I am more at peace with my grandmother’s imminent passing than I possibly could have been when religion twisted my perception of death and dying.
Two weeks ago, I flew back to my hometown to have an early Christmas with Grandma and my extended family, one last time. The night before everyone got together, Grandma and I sat and talked for a couple of hours, just the two of us. Our conversation ranged far and wide, touching on the presidential race, various developments in my hometown, the impending birth of my wife’s and my first child. In the course of talking, Grandma declared to me that she was ready to die, that “I’ve had a good life and I have no regrets.”
That struck me as the best possible statement and frame of mind any of us mortal mammals could have when facing death. It says and contains so much – so many births, weddings, childhoods, family meals, holidays, times tending the garden, hot summers swimming in the lake. It encompasses all of our lovers, friends, relatives, coworkers, acquaintances, even strangers with whom we had one memorable conversation. Nights under the stars, days on the porch swing, exciting trips to new places, the comfort of returning home. A good life with no regrets. What a wonderful way to spend 82 years.
I contrast this with the torment religion inflicted on me in connection with my grandfather’s death 17 years ago. Shortly after his death, I became heavily involved in a fundamentalist evangelical church. Hellfire and damnation haunted my consciousness, as I struggled vainly to fight every “evil” impulse of my hormone-soaked teenage body. I trembled that I might die in sin, some fleeting thought or passionate moment with a girlfriend dooming me to an eternity of torment. The lure of paradise was never so potent to me as the fear of perdition.
My grandparents having never been overtly religious people, I realized with horror that I had no idea what Grandpa believed before he died. I remember broaching the subject with my mother, telling her of my conversion to that cult and questioning whether she knew what Grandpa believed. In her continuing grief, she lashed out at me, demanding, “So what, you think your Grandpa’s in hell?!” I was devastated, and the torture of being unable to answer her with an emphatic “NO!” remained with me for years. This was the supposed “comfort” of religion – death as an object of profoundest fear, even reluctant judgment on a loved one.
If someone should attempt to comfort me regarding my grandmother’s death with words promising peace in god’s presence, I believe I’ll politely answer, “thank you, but she deserved much better than that. And she had it.”