This topic already?!

September 1, 2011

Kids get on weird kicks all the time, where they want to talk about the same thing incessantly.  Since we moved from the city to the burbs, my kid’s thing has been death.  And farting.  My kid’s two things have been death and farting.  And peeing outdoors.  Among my kid’s many weird things have been death, farting, and peeing outdoors…

But I digress.  We were talking about death.  And have been,  a lot.  This comes up in 2 main contexts: squished or no longer moving insects, and warning him against doing dangerous things that could, in his words, “make me dead.”  When a family friend’s mother recently died, it became slightly more concrete with people.

Because we don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t want to shield him from the idea of death.  I’m hoping (in an age-appropriate way) to help him understand what it means, and that it’s a natural part of life.  Our current working definition of death is “sometimes someone gets very sick, or hurt, or just old, and their body just wears out and stops working.  When that happens, they can’t do anything anymore.  It’s like going to sleep and not waking up.”

So far, this has sufficed to explain things without visibly terrifying him.  But, man, do I feel like we’re walking a tightrope.  I want him to understand the basic concept and its implications enough not to do reckless things.  But no one wants to get a preschooler preoccupied with the idea of dying.  That kind of stuff can really haunt a kid.

I think back to my religious days, when it would have been so easy to say “our friend’s mommy went to heaven.”  Easy, but so much less honest.  And, in a real way, so devaluing of the loss.  When you accept that there isn’t another world beyond where we’ll be reunited, it makes the finality of death horribly tangible.  But it also challenges you to value the one and only life the deceased had to live, and how they lived it.  And to live your one and only life as richly and presently as possible.

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A Good Life With No Regrets

December 31, 2007

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.”