Monday, 24 September 2012

Being an atheist when my dad died.

I wrote this several months ago but have decided to put it up as a blog post because someone asked me what it was like, as an atheist, to deal with the death of someone close. When I wrote this piece I linked a lot of what I thought and how I dealt with it to being an atheist. I think that's not quite right now. I have come to think that atheism is the result, not the cause, of who I am and how I think. So below where I say something like 'as an atheist' read something like 'what it is about me that makes me an atheist...' I hope you understand what I mean :)
Dad first told me he had cancer two years ago. Oesophageal cancer right at the bottom of his throat. He went through a massive operation where the majority of his Oesophagus was removed and his stomach was basically attached to the bottom of his throat. He also had a lot of chemotherapy and radiation. It was declared a success. After days in intensive care and a long recovery period he returned to what for him was a normal life. He would occasionally have to go and have his throat expanded so he could eat freely, but that was it...for a while.

With almost a feel of inevitability, dad called me one day and said that the cancer had returned. After living one year cancer free after the operation the disease was back and he was literally in the battle of and for his life. He battled hard and long but in the end, as it so often does, the cancer won, and on December 17t2011 my dad died. I was at the hospital, but outside the room when it happened. I was on the phone to my children's mum discussing when – if at all – to bring them in to see dad. My eldest daughter was playing tennis. Normally I would have been there watching, but not this day. They came, but were about 30 minutes too late. I told them the news outside the hospital and they all broke down. I tried to comfort my children as best I could while still dealing with the grief that had kicked me only minutes before. Anything I could say about what I felt at that moment would be a dismal understatement. 

I received a call quite early that morning from dad’s wife. I was planning on going in to the hospital later that morning, after the aforementioned tennis, but overnight dad had taken a turn and if I wanted to see him, I didn't have much time. I got dressed quickly and headed to the hospital. When I arrived I saw one of dad’s 4 sisters outside the room. Inside were Sonja – dad’s wife, another of dad's sisters, and Mick, who had been dad’s best mate for nearly 40 years. Dad’s sisters were crying, Sonja was strong and Mick was silent. We spent time with dad, but he wasn't conscious. His breathing looked extremely painful and difficult. He had an oxygen mask on, but no other medical equipment. We talked to each other about dad, and to him on occasion. We even laughed. If someone had told me I'd be laughing whilst I sad beside my dad as he died I'd have thought them crazy. But that would have been because I didn't understand. I understand now. 

After a little while I wondered what to expect. All I knew at that stage was that dad was extremely unwell.

I went out to the nurses’ station, explained who I was and asked simply ‘Just wondering what happens from here’. The nurse explained that over a period of time – and she couldn't say for sure how long, but certainly 'hours' – dad’s breathing would start to change. His breathing would become more moist and we’d be able to hear that, then it would become irregular – a few short breaths followed by a pause, then maybe a deep one, then a few short ones again. I remember her saying ‘That will continue until the end’. She expected that to be sometime that afternoon, but like I said, she couldn't say for certain. I thanked her for her explanation and went back to the room. 

I sat and thought about the way she spoke to me. I loved it. It was factual and to the point, whilst still dealing with me with compassion and empathy. I have said both on twitter and Facebook that good morals come from Empathy, Compassion, and Logic. The nurse’s compassion and empathy were noticeable, but she didn't hide the truth. There would have been no benefit to lying to me – to trying to say that there was a chance of a ‘miracle’ recovery. I didn't want false hope, I wanted the truth and that’s what I received. 

Obviously it was an important moment for me because out of a very difficult day, it’s still very clear in my mind. I don’t know the nurse’s particular beliefs, but I was very glad she didn't say something to me like ‘He’ll soon be in heaven’. I would have had a real issue with that. I think being an atheist has grown my appreciation for the ‘facts’ and that’s exactly what the nurse provided. The nurse had it spot on as far as dad’s breathing went. I remember hearing his breathing get moist, I remember noticing the change in the timing of his breaths and in my head I thanked the nurse again for what she had told me. I've had someone ask if I prayed during this time, suggesting that maybe at a time like this why not try anything? I didn't pray once. Didn't even think about it. I sat holding my dad's hand while he was in the last hour of his life and the thought of praying for him never occurred to me. 

As is quite common with anyone with a terminal illness, despite knowing what’s coming, the moment it happens, or the moment you find out, is still a shock and still incredibly heartbreaking and simply – sad. I was walking back to the room after my phone call and one of dad’s brothers (three of his five had arrived in the mean time) said to me ‘They said it might be soon Don, you might want to head in there’. I entered the room and could see right away that dad was no longer alive. There was two nurses in there tending to him and Sonja was sitting by his side. The nurses had removed the oxygen mask and the room smelled different. Sonia told me he had gone. 

I was totally flat. Numb. There’s nothing I could say to describe the feeling that would convey what I felt. Only clichés come to mind and they fall terribly short. I went over, kissed him, held his hand and told him I loved him. Sonja said someone needed to let his brothers know, so I walked out, looked up, and saw 3 of my uncles, two of their wives, and two of my cousins standing just outside the door. ‘He’s gone’ I said and cried and cried. One of my uncles came and gave me a big hug. Another came and put his hand on my shoulder. I’m a 38 year old man with children of my own, but was so thankful to have a ‘grown up’ there to comfort me at that moment. 

On twitter I often see the comment ‘The awkward moment when an atheist is thankful but has no one to thank’. I know it’s a somewhat facetious comment, but I think the sentiment is genuine – with no belief in god, who do atheists thank when something good happens? I always respond the same way – We thank our family and friends, you know – actual people that actually helped us. 

At the moment, probably the worst moment of my life – it was my family that helped me. It was my family that wrapped their arms around me and comforted me with their touch. I was extremely grateful they were there.  Actually there. Not in my mind, not looking down from heaven – real people, really there with me. Really there to help. I didn’t need, nor, thinking back, would have wanted, some unknown, unknowable ‘being’ imposing on that moment. I felt loved and cared for and it was family that made me feel that way. Real people. I invited them to come in, if they wished, to say there final farewells, which they all did. 

Like I said earlier, I spoke to dad after he’d died. Not because I think he could hear me - because I don’t. I’m not really sure why I did it but if I had to guess, it would be in order to have a final moment. It was, I guess, so I could say good-bye to him, not so he could hear good-bye from me. 

The rest off that day felt very strange and it’s hard to describe how I felt without again reverting to using of some kind of cliché. But I guess clichés come about because they’re accurate, at least some of the time. So let me say I felt like I was in a void. It was empty. Loss. Anyone that has gone through the death of a close loved one would know the feeling, I’m sure. My dad was gone and was never coming back. I’d never hear his voice again, I’d never see him again, I’d never hug him again, I’d never share a beer with him again. I was terribly sad. I didn’t think he was in heaven, he was simply gone. As atheists we often talk about making the most of this life, and how precious THIS life is, because we don’t believe in an ‘after life’. I feel my dad lived a good, if simple life. His feelings on the subject of an afterlife were different to mine, and I guess if he was right and I am wrong he knows. If I am right and he was wrong, he’ll never know. I hope he did appreciate the life he had and realised it was precious. 

I spoke at his funeral and when I stood at the dais in the church (it was a religious service – catholic in fact) I looked up and saw what I would guess was around 300 people. I was moved. To look up and see that so many people cared enough for him to come along to his funeral was all the proof I needed that he had lived a good life. He was just a regular bloke but he’d obviously touched a lot of lives in the 61 and a bit years he had here. So as an atheist I’m proud of that. I can look at the life my dad lived and know that on the balance of things, he will be remembered as a good bloke. Did he mess up? You bet. Was he perfect? Of course not. But can any one of us claim we are? No. 

Clearly I don’t think I’ll ever see my dad again and this is where I think being an atheist helps me again. Because I celebrate him and his life. I don’t need to have a thought of meeting him again in the afterlife, I’m thankful and happy for the life I had with him. It’s the time I got to spend with him that I think about, not the strange hope that he might be waiting for me when I die. 

Atheism is natural for me, it’s the only position that makes sense. I understand what it’s like to be a Christian, I was one for a couple of decades, but looking back, I just don’t get it. I don’t want to be a person that’s happy to believe in things without evidence. I like understanding how things actually work. But that doesn't mean I’m without emotion. It doesn’t mean that when my dad died I was devoid of feelings and simply said ‘ok, time to move on’. I was terribly sad, and I still cry now when I think about him. But I understand what happened and I understand that my dad’s life is over. His existence is remembered by his family and friends, but he himself is gone and even though it makes me sad, I’m ok with knowing that’s how it is. I don’t like that my dad is dead, but I like knowing that he had a life – a good life –and that I was lucky enough to be not only part of it, but a result of it. 

I think being an atheist makes me strong, but not emotionless. I think being an atheist make me appreciative of the facts, without being cold. I think being an atheist lets me love the life I have and helps me understand that I get one chance at it. 


  1. Very powerful post. I've recently wondered how I would deal with death now that I am an atheist. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Your title piqued my interest. After finishing it I felt a recognition of what you must have felt emotionally as well as intellectually. Although my experience was likely very different, (my brother Tim was only 45, healthy, & died suddenly) I suspect we felt many similar emotions--thought many similar thoughts.

    I know very much, (in my own, unique way), what you meant at the beginning, and at several of the poignant moments you've described. You did so with obvious love, respect, and in a way I identified with utterly. Too much in fact, to note here. Briefly, and most significantly, I recognized the devastation. That feeling... knowing the only brother I'll ever have, who I love more than words can convey, was now gone. Man, it comes back strong sometimes. I recognized that comprehension of loss. That I'll never see him again, and that life was NOT... EVER... going to be the same. And it has not.

    That an omnibenevolent god would suddenly take him at 45 years old, thus robbing my small family, his few friends, and those who would never get to meet him is as ludicrous as it would be immoral.

    I've been agnostic (couple years) and then atheist for at least 20-25 years. It's given me time to readjust my thinking, to contemplate how it was (perhaps) going to feel after losing someone, or facing death myself. It's VERY different from the "we'll see 'em in heaven" BS, as I am sure you know. For most of us (especially if indoctinated young, as I was), it isn't something we appreciate fully, until it happens, or until we leave faith behind, and take the time to analyze what atheism means in this context. IMO, that is.

    I respect the dignified manner in which you wrote. Thank you for this piece. -- Tony. (Twitter under mizcreant handle).

  3. Thank you for this. Your blog is helping me understand things from an Atheist perspective, and I was wondering about just this sort of situation. Very powerful stuff, and once again, thank you for sharing. (sara7133)

  4. Read with interest Donovan, which began when you teweeted about your Dad a few weeks ago. I lost my father six years ago now, and the one thing that has always startled me is the level of affinity and empathy I am able to feel with anyone who has lost a parent. It's not that odd, I guess, but people who've lost a parent just get it, they understand. I don't imagine it is easy to understand if you haven't, and I wouldn't want anyone who hasn't to feel that way.

    It all starts to sound a little spiritual, but it isn't of course, because in the end it just comes down to people. It's the people that matter, the ones who will make a difference to you and your understandable sense of loss. I don't mind if people feel the need to believe in a bearded man in the sky who is nice to people, even if I think it's faintly embarrasing for a grown up person to think that way, as long as they don't preach about it. Unfortunately they have a habit of doing just that.

  5. Very well put, and I imagine helpful to anyone uncomforted by the promise of a life beyond the only one we know.

    If it helps, I can tell you that the emotions you feel when strong memories of him are stirred will change over time. It takes years--it did for me anyway--but those old clothes, songs, pictures, whatever it is that remind you of him will eventually bring a smile to your face rather than a lump to your throat. The pride that is exclusively yours to have known him as only you knew him will outweigh the recognition of loss. In the meantime, I encourage you to cherish those lump-in-the throat moments. Grief is the ultimate expression of love we have for another.

  6. Wept in public when I read this. I went through a very similar ordeal.
    My dad passed away about 3 weeks before yours did, albeit about 15 years earlier in life (guesstimate).

    My reaction to his sudden illness, which would turn him from an active and always-happy midlifer to a frail old man in a matter of months,
    was of an emotional and a rational, sober kind.

    His wife, his daughter and myself (his son) were at his bedside, at home, when he drew his final breath. While it was hard to determine when exactly this took place, given how irregular and moist his intakes were (and how these are sometimes due to the body's reflexes), I think it dawned on us all on the exact same moment. He was free.

    In the hours following his passing, people would still interact with him.
    Like you said, to have a moment. My moments were of a mental kind though,
    as that is where he is now.

    To me, the afterlife is a concept consisting of three parts.
    The memories people have of you, the legacy you leave behind and the very atoms you consisted of during your life.. which will find their way as they always have.

  7. Thanks Donovan for this. My Dad is dying as we speak. He is having an operation now that he may not survive. I hadn't even thought of considering an afterlife - nor has he. He just wants to stick around if he can for the NOW. That's what we really have, and what us atheists are honest enough to admit we have. It's what makes life really worth living.

  8. When u all die u will find out u were 100 percent wrong.satan is at work on u all.he will take u all to hell with him after faith in jesus.i would hit my knees right now and pray to him.

  9. This is honest and truthful. Much of it reminds me of the night my mom died, though it was not expected, and my heart aches for both of us. I hope someday, in the not so distant future I can write about the loss of my mom with the bold honesty and emotion that you've displayed here. I'm sorry you lost your dad so young. He must have been very proud to be your father. You're a good man.