On Loss and Belief in an Afterlife

I recently lost a relative, a cousin. I barely knew her, but we had been in the process of reconnecting after nearly 25 years. The circumstances of her life and sudden death are what make it especially poignant to me and are what made me decide to write about it.

First, she was young, only 31. She had a sister only one year older than her and they were very close despite the physical distance of living across the country from each other. They texted each other constantly and had hours long phone conversations nearly every day of the week. She was of course a daughter and no parent should have to suffer through the loss of their baby. We all want to go before our children do. She was a wife and although I didn’t know her husband at all, from what I have learned of him since her passing, he was very much in love with her. Finally, in my personal opinion, the most distressful aspect of this whole situation is the fact that she was the mother of two beautiful young girls who were only 7 and 3. Her oldest has some slight understanding of what’s happened. Seeing her reach out and gently brush her mother's cheek on the large photo at the viewing brought me to tears. The youngest however is oblivious and won't even remember her, which makes my heart ache.

As Misty pointed out in her recent blog dealing with some of the same issues, there are many reasons people choose soothing fantasy over stark reality. The death of my cousin and the upheaval in the lives of those left behind is a glaring example of why many have to believe in an afterlife. As a child, parent and husband myself, I can understand that losing a parent, child or spouse so suddenly, would be an unbearable grief. The knowledge that you will never see them again, never be able to tell them all the things that you wanted to tell them while they were with you, never be able to hug them tightly and tell them how they are your entire world would make it nearly impossible to get out of bed in the morning. It certainly would be enticing to think that when your time finally comes, you’ll be reunited with them, and that until then you don’t need to worry about all the things you didn’t say because now they know your heart. It would be enticing, but baseless.

And what about those people who do believe these things? Do they really suffer any less than those of us who don’t? Does believing that “someday” you’ll see your lost loved one again truly make it any easier to bear in the here and now? Do they rejoice in the “knowledge” that their loved one is in a “better place”? Not in my experience. I lost my best friend as a Christian and while I know it isn’t the same as losing a family member, it was still incredibly painful. I see now that my Christian faith actually caused me significantly more distress than if I’d been a non-believer. The circumstances surrounding my friend’s death were sudden and dubious, and being a fundamentalist Christian, not knowing if he was “right with God” when he died left the state of his eternal soul in doubt and me in turmoil. Of course, everyone else kept saying how they “knew” that he’d made his peace with God and that he was in heaven “walking with Jesus”. They had to “know” that. I wanted to, but my rational mind couldn’t so easily dismiss all the facts and accept the desired outcome. It’s very strange to refer to my thought processes then as “rational”, but based on the things I believed were “laws” at that time, it was as rational as I could get.

Some people just have to be reassured that death is not the end. I suppose it’s human nature. Nonexistence is incomprehensible to us. Try to imagine not existing. You can’t do it. Even if you can imagine nothingness all around, there’s still something; you. You’re still there in the middle of the imagined nothing. As Descartes would say, we think, therefore we are. We cannot “not think” and therefore cannot comprehend the end of our own individual existence. We can know that we will cease to exist, but we cannot imagine what it will be like, nor do many of us really want to. As a result, we extend the existence of those whom we know have ceased to exist in this world into another and believe that when our time comes we'll "cross over" as well.

Of course, it can’t be scientifically proven that our sentience does not continue to exist in some other form after death any more than it can be proven that it does. However, I personally believe that a much better case can be made for the former than the latter despite what the general population may want or need to believe. Unfortunately, our emotions often hold strong sway over our beliefs and actions, and the desire to keep who and what we care about most in life can be an insurmountable force to logic and rational thought. I don't expect the idea of an afterlife to be rationally dismissed as implausible any time soon.

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Tags: Afterlife, Belief, Death, Life, and

Comment by Dave G on August 8, 2009 at 4:14pm
Chris, my deepest sympathies for the loss of your cousin to you and your family, particularly to her husband and children.

Your analysis of why belief in an afterlife is so strong is spot-on, and this is now featured.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on August 8, 2009 at 4:25pm
First off, condolences for your cousin.
Even vicarious pain is pain... Best wishes for you all.

I had a friend raised in an LDS family. I say 'raised' because despite the fact she claimed herself Mormon, I'm of the mind that until you are developed enough to make rational decisions about military entry, smoking, drinking and porn, you sure as hell can't make them about an immortal nature vs. science.
So anyway, right before she died of a brain tumor that was missed because her parents insisted on having a million other children all in various stages of wedding celebration, pregnancy, high school graduation, college graduation and going on a mission, she wrote a poem saying that she knew she'd been healed by the elders and bishops that prayed over her. This poem was even on her little funeral pamphlet thingie. That's showing some ass, if I've ever seen it! I was sooo fucking mad. If any adult in that household had paid attention to the fact that she'd lost feeling and articulation in her tongue, and one eye had gone crossed, they could have caught it in time to save her.
But they didn't..
And she went to her grave after two years of agonizing treatment CONVINCED she'd been saved through the power of prayer.
I sat through that entire funeral service angry....staring at that poem and hoping every one of those people read it and understood what it meant, and what they were responsible for.
At 13 years old, there wasn't a lot of justice in the world.
It wasn't until my grandparents died that I got a real grasp
-and utter peace
with death.
It's kinda funny. My grandma believed in reincarnation, tarot card reading and Edgar Casey. She went to a Lutheran school, met Einstein and was an archeologist specializing in Biblical lore. When she was done with life, I knew she was done.
I can't say she's in a the highest place, but I can say it's better than being trapped in a half paralyzed body.
~shrug~
The movie Dogma kind of sums it up for me. The angel Azrael prefers oblivion to hell. Sounds good to me! You can believe in heaven without hell, but not hell without heaven.
Who's Pascal's Wager now, biotch?
Comment by Eric Strus on August 8, 2009 at 7:55pm
I could understand the consolation many would seek through their superstitions. I've seen a lot of death within religious communitites. There is one example i would like to bring up, that contradicting the solace religion brings. The catholic religion in particular.

I had gone to a catholic school for a few years, mandatory religion classes, the rosary, all that jazz. There was one kid who had been classmates with most of the students in my class since kindergarten (it was a small town) who ended up taking his own life. Apart from the pain of losing a great friend, It was an understanding of all the children that people who commit suicide are damned to hell. You can understand the turmoil caused by this. The most a person could do is attempt to convince these (mostly) highly indoctrinated children that he isn't going to burn forever.
how could their parents and their teachers say "what we told you since birth is a lie"? when it was an unchanging dogma?
Comment by Joann Brady on October 8, 2009 at 8:42pm
Actually, I have been informed that the Catholic Church no longer teaches that suicide is a "mortal sin". In other words you no longer go to hell for committing suicide..........I don't know if they made it retroactive though, and let out of hell all the people they have been sending there for the last two thousand years.

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