One of the most common questions that crops up in the Atheist Republic Closed (atheists only) Facebook group is that of how to deal with death without having a belief in an afterlife. Considering that this is thought by many to be one of the foundational anxieties that religion was invented to give a comforting (if false) answer to, this is hardly surprising.
So how can atheists (the group of people most likely to have no concept of an afterlife) deal with the loss of a loved one and the realisation that they will never meet their loved one again? This is a way that works for me and always seems to be accepted as a great answer by those seeking consolation.
Here’s a typical question: Maybe the worst thing for me about being an atheist is thinking about my parents ( both deceased) and knowing that they probably aren't there "somewhere" looking after me..it makes me feel immensely alone. Does anyone ever feel like this?
It’s all in the memory
It’s a cliche that’s often trotted out by people as a trite platitude that you need to keep the person alive in your memory. However, that’s often easier said than done. Here’s a little thought journey we can go on together as you read to help you access this and for it to be firm within your mind.
Imagine for a moment you are totally alone as you read this. If you are with someone, just blot them out for a few minutes. So… here you are, totally alone. Consider everyone still living that you have ever known. Bring them into your mind one by one as and when they pop up. Don’t worry about going through everyone; that’s not really the point. Chances are that you remembered the people closest to you who you are likely to see again the soonest first. This is totally normal. Now consider this. At the moment you are remembering that loved one whom you very likely will see quite soon (or even if it might be quite a while). They are simply nerve signals in your brain. They are not there with you, but you can recall their faces; their voices; their smell; their touch; perhaps even intimate times with them; conversations; events you shared; stories they told you. Of course, you have a reasonable expectation that you will see them again and create new memories to recall the next time you are apart. This isn’t something that’s hard to get your head around.
Now obviously I missed out a category of living people you will have memories of. There are those people you will likely never see again simply because you lost touch in some way or you live thousands of miles apart. But even so, it’s not too hard to call up memories where you recall their faces; their voices; their smell; their touch; perhaps even intimate times with them; conversations; events you shared; stories they told you. You can take consolation from that even as you accept you will not likely see them again.
Both categories of living people are identical in your brain if you are not with them, creating new memories of being with them. There really is no functional difference. Each is as alive in your brain as the next.
Now let’s recall someone who has passed away. Anyone at all. I know it might be painful to do so, but let’s recall their faces; their voices; their smell; their touch; perhaps even intimate times with them; conversations; events you shared; stories they told you. As you do this the realisation is inescapable that they actually are just as alive in your brain as anyone else that isn’t physically there with you at the moment. You have this superb treasure trove of wonderful memories that are yours and can never be taken away from you.
As I type this I am alone in the house. Every person I have ever known, alive or dead, is with me now inside my head just waiting to be remembered. For me to recall their faces; their voices; their smell; their touch; perhaps even intimate times with them; conversations; events we shared; stories they told me. The only difference is that I know I will have no new memories with some of them. And if I never see any of them again for any reason, they will never stop being as alive to me as they are right now in this moment, which is the only one in which I am alive, so long as I hold my memories like the most precious treasure.
Thinking like this: I am never alone. No matter if someone is with me or not.