Death. It's the natural end in the cycle of life, something unavoidable. Some people believe that it is only physical and that the "soul" will transcend it; others think that the spirit dies with the body. Either way, it's always hard for those it leaves behind. I've been thinking about this after an incident at school where someone I knew was dealing with her dying grandmother, and after watching a YouTube video about dealing with death as a nonbeliever by speakers at Skepticon.
Death is a hard topic for me to think about as an atheist. I personally think that the brain works like a machine. When the machine dies, it dies. That's it. It shuts off for good. I don't think there's anything after that because all of what I have seen so far has led me to that conclusion. Originally, I was afraid of my own death. I can't say that I'm as afraid now. Death may mean a literal end but... I do not think that I would like to live forever. At some point, I hope that I will feel as if I have served my purpose in the universe and die in peace. That very hope is what makes me live my life to the fullest extent now. I don't think nothingness is so terrible; I imagine that it would be like the time before it was born. That doesn't necessarily mean it's good or that something isn't lost. What it means is that it isn't painful or anything.
What's harder for me to think about is the idea of my own loved ones dying. I've never officially had to deal with grief yet, though I've had close calls. There's no way to take some comfort out of that and no way to talk about any good that could come out of it. When the time does come for me to deal with it, it will be difficult (isn't it for believers, too, though?). I, however, don't want to have to force myself to believe something out of comfort. At least I can say that this has forced me to think of and deal with the concept of death, unlike many religious believers.
Like I said, I have had some experiences with death. My first and most alarming experience with death was the death of my former classmate, Avery. She was coming back from vacation and her father was the pilot of the small plane she was on. It crashed as he was trying to land it, and she and most of her family were killed along with the babysitter who accompanied them (her half-brother stayed home to watch the Superbowl game). She and I were both in third grade. I can't say that I grieved for the girl I barely knew, though I was quite alarmed. Avery was young and healthy; there was no indication that she would die before her tenth birthday. But she did. It struck me that if she could, it meant that I might too. Sure, other kids have died before but she wasn't some statistic that I didn't have to deal with but she was a girl I knew. A girl whose signature was in my yearbook, a girl who worked with me on stuff in class, a girl I had once seen every day. Just like that, she was gone.
My second experience was with my grandfather, who almost died a while back after his bowels ruptured. Afterwards, my mother had said that God had saved him (I find that belief erroneous and a bit immoral for a variety of reason but that's a different story) He was older (though he was healthy and pretty strong) so it wasn't as shocking for me. Plus, it wasn't as sudden and I didn't have to deal with it actually happening.
My final one was with my great aunt, who passed away from lung cancer earlier this year. While I was fond of her and did like her, I didn't know her enough to truly grieve for her. At this point, I was already an atheist so once again I had to think about death and what it meant. When my grandmother and my other great aunt talked about how she was in a better place, I could say nothing.
I'm not sure if comforting (or trying to comfort) a grieving person counts as an "experience with death" although it made me confront it. In sleepaway camp, I met a lot of friends. In the span of two weeks, somehow we managed to share our demons/struggles with each other. Her friend's mom, a second mom to her, had passed away a few days before camp started. She's told me she's agnostic so I'm not sure what her beliefs on the afterlife are. I felt absolutely terrible for her though I wasn't very good with consoling her.
It hasn't gotten easier. Each time, I have been left shocked and without words. Death is looked upon society as an awkward, painful subject best swept under the rug. Yet I refuse to do that. I want to think about it so that I can deal with it. I don't want to view death as something painful and scary. Dealing with grieving people as if they are contaminated is a mistake, and dealing with death by not talking about it is too.
Recently, I began to deal with the concept of death through my story, Standing in Hailstorms. The protagonist has to deal with the death of her father. She, like me, is an atheist and has to deal with everything that goes along with that.
There's no way to get around the horror of death. There is, however, a way to talk about it and confront it. As a society, we should. I have taken my first step. Reader, can you?
A side note: If you want to read a great blog post about death and how we deal with it in a society, read this.