Friday, 2 November 2012

An Atheist on Death

This is going to be a bit of a personal post, folks, just as a head’s up. If that’s not really your sort of thing, consider yourself forewarned.

Still here?

Alrighty, then. Might as well just get stuck in.

Three days ago I was informed that my Great-Grandmother had died at the age of 97.

Such conversations are always unusual, to say the least; you can tell right away that something is amiss. The language they use is always strange, too. No-one says ‘death’ or ‘dead’; it’s always ‘passed on’ or ‘gone’ or ‘departed’. As if the relative in question’s just gone on a trip, a journey to someplace else.

I’m not a believer in any afterlife; when the curtains descend, that’s it. Game over. That's all, folks. No encores, no chance of a repeat performance in another theatre. For 21 years of my life this woman was present, a part of it. Now for the rest of it she will not be.

‘Sad’ is not the best way to describe how I feel about this affair, however, and ‘surprised’ is certainly not the word; gran was telling us for months since her friend died that she was getting rather tired of the whole thing, just a little bit fed up. Not to mention the fact that we’ve known for weeks that she’s not been herself. In the wake of her death, however, I realise something.

97 is no small number.

This was a woman who lived through both world wars. Whose husband served in the Second World War. Who lived a long and genuinely interesting life, her intelligence, determination and unwillingness to tolerate shit from anyone allowing her to do things many women in her time would not normally have been allowed to do. She got to watch her child grow up, marry, have children of his own, grandchildren and even myself, my sister and my cousins after that. She never suffered from any wasting disease, nor some onset of age that reduced her ability to think and reason; for her entire life she was far more intelligent than I ever will be.

We human beings go through life terrified of death and what it might bring; we’ve evolved to the point that we are consciously aware of our own mortality, and quite often it scares us shitless. It leads us to seek comfort in many different ways; lifestyle choices that will help us to live longer, the belief in afterlives and many others.

All of this, stemming from our fear of death.

Yet here was my grandmother, saying that she was a bit fed up with the whole thing.

Saying that she’d enjoyed her fill of life, and that she’d really like to just get the whole thing over with now. I realise now what a rare privilege that must be. Not to fear death anymore, nor to long for it, but to simply accept it.

It’s reassuring in a sense; my grandmother didn’t leave this life afraid, she was just tired of the whole affair. It’s strangely appropriate that she died in her sleep.

I am acutely aware that I will never see my grandmother again, but I’m also grateful that I will still possess my memories of her.

However brief our time together in the great scheme of things, it was worth it.


  1. She lead a full, long life--all any of us can hope for.

  2. Yes, it's always interesting to hear someone say (in one way or another) that they're tired of living. Even more interesting is the moment you conclude their reasoning/opinion is sound.

    How can you ever hope to respond satisfactorily? Speaking only for myself, I fight the urge to try to cheer them up, or to try to express sympathy. Instead, I ask them a bit about it, but mostly just listen.

    97 is a long time to be alive. My gram died a few years ago to pancreatic cancer - at the age of 96. She'd smoked and drank and tried to have a good time and be a good friend/mom/wife. When she found out she only had 6 weeks to live, she said (a bit cheerfully) "Well, now I know how I'm going out!".

    I'm sorry for your loss. Sounds like your gran was someone I would have liked to have talked to.

  3. Well now, at 78 I am aware that I am heading that way in the near future and you know what? I am not the least bit scared...of dying, that is. What I AM a bit scared of is the way that it ends. Fine if I go to sleep and don't wake up. Not fine if I have a stroke of something and become a vegetable. I have already asked my wife not to bother with extraordinary methods if I am out of it and wasting good wood on a box etc. One thing about being an atheist, you do realize that death is the end which tends to make things a little simpler. 97 is pretty good going. I would be happy to get that far.

  4. Your Great Grandma has progressed/receded(?) to whatever state of being she may have had before she was conceived. If she made it without either major regrets or fear (as she seems to have done) of that end, she was both a successful and very lucky woman. That she will continue to exist (in the most important meaning of that word) as long as anyone she has touched in her life remembers her, should provide whatever solace her remaining friends and family may need.

  5. Thanks for all the responses to this post, guys. I wasn't sure what people would think of it, so it's nice to hear what you all have to say.