Homeless (where the heart is)

I had to call the landlord today about a possible water leak at the apartment. This simple act threw me into a long, dreary and painful panic attack. It is the absolute worst to be sitting on the bus, going to work, trying to count your breaths and not keel over like you’re having a heart attack. (I can’t say I’m proud of the fact that I have a lot of experience looking calm, cool, and collected while falling apart, but there you go…)

I have a pretty great landlord, and I like where I live. Yet, the thought of calling him set me on edge to the point where I fell off that edge and back into PTSD, which after all is home away from home.

Because “home” died 20 years ago.homeless-blog header

After all this time, I think I should be “over it,” in the sense of not feeling like I’ve been gutted and left abandoned, alone, and helpless by the deaths of my parents. But I’m not. I still feel like I did that day in the summer of 1996 – a day I did not mark or make note of, a day I don’t really remember enough about to set an accurate date to – when I walked out of my parents’ house for the very last time, carrying my mother’s “Poppy Field” painting which was her pride and joy. I had left it for last on purpose. That painting always represented “home” because when it went up on the wall, I knew we were staying. I knew it had to be the last item I brought out of the house to bring with me.

The electricity had been off for a while. Mold was setting into the carpets and the pool was green. I had only moved into my new apartment the week before, though, so I had lived there for a couple of months as it sank into disrepair and destitution. I was still living there when the bank put “no trespassing” signs on the door. I had no job, almost no work history, and just a few thousand dollars in the bank from my father’s $10,000 life insurance policy (part of which paid off the balance on my car). If I hadn’t had that much, I would not have been able to rent an apartment. As it was, the fraction of my belongings (my inheritance) that I could save were put into storage, where they would stay for a decade. Some boxes have yet to be unpacked.

Most everything else – mother’s music albums, father’s tool chests, random pieces of furniture and kitchen goods, junk I could not even name and about 80% of our collective books – had been sold in a “fire sale” yard sale. As I walked out with the painting bulky in my arms (it is large), I left behind one of their large “IBM” desks and a cheap bookshelf. Half the books left (the really awful ones that no one wanted to buy, less than 50 total), were tossed about on the floor by scavengers who had stripped what they could of value that I had not moved to the apartment, including a lot of Mother’s old clothes that did not sell. The painting had been locked away, hidden, so at least I had that.

When I left that day, getting into my already-old car and heading to my too-expensive apartment to start living a life I knew I was not prepared for, it felt like I was homeless. I was unmoored and I think I was in shock, honestly. The PTSD and the panic attacks had started years earlier, and this was just a denouement of listless proportions.  I remember the drive away. I don’t remember how it ended or bringing the painting into the apartment.

I never hung that painting up in that apartment. I was only there a year, anyway.

Every place I’ve lived since then has never been home. I’ve been in my current place six, maybe seven years now? It’s not home. I’m not convinced any place ever will be, again. I still live with the panicked terror of waking up tomorrow with no place to go, no place to live, no place to belong.

I fight it. I try to make my life my home. It’s hard when your heart is so damn empty.

Regeneration

I’m here to talk about Dr. Who.

That might seem an odd segue for a blog about atheist grief, but last night when I was chatting with a friend, both subjects came up and I was spellbound. Why? Because in the end, both Dr. Who and grief are about personal regeneration.

This started when my friend J. was talking about her friend, whom we’re going to call British Steve. So the idea really tracks back to him, which is no big surprise when you think about it because British Steve is, as you may have guessed, British. His comment to her was that grief  recovery is a lot like Dr. Who’s life cycle: it requires complete regeneration.

I had to explain Dr. Who mythology to J., who wasn’t familiar with Time Lords. In the process, I realized, “holy crap, British Steve is RIGHT!”

In my book Grieving Futures I have a chapter about grief “recovery”, a word I don’t think applies at all to the process or the goal. It implies that you will get back to some kind of steady state, that you will “get over” grief and recover. But you won’t. You can’t, because that steady state of who you used to be has been shattered. It really isn’t like breaking a bone, although that metaphor has its uses. In GF I decided that the word “recuperation” fit better, although even at the time I knew it wasn’t perfect. You can recuperate from a broken leg and walk around like nothing happened, even if once in a while your leg twinges with pain or aches on rainy days. It’s the same leg and it works the same way, it looks the same, it IS THE SAME. Broken but healed: you have recuperated.

But regeneration isn’t like that. As I explained to J., when the Doctor regenerates, it’s a complete genetic remapping of his body (apologies to Dr. Who fans if I mangle this a little, I’m not really a hard core fan, I’m just familiar with the show). Intrinsically, he’s still the Doctor. But because his body has been remade, he’s also a completely different person, and not just in looks: his humor is different, his attitude is different, his reactions are different. His moral center as a Time Lord is the same, and he has all of his memories (mostly?) and he is always, always theDoctor. But he’s also not the same at all.

And that, my dear readers, is exactly what grief does to you. It regenerates  you.

In thinking this over, I realized that I have regenerated about three times (not counting childhood, but I think an argument could be made for that). The first time was when my mother was diagnosed in late 1992; the second, after my father died in 1996 and I was well and truly on my own; and the third, in 2008 when I hit the psychological skids and had to completely….wait for it….regenerate.  I think I’m actually undergoing a slow regeneration now, or maybe getting ready for one? Who knows how many times I’ll hit that reset, but now that I understand what is happening, I think I’m more prepared for it.

Back to the idea of regeneration, though: it’s painful, it’s scary, and there are no guarantees of who you will be on the other side. “Ten“, the tenth Doctor famously played by David Tennant, is known for the quote, “I don’t want to go.” It’s a heartbreaking moment because he knows he’s losing the life he created for himself in that form. When he regenerates, Ten "I don't wanna go"he won’t feel quite the same way about things and people, and he won’t react the same way either. Whatever he gains through regeneration (namely, an extremely extended lifespan) comes with great loss as well. And he damn well knows it.

I suppose this isn’t a very pleasant version of grief, but then, I pride myself in not pulling punches when talking about this stuff. It sucks, okay? It just sucks and it hurts and it’s awful.

But, and here’s the kicker: not regenerating at all isn’t a viable option. There is no stasis. You either rot in place or you change. To be honest, I rotted in place for a decade. I thought it was safe, but it was also pretty painful, and depressing, and in the end I had to regenerate anyway. It always comes back to that, and you can put it off until the pain is too great to continue or you can get it over with quickly and deal with the fall out. I’m not saying one way is good or bad, right or wrong, just that regeneration is inevitable.

This concept probably applies to a lot of traumatic life events, not just grief, and I find myself applying it liberally to my own story now. I understand clearly now why I am still the 26 year old young woman who lost her family, her home, and her pets and yet am someone so profoundly different I don’t see the similarities anymore. I have not lost a single experience, despite having a completely different outlook and personality. Friends from 1990 or 1998 recognize me as the same person, but also talk about how much I’ve changed. Part of that is the aging process, of course — brains change over time, we accumulate experiences that feed into our behavior and outlook. That’s the expected part of life.

Trauma, though, throws a wrench into the process. It takes a slow slide along the track of “getting older” and throws you bodily off it onto another track entirely. You’re still getting older, you still have all the memories and mementoes of “life before” but you’re going in a new direction in a different mind/body combination with different thoughts and different emotions.

You’re not recovering from grief or any other form of trauma, nor recuperating from it — the experience has, bodily by force, regenerated you completely. 

So it’s all scary and it’s got no guarantees and it means letting go of parts of yourself that you used to believe were permanent elements of your personality. On this side, that just sounds awful, and stressful, and painful. The irony here is that regeneration is the only way the Doctor can survive and by regenerating, he continues his adventures helping people and fixing time itself. For us, as mere humans, grief/trauma forces us into regeneration both as a protective measure to keep us alive and a progressive measure to help us continue on into a new stage of adventure.

You don’t wanna go…but you will, and when you do, you’ll find an amazing, brand new life. That’s just how it works.

 

Proof of Life

Grief is a burden, all on its own. It is as heavy as bags of sand set down over our shoulders, numbing our senses until all we can feel is the weight we carry.

It’s said that time heals all wounds, but what is left off of that pithy aphorism is that wounds are painful, and the healing process is painful, and in the end you have a scar that is, itself, sometimes painful. The body heals wounds but does not forget them, and the healing process records the memory through pain. Shock will sometimes relieve us of the memory of a traumatic event, but the healing process will never let us forget it.

The faithful, then, are told to pray or wrap themselves in their faith to try and ease the agony that loss brings down upon us. For some people, that might even work. Yet, even among true believers of one faith or another, I have found people grieving who suffer intense, burning anger and almost unimaginable sorrow so overwhelming that feeling nothing is better. No sadness, no joy, no anger, no pleasure: grief protects us by cutting us off from what will hurt most; the unfortunate part is that includes the healing process itself.

When that happens, people get desperate. We all know that nature abhors a vacuum, and that is as true for our emotional state as anything else. Grief numbs us to protect us but that’s terrifying.

What happens then, in my experience, is that people grab for the nearest “proof of life” — things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or dangerous behavior. In this, religious communities fair no better than the atheist grievers I have known: people go down in flames, trying to feel human again without suffering the excruciating agony of grief. It’s a catch-22, there no way to feel alive, or experience joy, happiness, and pleasure, without also feeling pain, sadness, and anger. Cannot be done. Which is why we go to the artificial stimulants or the quick fixes (sex, sky diving), because at least a hangover can be cured or will go away quickly on its own.

This isn’t a problem, though. It’s really NOT. Having sex is not a bad thing; doing drugs or drinking alcohol is not a bad thing; and while I think you’re nuts for skydiving or sea cave spelunking, it’s not intrinsically a bad thing. These behaviors can turn unhealthy if unchecked for extended periods, resulting in addiction and sometimes death. Yes, that is a terrible long-term result to be avoided. But like getting morphine when you’re in the hospital recovering from a major injury or operation, these behaviors are sometimes the only tool we have left to fix ourselves with.

Which leads to one huge thing I hate about the culture of grief support (religious leaders, therapists, support groups, doctors), and that is how it is mired in the Judeo-Christian morality of judging behavior negatively based on random and often inconsistent standards. They refuse to look at behavior like this as anything but harmful, mostly because someone once decided that such actions were morally bankrupt. (Okay, skydiving isn’t morally bankrupt by anyone’s standards, but the idea of risking your life for nothing more than an adrenaline rush is frowned upon, so mox nix).

I turned into a raging slut after my mother died, I cannot even tell you how many people I had sex with but it’s in the triple digits, and it was awesome. I had a great time. You will never convince me that there was anything bad about that other than the few times when I combined drinking and unprotected sex. That was a stupidly dangerous risk for my health, and therefore, “bad,” but the sex itself? The rampaging path of sexual liberation I took through the Orlando club scene of 1994-1995? Nothing bad about that at all.

Grief makes us desperate. It’s a natural protection, but like morphine it numbs indiscriminately. People who are grieving are caught in the strange no-where land of being too damaged to process emotions in a healthy way yet needing to find an outlet for them the same time. How can our choices be anything but twisted and reckless and sometimes painful, dangerous? How is that anything other than a part of the healing process?

The judgmentalism over those kinds of behaviors, claiming they are “bad” outlets for grief, leads back to this romanticized perception that grief is soft and sad, when it’s really all about spiked rage and jagged horror. People are only supposed to act out by crying a lot—no one likes a snotty crier but it is at least socially acceptable, something people can feel sorry about without feeling threatened by it. As a griever, you aren’t supposed to be angry at the person who died, you aren’t supposed to act irresponsibly, you aren’t supposed to let your feelings show or drag on too long. Most of those rules, though, are for the sake of those around you – they do nothing to support the person who is too numb to cry.

Labeling those kinds of reactions as bad or unhealthy out of the gate is a terrible thing to do, though. We don’t need to judge people who are in the midst of the turmoil, we should not add to their burdens by layering on our restrictive expectations of what grief should be in polite society.

I guess the difference between my perspective and that formed by the Judeo-Christian idea of black/white, right/wrong grief is that I think people need a chance to recover on their own terms before being labeled as failures.

Shards of grief – 20 years later

I respect the power of migraines. I have spent the majority of my life living with people who suffered regularly from them, and I believe that they are as close to dark magic as is possible to exist in our world. I’ve always have and always will feel privileged not to have experienced them very many times.

This morning, though, was one of those times. I felt bad yesterday and I shoved that aside but in retrospect — recovering, now, with a slight tension headache and having drunk enough water to piss like a racehorse all night — I realize it was my subconscious gearing up for today.

September 15, 2014.

Twenty years ago today, my mother died.

This is as personal an anniversary as is possible to get, no flags at half-mast or newspaper editorials reflecting on the horror or television specials featuring experts in psychological trauma. Just me and my migraine.

I associate migraines with mother not just because she got them every few weeks, but because my very first migraine materialized the night I realized she really was dying.

I had driven from DeBary back to Sarasota, where I lived, to pack up my independent (if somewhat directionless) life in order to move home to take care of her. I had friends — Tim, Phi, Chris — hovering around me and dealing with their own form of shock. They took me to Barnes & Noble on S. Tamiami Trail (is it even still there, I wonder?) as a way to relax after dinner but like an idiot I settled myself in the medical section and researched colon-rectal cancer. This was in 1992 so the Internet was not readily available to me, I didn’t even know it existed as such yet, so it was bookstore or library, a familiar form of research practice post-college. Book after book told me the same thing: at the stage the cancer was at, Mother’s chances of survival for longer than a year was about five percent.

She wasn’t sick, not the way I had thought, like it was a bad thing we had to confront and conquer.

She was sick, and she was dying.

The sledgehammer hit my brain on the drive home, the migraine appearing so agonizingly fast that I had to pull over and let someone else drive the final mile. I knew what it was, even though I had never experienced it before. I knew what I was in for that night, and also what I would be dealing with when I moved home. Hopelessness lurched through me like flood waters filled with debris.

Phi tried to feed me, Tim radiated peace and compassion, Chris held me. I curled up on the living room floor of Phi and Tim’s apartment and whined, covering my eyes, reduced to child-like efforts to hide from the pain. My mother was dying, and my helplessness to do anything for her or for myself ripped my consciousness to shreds.

This morning, I was reminded of that pain and helplessness as I woke up to the sharp-needle teeth of a migraine gnawing on my brain. It’s a fact that the brain itself cannot feel pain, but the experience of a migraine is that your brain is choking on agony, short-circuiting every thought and sensation.

I managed to crawl to the kitchen for water and aspirin, and stood shaking by my desk as I emailed my boss that I would be out for the day. Only then did I look at the calendar gadget on my desktop and realize, what the FUCK, it’s been 20 years. I kind of don’t remember going back to bed after that, but I did, because that’s (thankfully) where I woke up several hours later.

I have no patience with platitudes but we fall into traps of believing them because it’s just better than being cynical and bitter all the time. However, for every “time heals all wounds” there is “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Twenty years on, many of the co-dependent and broken aspects of my relationship with my mother have been acknowledged and dragged into the light of day to make way for a weary and sentimental affection, just as so much of the daily horrors of her slow death have become faded shadows of once sharp pain. Part of me is shocked and appalled that it has been twenty fucking years since she died. She would 72 years old now, if she were alive. I can’t even wrap my brain around that, because in my head and in truth she stopped aging at 52.

But two decades have passed, the majority of those years spent spinning my wheels of grief and self-loathing. There were good days, fun times even, but to me now it’s all just a blur of wasted potential. Mother would not approve, but she sure as hell would understand.

The migraine has lifted, leaving me looking at the calendar again with a sense of frustrated wonder. I’ve been floating for the last two months, really, since I had to put my cat down on July 18th, and I think it’s been one long roiling ride through grief leading up to today. I’ve been a little absent from all parts of my current life to a disturbing degree, clawing my way through the daily grind and surfing the internet for amusing memes and bad fanfiction to distract myself from feelings. So of course it all builds up behind my eyes for a 20th anniversary migraine. Of course.

The fact that I’ve been dealing with this grief for this long will never not be stunning. It doesn’t feel like success, or triumph, or even coping. It’s a long narrow corridor of loneliness and sadness that just gets longer every year. Most days it’s easier to look thought the windows to the real world happening outside and not think about her death at all, until the light and the pressure builds up and everything shatters into shards of agonizing pain that is so shocking yet so expected because this is what my brain does when the situations is compartmentalized to the point of cracking the box.

I hate migraines. I hate what they represent for me even more. It’s been twenty years, and I still fear my grief and pain more than I fear the consequences of acknowledging it.

 

I get to expert things?

I was talking to my colleague Jennifer Miracle about blogging and specifically about my upcoming debut as a columnist for Atheist Republic, where I will be writing about grief and mourning issues. I was talking about how I don’t feel much like an expert on the topic, especially since I’m not a counselor or therapist trained in grief issues, and her question was, “Well, who is the expert?”

And I couldn’t tell her, because I can’t think of one.

Carol A. Fiore has written irregularly about atheist grief issues, but doesn’t seem too active on the subject these days outside of a few articles for Grief Digest. Her book detailing her relationship with her husband, his death, and dealing with her grief as an atheist is due out this year, though.

My resources page highlights a few (very few) other blogs and articles that are worth visiting, and I especially recommend the facebook page Grief Beyond Belief founded by Rebecca Hensler. But that’s pretty much it.

I’m totally not prepared to be “the expert” nor do I find it helpful to think of myself that way. I have to re-iterate that I’m not a professionally trained counselor or therapist. I’m a librarian whose parents died when I was in my 20s. That is pretty much the extent of my “expertise.”

Yet, I feel the need to have a role in talking about atheist/non-deist grief and mourning issues. We are a very small minority of people world wide, and our support structures are few and far between, especially if our families are religious. I’d love it if I were just one of dozens of bloggers currently writing about this topic, but I’m basically one of two. I’m certainly the only one who has been doing this regularly for several years (that I know of). That doesn’t make me an expert, just persistent — because I feel this is important, and I can’t seem to let it go.

That will have to be enough.

Accepting Fear

I don’t follow too many celebrities on social media, since most of the time it’s clear their posts are being ghost-written or, worse, nothing is being written at all. I like George Takei and Clark Gregg and, especially, Jada Pinkett Smith. Her facebook posts are particularly thoughtful and poignant.

She posted recently about how fear affects our decision making, and it made me reflect on my own choices made over the years as I mourned the loss of my parents. The fact is that I had already lost everything, and you would think that would make me fearless. Quite the opposite: it instilled in me a deep terror of losing whatever I had left or whomever I managed to connect with. From the few pieces of furniture I managed to salvage from the house to my marriage, I clung desperately to the things I knew were mine because I was far too familiar with the feeling of loss to court it on purpose.

But fear is a lie. We believe we are being cautious, or wise, or sensible, when in fact we are simply avoiding the things that shake our heart. Losing someone we love is traumatic and shows us, like nothing else that we live through, the utter desolation of mortality. It’s scary, and we fear that, and everything resembling that. This fear makes us crave the approval of our boss or peers or family; drives us into careers or relationships that promise “stability” but at the cost of happiness; causes us to avoid relationships that are unknowns or contain any risk. Fear stops us from having another child, from getting married or getting divorced, or any number of things that put us out into the world.

Grief is isolating, and the the fear we experience is often grief trying to keep change out. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know that at one point the future held the death of a loved one. The future becomes something to fear and the emotion of grief preys on that feeling.

Jada talked about facing that fear head on, which is good advice. But more important, I think, is knowing that the fear is there. Religious people often put their trust in their god(s) as a way to alleviate fear, in the hope that an external force will triumph over what they believe is insurmountable. As a non-deist, I’ve had to spend a lot of time making the connection between my fears and my grief, and own up to the decisions I’ve made as a reaction to that instead of as proactive choices made with a mind towards progress and positive change.

What I find most important is to withhold judgment from that analysis. It has been very easy for me to look back in anger, frustrated at myself for staying in jobs long past the time I should have quit for instance, rather than practice compassion with myself. I did lose everything, and it was traumatic. I can’t condone some of the decisions I made or even be happy about them, but I must always understand why I made those choices, because that is how I can confront that fear, and move past it.

 

Love is my eternity

The grieving atheist’s consolation is not in hope but in love.

The theme of reunion runs through a lot of religions, and many people of faith rest the burden of their grief on the hope that someday they will be reunited with their loved ones. They believe that they will see their loved ones again. For these people, the very concept that such a reunion might not happen is downright horrific, and they cannot conceive how an atheist’s grief is not made exponentially worse without that promise. They perceive an atheist’s notion of death as a singularly final and empty event, and project their own fears of being alone and without hope onto the atheist’s experience.

As an atheist, though, I never felt the need for that hope. It would be like pining for Santa Clause; comforting, perhaps, but no less ridiculous and unrealistic. It is hard to explain that this is not a decision I came to, but rather is an emotional state that is very natural and organic for me. Atheist logic fits my argument beautifully, but had no bearing on how I felt about matters nor in how I explain it now. There is a huge difference between arguing that Heaven (and Hell) does not exist, and simply knowing that to be true. Is that the essence of blind faith? Perhaps. I’m okay with that, because in the end, human emotions will never resolve into a rational argument. All we can do is provide the best evidence we can for our beliefs.

Atheism is my default setting, so this lack of hope was not traumatic for me. I remember studying with some Baha’i followers during my Great Search for God who told me I should find comfort in knowing I would be reunited with my parents after my own death. My knee-jerk (and probably thoughtless) reply was, “why?” I did not understand why this would a source of hope for me, rather than an argument for committing suicide. I remember this moment clearly because the kind Baha’is looked floored by my comment, and I realized for the first time that my grieving emotions were out of lock step with the majority of mourners.

I have worried at this discrepancy for a while. I mean, it does seem odd that I am not utterly distraught by the idea that I will never, ever ever see my parents again, that their deaths are final and absolute. They are gone, and I am here, and that is a permanent divide. As long as I am self-aware, I will be mourning them and there is no end to that other than my own death, which will be just as final and resolute as theirs.

What I eventually realized is that my consolation, when I find it, does not need hope. My consolation is in the continuity of my love for my parents, a feeling that is boundless and constantly present. I loved them while they were alive, and I love them now, and I will love them until my own mind goes dark. That is eternity, for an atheist; so for all of eternity my parents are here with me, now, in every moment.

 

Living as the afterlife

As a non-deist and skeptic, I view “after life” as the yawning, endless time that is experienced by those of us surviving the loss of a loved one: We are living after the life of someone else has ended.

It’s an important role for us. We are all the after-life that the dead have; we hold on to the memory of that person and make it relevant. How we do that can vary from person to person and family to family but I think it’s better to do so consciously and with purpose. Sometimes reminders can hurt a lot, but to not remember is to lose that person completely. The act of remembering is in a lot of ways like cleaning a wound: sometimes unpleasant, sometimes painful, always necessary for healing.

What constitutes a healthy, meaningful after life? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. A “sacred” space in your home where personal artifacts (jewelry, watches, etc.) and pictures of your loved one are grouped together. This can also take the form of a shadow box.
  2. An annual memorial on the loved one’s birthday or deathday, taking the form that most resonates with participants and their memory of that person, such as meeting at the deceased’s favorite restaurant or rewatching their favorite movie.
  3. Volunteering for your loved one’s primary charity or charity event
  4. Random acts of kindness where you leave an anonymous “calling card” with only your loved one’s information on it (e.g. “This act of kindness done in the name of Sue Y., 1943-1996”)
  5. Making donations to organizations like Kiva or Heifer International in your loved one’s name
  6. Creating art (photographs, drawings, stories, poems) featuring elements of your loved one’s life, such as clothes or their home or their favorite vacation spot.
  7. Writing a family-only memoir of your loved one’s life
  8. Designing a music mix via spotify or 8trax or the old fashioned way (OMG MIXED TAPE CD) and sharing it with friends and family.

What other suggestions do you have, or what has worked for you?

 

What ‘Sacred’ Means

I was interested in reactions to this NPR ‘Code Switch’ story, “What Part of Sacred Don’t You Understand?” Normally I don’t read comments sections because therein lies madness, but in this case I made an exception. The topic is a sensitive one here in America, concerning Native American artifacts and land, a subject with enough tragedy and frustration to run through generations of amity. My interest in the story, though, came from a genuine curiosity as to how sacred is defined.

Yes, I can look up the word in the dictionary, as well as the legal concept as given by Federal law here in the U.S. What I was looking at was how people react to the word individually, how they interpret a situation where people are looking at objects and land but conceptualizing them differently because of a disagreement about what makes something/someplace “sacred.”

In short, what makes a Catholic Church sacred and worthy of protection, but not a mountain that Native Americans have practiced their religion on for years?

Of course for most religious people with a strong faith in a deity, sacred is something that is empowered by some external factor, be it a priest’s blessing consecrating a church or using a sacred area of land for rituals to gods/goddesses.

For us as non-deist mourners, though, “sacred” is a cagey, nearly verboten idea. I’m going to argue that it can still hold a space in our lives. Unfortunately that is often taken from us by people want to shoe-horn us into their concepts of religion and sacredness. The NPR article showed how divergent those meanings could be even among people who do have supernatural beliefs, so there is no way to approach this idea that isn’t going to be controversial to some people.

I propose that “sacred”, in the context of secular grief, means places/things/times that hold a connection to a memory of a person who has died. I have written before about how I held on to my parents’ keychains for years after their deaths. My husband knew better than to touch them, because it upset me to not see them hanging by the door. Eventually during a move they were simply packed away and never put up again, but for many years they were sacred objects to me. This was not due to some paranormal power or connection they had, but simply because they reminded me of my parents.

Too often the practice of atheism takes the emotions out of things. For some, that’s okay, they need that remove. For others, though, perhaps the idea of “secular sacred”, that is, connecting to an emotional state, might be helpful. I suspect it could become a crutch, but I think with the rationalized understanding of what is going on by claiming something is sacred from a secular mindset, it can be beneficial.

Of course many people come to atheism/non-deism through deconversion, and mistrust anything that smacks of religion/paranormal/spirituality. That’s fine too, I’m not trying to force this idea on anyone, just trying to expand our resources to help us deal with our grief.

Poppa’s Boots

They don’t fit me, they are too big. Which, I guess, a father’s shoes should always be: too big to fill. They are military boots, worn in and proud, and they get shuffled from corner to corner of my house because I can’t wear them, and I can’t get rid of them, and I can’t pack them away (like so much else I have sitting around in trunks, bins and boxes).photo of my father's boots

They are artifacts of Troy, pieces of history I barely remember myself at this point. My father stopped wearing those boots when he retired from the military in 1975. I don’t remember seeing them on his feet, even though I do remember him in his uniform and his flight suit. I’m sure I saw those boots in action at some point but mostly I remember them sitting around in his closet. He kept them even though he had no reason to, and I guess I’ve inherited that along with the boots. He kept them for 20 years past his retirement and I’m sure I’ll keep them for longer than that.

I suspect that if they had fit, I would have worn them. Since they didn’t (and that’s probably for the best) they are simply here, sitting around, indicating the presence of someone who isn’t alive and hasn’t been for 17 years.

These are ghosts, to me. I don’t believe in supernatural spirits following me around, even if in moments of fancy I imagine such things. No, ghosts are these: objects connected to memories and feelings. Ghosts of my father are his boots, and his wristwatch, and so many other bits and pieces of his life that orbit me still. They bring him to mind at unexpected moments, live like shadowy creatures just out of touch of my day-to-day routine.

One day they won’t be there, just as he’s not here now. I don’t look forward to that day.