Poetry for the Living, and the Dead

I went to a poetry reading the other night, which is not something I do very often. Not for lack of interest, but, I suppose, lack of exposure.

For instance, some people do not grow up around music. Their parent’s didn’t play instruments and did not own records/CDs and rarely listened to the radio. I find that extremely odd, as some of my earliest memories are filled with the sound of blues, jazz, classical, Broadway show tunes, and of course the score to Star Wars. What is it like to live in a house empty of music?

On the other hand, as musically inclined and as literary as both of my parents were, poetry was not a thing in our house. My parents had the obligatory Shakespeare and Emily Dickenson on hand, along with my father’s treasured collection of Robert W. Service, and a few others but nothing that intersected much with my life as their child.

The result is that it’s taken me a lifetime to learn the value of poetry in everyday life, to understand that as obscure and opaque as some poetry may be, it can also be empowering, uplifting, and inspiring. Poetry, like music, can serve as reflection and revelation.

So, when I was Poetry for the Livinginvited at the last minute to attend a poetry reading sponsored by the Favorite Poem Project, featuring a reading by the magnificent Robert Pinsky (former U.S. poet laureate), I was happy to accept.

It was as deep, meaningful, silly, and entertaining as I expected. Alongside the “professional poets”, nervous people got up on stage and read their favorite poems, revealing their hearts to a group of (mostly) strangers. My friend Kim, a wonderfully talented performer and entertainer, expressed this when she talked to me about her unusual stage fright. This was not a role or a costumed gig, it was simply herself up there talking about her life, revealing aspects of her personal story in the most vulnerable way possible. She did a lovely job of it, by the way.

What did surprise me in a number of readings was the recurring theme of death. Several people talked about parents who had died, and how poetry helped them with their grief.

Should this surprise me? Probably not. Few things in our world are as moving as the death of a loved one. It’s natural that people turn to whatever outlets they have such as music and poetry to deal with their emotions.

Religious folk I think turn to prayer and psalms for the same reason. We all seek out a way of expressing our grief that resonates personally, but speaks widely. Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) is often read at funerals and memorials more because everyone knows it, than because the deceased read it or requested it, and so it serves as a balm to peoples’ grief.

Yet poetry, generally in this modern age, sits outside of religious conventions (even if a poet uses religious imagery and language). People are finding solace in words created neither as sacred text nor simple prose. Poetry, like life itself, can be short and sharp, or long and convoluted, or…or anything, really. Claiming a favorite poem is the ultimate way to express a state of being, outside of actually writing poetry.

Which makes me wonder, what poem encapsulates my life experience, or reflects my own memories best? I often say that I want Talking Heads’ song “And She Was” played at any memorial for me, because for whatever reason I have felt intimately connected to it since college. But a set of lyrics is tied to the music that goes with it – of course they can be read separately, but I assure you, a reading of “And She Was” without music is very emotionally unfulfilling, if not downright confusing. I don’t think I have a favorite poem as yet; but I also have not spent much time looking for one.

And, too, what poems speak of my parents?

For father, that’s pretty easy; his favorite poem was Service’s 1907 opus, “The Call of the Wild” which he loved as a child and was a motivating force throughout most of his early life. I memorized the first few stanzas to recite to him for his birthday, when I was a girl.  It’s a melancholy choice, for me, and perhaps for him, as the final third of his life was frustrating and miserable, spent in a bad marriage and drowning in alcoholism.

Mother is more difficult, as befits a difficult woman; she loved Shakespeare and would probably claim one of his sonnets as her poetic memorial, but the poem I remember her reading and laboring over, memorizing and analyzing, was Beowulf (specifically, the Klaeber translation). During one manic phase she taught herself the rudiments of Old English to better grasp the translation. Interestingly, she never talked to me about it. It was hers and hers alone, among a life spent in symbiotic codependency with me.

They are not alive to approve or disapprove these choices, nor do I think they exist anywhere as supernatural remnants of life. They are simply gone, as I too will be one day. Maybe I will not appreciate the poems people remember me by. But then, I think, poetry is meant for the living.

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.

New post up at Atheist Republic!

HDR_SecularizationofGrief-Kimboo-MF

 

Can we, as atheists with no real common denominator other than what we don’t believe in, use celebrity mourning as any kind of guide or measure for more personal tragedies? I think so. The thing that strikes me about the events I bring up here, from Princess Di to Robin Williams to Leonard Nimoy, is that the mourning was public. That seems incredibly obvious to point out, but think about this in comparison to personal losses. People refrain from bringing up the names of dead family members, don’t refer to their deaths, and generally help us build a wall of isolation around our losses.

Full essay at: http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/kimboo-york/celebrity-death-secularization-mourning

The Secular Power of Coloring Books

Recently, I told a friend to buy some coloring books. Even to me it seems like an out-of-the-blue suggestion, and after I commented on her Facebook post I felt a little idiotic. Who tells a grown woman in a stressful, chaotic time of her life to buy a coloring book?

Me, apparently.

We had chatted earlier about writing, as she is a writer and a full-time caretaker who was worried about not having the energy to write. My responses mostly consisted of kind, empathetic remarks like “are you fucking kidding me? Of course you don’t have the energy to write! What the hell are you thinking??!??!?!”

By the time I got around to making a comment on her post, I realized I needed to be proactive and suggest actual solutions to the problem, as opposed to mere kind, empathetic remarks. So: coloring books.

Coloring books for caretakers. It should be a thing.

Especially for atheist/non-deist caretakers.

My own grieving was highly affected by the fact that I was the full time caretaker for both of my parents as they died. It was only about three and a half years, all told, but it was pretty traumatic. In fact, my therapist suggested that my PTSD and dissociation disorder stemmed more from those years than the actual deaths of my parents.

The literature on full time care-taking is pretty robust these days, and most of it confirms what someone like me already knows: it is catastrophic for our mental health. It is stressful both physically and emotionally. It is a financial strain, it is lonely, and it is depressing. And there I was, in the thick of it, basically alone.*

Again, and as usual, atheists and other non-deists usually have the double hit of not only being full-time caretakers, but not having a built-in support network that religious communities often provide. It’s not true that every church “family” helps their brethren, of course, nor is it uncommon from even the most devout person to insulate themselves from their communities of choice during times of extreme stress. They do, however, have the fallback of prayer and believing that they are being “helped by God” through times of stress, and we can belittle that all we want from a skeptical perspective but they find emotional solace in doing so. Hence the old saw, “no atheists in a foxhole” as most people think that a high-stress environment will inevitably lead to prayer as a coping mechanism, no matter how many of us claim otherwise.

Anyway, there was me, deep in the foxhole of in my early 20s with two dying parents and feeling like my own life was over.

Most things related to “having a life” were beyond me, and I am grateful I did not have to hold down any kind of employment or work on a higher education degree. I had my bachelor’s and my parents had my father’s retirement income, and that at least held us up so I could stay home full time. I call them the “house wife years” because while I was the daughter, I was totally married to that house.

But most of those memories are a blur. I was too exhausted to write or draw regularly, if much at all. I watched a lot of vacuous television, and late at night when my parents were asleep I would sneak out of the house like a teenager and go dance (but not drink) at nightclubs. It was my one of my only escapes.

The other was coloring books.

My mother had picked up the “adult coloring book” habit years before. I still remember the main book she used, it was a very thick book of mandalas, and she never finished it (I mean, it had like 100 pages of mandalas you could color, over 200 drawings). She would retire to coloring books during downward slides of her bi-polar cycles, when she still had enough energy and brain power to be bored but not enough to get involved in projects.

I picked up a copy of the same book when I moved home to take care of my parents (adult coloring books were rare, and variety a pipe dream), and while it was not a constant companion, I remember many mornings and afternoons where I would doodle out colors between the lines, feeling free in the choice of colored pencils and yet not stressed by the requirement of intense creative effort. It was a way to reconnect with myself without stressing about productivity, because there is something about the restrictions of the lines that allows for the colorist to focus on one simple task to the exclusion of other things, but it is not so monotonous as to become taxing.

Coloring books exist on that fine line between drudgery and creativity. Coloring in the lines gives me structure and security while allowing me to flirt with the edges of my imagination. It relieves me of the burden of accountability for my output. That, of course, is usually exactly what a creative person – writer, artist, musician – aims for, not avoids. We strive to produce in some form or another, even if what we produce is practicing our skills. “Write/draw/play every day!” is the mantra, with an assumption of progression behind it: do the thing, every day, responsibly and with dedication, so you can get better at the thing.

On the other hand, I’ve found that coloring in a coloring book is meditative in practice. Or, in lay terms: you zone out. The restrictions of “produce and progress” are lifted and I’m left only with the interaction between myself and the materials (pencils, pens, paper, design). This is a mini-satori in a way, a short brush with enlightenment that cannot be sustained, its value derived from the experience.

I needed those moments desperately. Alone in my own head I could easily drive myself crazy with worry, fear, frustration and exhaustion. Coloring was a way to “get out” of my misery and fear in a creative but not oppressive way.

We need more examples like this for atheist/non-deist care-takers, tools they can use that are not dependent on supernatural or paranormal validation. Care-taking is, in the vernacular, a “soul sucking” job, no matter how much you love the person you are taking care of. It’s a thankless task and very little makes up for the frustration, fear, worry, and exhaustion. As atheists and non-deists, we need to be providing answers to these kinds of dilemmas. Coloring books are an example of a secular tool that can be accessed across cultural, social, and economic lines to help people when they are emotionally burdened or compromised.

All power to the coloring books.


 

*Ironically, during the time I was a care-taker I was involved in the Episcopal Church. Or, at least, I was trying to be. As I’ve written before, it was more a “going through the motions” thing and not something I got any emotional benefit from. Even when I tried prayer, it didn’t do anything to change my situation (no surprise there) or how I felt about my situation. Neither was there a lot of church outreach to my family, certainly not enough to counter the incredible trauma we were going through, and in general we tended to rebuff people who got too close. We were loners by default, a family unit of three iconoclastic introverts who were, at best, agnostic.

 

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.

 

The Atheist in the Mist

The title here refers to the classic movie about anthropologist Dian Fossey, “Gorillas in the Mist” which became short-hand among anthropologists for studying any group as an outsider prone to endangerment. Sometimes used sarcastically (“Polyamorists in the Mists!”) or as a warning when entering a violent situation/area, it fits this post because recently I was invited to participate in an on-campus interfaith dialogue about relationships.

Not that I expected to get flogged and burned, mind you, because FSU is generally regarded as a civilized and open-minded kind of place. *winks* But I thought it was weird to invite a self-identified atheist to the proceedings. Nonetheless, in the spirit of collegiate pride and professional responsibility, as well as personal curiosity, I went.

It was a small gathering (expected, as we’re near the end of term and everyone is freaking the fuck out about finals) but there I was, sitting between a converted Catholic and the campus Presbyterian minister. There was a fourth person who was supposed to be there, I’m assuming representing the “non-Christian” demographic, but she did not show, unfortunately. The crowd was a mixed bag, and I had a small cheer-leading section of co-workers all for me! (thank you, Martha, Jennifer, and Peace!)

Rapeseed field, Cotswald

This is not your After Life.

So we talked. And eventually, because I’m me and my relationships always turn back around to the deaths of my parents somehow, we got on the topic of grief and mourning and traditions surrounding death. (It’s a little depressing to realize that this is my “calling card” in such interfaith discussions, not because I regret it but because I stand out as unusual.) For the first time, someone directly asked me about how I would explain death to a child since I could not fall back on the whole “afterlife” mythology-du-jour.

The idea of an afterlife is alluring because it promises better, and it promises eternity. Not only will we be happier there, but we will be happy forever! It’s a hard prospect to turn down, emotionally speaking, especially it promises that we will be reunited with the people we love most. Personally I wasn’t raised to believe that, and it is not something that occurred to me at all during the protracted deaths of my parents. It just wasn’t on my radar that their deaths were a temporary separation, because I was pretty firmly in the mindset that their deaths were going to be permanent. That mindset has never changed.

But for many it is a bleak, bleak version of events. They want reunion, they want eternal happiness, they want a sense of justice to balance out all the awfulness that people experience in life.

I think people there were genuinely curious to my answer, because how can an atheist be anything but nihilistic? Or so the argument goes.

My response was that I think we do a disservice by letting children believe in an afterlife. There might be time for it — the argument rages, in secular circles — but on the whole, it’s unfair to promise something we cannot prove exists. And my point here isn’t to drive home the hopelessness of finality, but to stress that what matters is who we are NOW. What we do, and how we live our lives, is too easily overshadowed by ideas of a utopian afterlife. Many religions, especially Christian, argue that being a good person is how we earn a place in Heaven, and that’s our impetus for being morally good and just. I cannot get behind that and never have, because I think it is cheating ourselves if the only reason we do something good is for the sake of being rewarded for it. That’s the behavior of dogs and toddlers, not self-aware adults.

In laying the foundation for that self-aware adulthood, I would explain to a child that this life ends, and that is sad, but what matters is living joyfully, honestly and ethically in the life we have now. That remembering the life of someone who died is a better “afterlife” than any vague promises of unknown utopias, and being remembered after death as a good person is far more important than any hope for immortality. That getting this one chance to live fully is an opportunity we cannot waste or treat lightly, or ruin for other people. Knowing that everyone around you gets this one chance makes us more compassionate, not less; life becomes more precious, not less, when it is acknowledged as a rare and unique experience.

I’m pretty sure my answer did not fly with that crowd, or sway anyone from their religious path, but maybe (I hope) gave them food for thought about what life, and death, really mean in a world with 7 billion people striving for survival, love, and happiness.

#

* Photo by Eric Hossinger, used with permission via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

Senseless, Tragic and Stupid

Talented, award-winning actor and all-round nice guy Phillip Seymour Hoffman died at some point on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 from (it is assumed) a drug overdose. He had a documented issue with addiction and so this goes down as another fabulous actor lost to drugs. I am reminded in a lot of ways of the death of John Belushi (1949-1982) who was famed for both his incredible talent and his excesses.

When the news broke Sunday afternoon, my social media feeds were quickly filled with tributes to Hoffman and his work. It was touching to watch, and as a fan of his, I was very moved.

There were also a number of people who pointed out that he was an addict, that he made his own choices, that dying by an overdose is stupid, and he doesn’t deserve pity for engineering his own senseless death. That he was selfish for caving to his addiction and saddling his family with this tragedy.

Senselessness tragedy is one of the hardest things that we, as humans, can face. It hurts to know that some things just happen — some people become addicts,  some children die from cancer, our cat gets hit by a car, a monumentally stupid detail such as someone buckling their seat belt determines whether they live or die — and there is nothing we can do to rationalize it or stop it in its tracks. In those moments of terror and anguish, we want to think that if we try hard enough, we can control every aspect of our lives.

It is tempting to take our sadness over a person’s death and use it a bludgeon against our fears, to pretend that “senselessness” doesn’t really exist, that it isn’t logical and it is stupid. We use logic in the same way religious people use prayer, as a cry in the wilderness demanding justice. We want to believe that our child will never be a drug addict because we raised her right; we won’t develop cancer because we don’t smoke; our brother or sister won’t die young in a DUI crash because that just wouldn’t be fair. Cause and effect are real phenomena, but they rarely play out as we think they should outside of controlled laboratories (and often not even then). When it all goes to hell we want to be able to point at a reason and say, “that’s why” and “he should have known better” and “I wouldn’t do that.”

But human conditions like addiction, depression, mental illness, bad hearts, weak immune systems etc. all thrive on the spectrum between life and death, between stupid and tragic — they are senseless in every way. Religions often play this off as “God’s plan” but that’s another side step around how it feels to be utterly, inescapably helpless in the face of something we want very badly to control.

Of such desperation are superstitions, and perhaps even whole religions, born. That’s not meant as a put down, it is simply recognizing that humans DO NOT LIKE feeling helpless and will go to extremes to banish that sense of fear. People of faith have tools to fight that darkness that they wholeheartedly believe work, such as prayer. Whether it actually works or not is immaterial, because their need to pray is an emotional reaction to helplessness.

Atheists and other non-deists have to face this head on, though, and often do so in a way that resembles thrashing blindly in the dark. A lot of non-deists claim they are fine “living the question” of why we are here and what it all means, but when confronted with concrete examples of the random senselessness of our lives they try to logic it out and put fences of rationality around the uncontrollable. People explain Hoffman’s problems as self-inflicted and his death as a stupid mistake he could have avoided. And sometimes that’s true, because there are enough recovering addicts out there to prove that it is possible. But we are doing a disservice not just to people like Hoffman who have died, we are creating a dangerous bubble for ourselves that death and grief will shatter like nothing else.

What tools do we have, then? What can we use to “make sense” of things that are genuinely senseless at an emotional level? I return to the point I make a lot: external methods of dealing with grief (and fear, and anger) can only go so far. Therapy can help and alcohol can numb. We don’t have religious traditions and platitudes to shore us up in our desperate hours. For us, the solution is internal, even if it must be practiced actively in the world we live in. That is to say, embracing atheist grief and fear of death takes compassion.

Compassion is an emotion that exists outside of our demands for reasons and justifications and judgment. With it we can acknowledge the painful senselessness of tragedy without hiding it behind curtains of “purpose” or “cause and effect”.

As non-deists we can look at the death of a talented, troubled man like Hoffman and know that yes, it was senseless, tragic, stupid and possibly avoidable without losing the thread of our humanity because we have no fear of offending god(s) by saying so. We can offer clear-eyed compassion in the face of death, because it doesn’t matter if it was random or self-inflicted, not one little bit. All that matters is that we know these experiences bind us to our own humanity as much as to each other. Compassion isn’t pretending the dark doesn’t exist or sending it away with a wish and prayer, it is standing bravely in the face of our own fears and offering a light in the dark to others no matter how senseless their problems look to us.

 

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.

 

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?