I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Greta Christina’s Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, which goes on sale today.
This is what I had to say about my experience reading it.
When I was very young, I lost someone close to me in a car accident. Almost more painful than the loss was the way by which those around me attempted to find meaning in the senseless death of a young person. This is the book that seven-year-old me needed instead of the endless religious tracts that assured me that everything happens for a reason.
Here is the story.
It was in England, circa early 1990’s, that I first dealt with death. The memory stands out to me as the first time I deliberately disobeyed what I had been taught. It also belies the notion that religion is universally comforting in the face of tragic loss.
This experience, the first time I encountered the senselessness of mortality firsthand, happened when I was very young. So was the deceased. At age 6, my cousin’s wife, his 22-year-old bride of only 2 years who was his next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart, was killed in a car accident. Cause of death: bleeding out until she expired.
Within a few days, she lay in state at the house for visitors to mourn in the few hours between the preparation of her body and the burial. Despite the brutal manner of her death, she looked as serene and as beautiful as always. She was shrouded in white, as per Islamic law and tradition, but on her, kafan looked particularly angelic. Everyone talked about how she was so good that Allah took her so as to save her from committing further sins, so good that Allah wanted her for himself.
I remember wondering, in a haze of disbelief and grief, why all of the prophets, the Sahaba, and other long-dead pious people I had learned about in my readings weren’t enough to content Allah, why he had to take my favorite pious person from me. I remember wondering, with sudden and selfish fear, if my good behavior and adherence to rules would doom me to a sudden and premature death as well. And because I was six, I remember wondering what I was going to get at neighborhood corner sweet shop, where I had gone along with the other children.
I recalled how my mother had told me not to pretend to smoke because such play would instill bad habits in me, dooming me to smoking as an adult. I recalled how she, along with the admonitions of my kindergarten teacher back in the US and endless viewings of Captain Planet, had impressed upon me the immorality of littering.
As much as I feared sinning and rebelling, I also didn’t want to die young, so I chose the chocolate “cigarettes” that came in the realistic-looking package. Then, I pointedly and deliberately pretended to smoke each one before I ate it. Mechanically, one by one, I consumed them. I was sure to discard the papers on the ground instead of saving them for the rubbish bin later. I wanted some stains on my soul. Imaginary nicotine ones would do.
After I was finished with the sweets, I remember looking up at the sky. Unlike everyone else’s, my eyes were dry. Even then, as now, I cried when frustrated rather than when grieving. My grief has always lingered in me rather than released itself via weeping. It sits in me, running me ragged with its harsh edges, until my best efforts and time tumble it to a smooth finish, one that doesn’t pain me to stroke with my fingertips. Then, and only then, when it’s over, I can finally cry.
Religion didn’t comfort me when I experienced my first death. It frightened me beyond all reason. That people were trying to make the death of someone beloved to me into something meaningful upset me to my core. I could have done with some legitimate comfort, not the confusion caused by religion.