When My Nan Died: Religion, Closets and Love.

My nan died three years ago this week.

I hesitate to describe any one moment as the worst. Grief is always different, and to say this one is the worst feels like a denial of all the rest of it. Like it implies that I loved the others less.

When my gran- my maternal grandmother- died, the loss was profound but we knew it was going to happen. Dementia is almost incomprehensibly cruel, but the one thing it does give you is a long time to say goodbye. A decade of being present as this woman I loved changed into someone I loved no less fiercely, but differently, time and again. And a few days I’ll be grateful for forever, when we knew this was the end, we gathered together, sat vigil by her side and said goodbye over and over. And when she was gone we all piled onto her bed and hugged her goodbye and talked for hours and slept and ate apple cake and made horrible jokes. And she stayed in her front room for the rest of the week while hundreds of people came to say goodbye. We ate more apple cake and my cousin said a mass in the kitchen and the Catholics passed around communion wine while the assorted nonbelievers sat on the floor behind the counter drinking Coronas.

It hurt like hell when my gran died. But these things helped. Continue reading “When My Nan Died: Religion, Closets and Love.”

When My Nan Died: Religion, Closets and Love.

Repost: the things we remember.

I didn’t write this today. I wrote it two years ago today. I’m reposting it because sometimes you’ve already said all the things you’ll say, but it doesn’t change that unbearable feeling that you need to say something. Anything. Just to prove that you haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten you. 

It feels odd to be writing about this. I haven’t even started writing, and already it feels very odd. Like I’m trespassing somewhere that isn’t mine.

Ten years is a long time. Ten years ago this evening, I was sitting in my living room watching Buffy when the phone rang. It was Friday, I was alone in the house. I remember where I was sitting, in the armchair next to the window. Sitting sideways over the arms of the chair to face the screen. I remember answering the phone. I don’t remember who it was, but I do know that she asked me if I was sitting down before she’d tell me what had happened.

I remember the shock, the disbelief. The total lack of any real emotion for the next few minutes. I remember making some phonecalls to pass on the news. I remember that I only really broke down after that. I remember my parents getting home, my friends coming over. Deciding to drive to Dublin the next morning. Not knowing what I was supposed to do, but needing to be near to everyone else who had known him.

I remember the next week- all of us sleeping on floors, on couches. Needing to be close to each other. Veering wildly between giddy and bereft. I remember it snowing outside a church.

I remember going home. The strangeness of spending my days in places where nothing had changed, knowing that everything had changed forever. I remember the next couple of years as we struggled to deal with knowing that there was nothing we could trust in utterly, that nobody was entirely safe. I remember..

I remember all of that.

I wish that remembering all of that didn’t make it so fucking hard to remember you.

Repost: the things we remember.

Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.

I’m an atheist. I try to be a skeptic- I’m hesitant to identify as A Skeptic, because I think that skepticism is something that we do, not something we are. I believe in things that we have evidence for, like apples and kittens and spaceships and love. While accepting that I live in and am a brain optimised for staying alive and making more brains over logic, I try to not believe things without evidence. I don’t believe in gods or homeopathy or decent books by Stephanie Meyer. Because my beliefs are based on evidence, they are always conditional and subject to change. Which is why I now accept that Lovely Housemate can, in fact, cook pasta without burning it, and I am coming around to the conclusion that there are advantages to not sleeping in until lunchtime every day, and that there is such a thing as too much chilli.

My skepticism is one informed by the real world. My skepticism is based on valuing truth and empathy together. It is based on an empathy informed by truth, an honesty about the world, and a belief that we are at our most honest when we are also compassionate. And an understanding that honesty requires that we accept who and what we are. Sometimes, that means that we accept being brains that do things that aren’t logical. We are brains that are optimised to see agency in the world around us. We can personify and empathise with just about anything. It’s part of how we empathise with and love others. We create images of those we love in our minds. Those we love, in a way, live within us.

I read this yesterday.

Libby’s impending mortality has reminded me that even that belief is one in which I can—and probably have—become just a little too certain. Sometimes, I think—I hope?—there is a value to a belief, even an irrational one, whose main purpose is to comfort. Sometimes even a rigorist may admit a moment of cognitive dissonance if doing so salves a wound that makes life, at that moment, too painful.

If at this moment I allow myself to believe, more or less unquestioned, that Libby has something in her that’s immortal, it doesn’t mean that I will stop accepting as valid the conclusions of modern science…

My critical discipline is good. I will not disparage it. But I will also try to learn that I can distinguish between the consequences of particular irrational claims, and to affirm that there are some that I am morally allowed to hold.

Go read the rest. It’s blisteringly honest and sweet and compassionate, acknowledging the irrationality of believing that those we love go on and yet accepting that sometimes it’s what we can’t help but do.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that we have this one, short, wonderful life and that there isn’t really any way to tell what happens after. Except that our brains stop working. And that it looks like our brains are where our consciousness and our selves live.

There are times, though, when I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t believe that those I love who have died are truly gone. I hear their voices in my mind, remember what it was like to talk to them, hug them and hold them close. I can feel their closeness, love and compassion deep within me, as if they were next to me. In those moments, the belief and understanding that they no longer exist just isn’t there. It’s not that I don’t want to believe it. It’s that the parts of my mind that came into being through my relationships with them are still there. Those mirror neurons haven’t stopped firing. My mind wants, with everything it has, to feel that they’re still there. Somehow. Somewhere.

I don’t believe my mind. But sometimes I do let it be. While accepting logically that there is no known way by which anyone can survive beyond their death, I let my mind feel that the people I love still exist. Not because I think it’s true. But because this thing that I know not to be true is comforting. Because of this. Emphasis mine:

When I call the vet in to euthanize Libby, I will do so because I want to spare her a degree of pain that will make her life more of a torture than a joy. Perhaps her tacit lesson in that moment is that it is also acceptable for us humans, psychologically and spiritually, to extend a small amount of that same mercy to ourselves.

I feel that it is essential that we are as compassionate as we are honest. That compassion, if it is to be truly genuine, needs to be extended to our selves as well as to others. When I let a part of my brain feel (not believe) that my departed loved ones still somehow exist, I’m not denying reality. I still know that they are not. I know that my memories of their voices and presences are just that- precious memories that I hope I will carry with me all my life. But allowing a little conscious cognitive dissonance into my mind is a comfort. It’s a way to let my mind bring those memories to life. A way to let the relationships continue past the lives of one of their members. A way to let the people I love continue to influence my life beyond theirs. A way to get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.

Just another post about loss.

These days it feels like I only seem to write around loss. Somehow of all the things I have to say, this most personal and painful is the one I choose to share. Maybe that’s because it’s become so familiar. So ordinary. Joy is too intimate, but pain and loss? I can share those.

Yesterday night I took a late train home, three hours in those exquisitely uncomfortable seats with my shoulders gradually getting more and more tense and painful. I took a train home from the funeral of someone I’ve never met, and on the way I learned that someone I love will probably not live past the week.

I get home just before midnight. My love is in the kitchen making dinner. The lights are off, she’s lit candles. My friends- oh, my wonderful friends- have left a bottle of wine and a stack of notes in the living room. We sit together on the balcony, we eat, we drink our wine and look at the stars. What stars we can see, anyway, here in the city on this warm summer night. For those short few hours we make this quiet, dark space our own. It feels okay. It feels safe.

We said goodbye an hour ago. She has to fly home, and I miss her before she’s out of sight. We had planned to take a flight together tonight, but tomorrow morning I take another train to visit my family and to say goodbye. Goodbye, for real this time. I don’t know what to say or what I will do. I don’t know how to say a final goodbye. I never know how.

What do you say, when you know it’s the last chance you have to say it? What is meaningful? What does that even mean? How do we make sense of goodbyes with no “see you again”, no good wishes for the future, no next time?

I ain’t got any answers.

Just another post about loss.

Going to your (Catholic) funeral

I went to a funeral today.

I feel like I write a lot about going to funerals. I wish I didn’t have the opportunity. But I do, and they make me think. This was the first funeral I’ve been to in the years since I left the catholic church where I wasn’t one of the primary mourners. My granduncle died. Though I loved him dearly, I am neither his daughter nor his granddaughter. I had the space to think a little about what was happening, about what I found beautiful and comforting and what I did not.

Being at a mass is difficult. I have such profoundly negative feelings towards the catholic church, but I respect the fact that this is a church to which my uncle was incredibly devoted. There’s a very fine line between attending, showing respect and expressing grief for the person I love, and not being dishonest about my own position. So I do what a lot of people do: I attend, I sit quietly on a pew, I listen to the words being said and try to focus on the reminiscences and individual meanings. I do not kneel when asked, though, and I do not say any prayers. I’m the only person I can see who can kneel who isn’t. That feels strange, and I feel so self-conscious. I think my integrity needs me to not kneel, though. I don’t go for Communion. I do shake hands when this is offered- but I always meet someone’s eyes with a question before shaking hands with them, and am happy to smile instead. Because I do want to share solidarity and compassion, and because I don’t want to foist unwanted contact on anyone. I feel like my integrity demands that I do this, too. I feel profoundly aware that I am not a Catholic.

I listen to the singing. It’s beautiful. I will never deny the aching, tragic beauty and hope of the requiem. The choir are people my uncle sang with for decades. Their voices are strong and clear, just like his was. Listening, I think about how so much of religion is based on this moment- when we acknowledge that everything and everyone must end, when we grieve and ache and we long to create and communicate what they meant and who they were. How much of it is simply the impossibility of reconciling this.

Then they talk about his life, about all the things that he did- about his love of sport and his time as President of Richmond Rugby Club, about his devotion to his family. His love of music, his skill as a carpenter, the love he shared with his wife. And then they say that with a life so well lived, he will surely be rewarded generously after his death. And I think that they’ve missed the point. The huge, beautiful point that a life so well lived rewards itself so many times over, that the things and people to which he was devoted must have been such a rich and beautiful reward for him. The hundreds of people who came to his funeral, the deep love in their grief, the stories they all had- isn’t this the reward? Can’t we just celebrate and grieve a life?

But I don’t say any of this, because I know his faith was as important to him as all of the rest of it. And I know that he probably spent his last moments looking forward to reuniting with the people who he loved who have already gone. And in my own way I do respect that. More than that, I do understand it. There were moments at that mass, when the priest described what those reunions much be like, that I let myself imagine them. In those moments, I longed for it to be true. I don’t believe, but I do understand.

And then we are at the grave. It is bitterly cold, the noise of the wind through the trees almost drowning out our voices. Until one person starts to sing, and another, and another. And in the cold and the rain, huddled together against the biting wind, we raise our voices in sadness, in joy, and in love.

In that moment I realise that this is what we do. We comfort each other and we love each other. When we are dying and in pain, we take away the pain and we sit with and hold and comfort each other. When we are scared, we stand with each other and we hold each other. When we grieve, we stand together, we make endless cups of tea, and we love each other. In that moment, I know that that’s enough.

Going to your (Catholic) funeral

Love in the Present Tense

I loved her. And she loved me.

Bereavement and loss are strange things when you don’t believe in gods or afterlives. Our brains seem to be wired for a befuddled incomprehension of the fact that a person can end, that they stop and are no longer there and no longer exist. We can easily intellectually understand the fact of mortality. Feeling it in our hearts and in our guts, though, is a lot harder. Especially when it comes to others, to the people we love. I know in my head that some of the people I love no longer exist. My heart still calls for them, yearns for their presence and company, and sees them behind half-open doors. Sometimes being a brain that can think but can’t stop feeling is no fun.

The things that believers say often don’t do much to help. Well-meaning and loving assurances that the deceased person is in a better place or looking down on us just make me want to scream. “No, she isn’t!“, I think.  She’s not in a better place. She doesn’t exist, and everything that made her up is in the ground in a box. And we’re still here, trying to make sense of it.

She doesn’t exist, but I do. And how I love her still exists. I cannot make her be alive or exist again. I can keep being a person who loves her, who loves her memory and who she was and all of the bits of who I am that only exist because she did. Because she was someone worth loving.

I love her. And she loved me.


Love in the Present Tense

“I’ll pray for you”

There’s a post over at the Friendly Atheist on “how to push away religious people with good intentions?” Reading through the responses to that got me thinking. Now, I’m in a very different cultural context to most of the people at that blog, living in Ireland as opposed to the US, and I am aware that the way people “do” religion here is very different. But here’s my take on people offering prayers and religious consolations to me:

The Good Stuff

For a lot of religious people, “I’ll pray for you” is code for “I’m thinking of you, I hope things work out for you, and I’m going to set aside some time every day to do what I can towards that in the best way I know how”. For these people, I’d respond in the same way that I would to anyone expressing those sentiments. In many cases, the intention to pray for me comes bundled up with some perfectly appropriate ‘real-world’ actions as well- offers of endless cups of tea and a well-placed shoulder to lean/cry on. In some cases, the person offering isn’t capable of offering those more practical things, and that’s okay too. Either way, when I’m dealing with something difficult, it’s always good to know that I’ve got friends and family who care about me, and who have my back. Whether they express that with “I’ll pray for you” or “I’ll be thinking about you”, it’s still all good, and it still makes me feel loved and fuzzy inside.

But then again..

Despite this, however, there are situations in which religious attempts to be comforting have precisely the opposite result. And yes, if you’re a believing type, this would be a good place to start taking notes*. You see, while offering to pray for someone having a tough time is quite the sweet gesture and, for me at least, is generally appreciated as such, you might want to be careful about offering religious consolations.

Last year I lost someone immensely important to me. It was tough, it hurt, it still hurts. I was lucky to have people in my life who were there for me, who helped me so much in working my way through that loss and all the bewildering array of emotions that went (and go) with it. And yes, some of them offered to pray for me, and that was very sweet. It was good to know that they were thinking about me, that I wasn’t on my own. However, sometimes people took a different route, and tried to console me using their beliefs. They would tell me that it’s okay, that she’s in a better place and she’s happy now. That there was a good reason for all her previous suffering, and that, again, she’s in a better place.

Trust me. When a person is trying to deal with the reality that someone they love is gone forever, trying to make sense of the fact that that person does not exist any more? Telling them that this isn’t the case, that in fact that person is in a happy land filled with butterflies and bunnies, is not the way to go about comforting them. For me, all it served to do was remind me that no, she is not in a nice happy place. She’s dead. And that sucks. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. And, while I haven’t experienced this myself, similar responses to illness (“There’s a reason for it, it’s a blessing in disguise”? Give me a break) and other difficulties would be almost certain to elicit similar responses.

So- praying for someone? Awesome. Go for it! Just make sure to follow up the praying with putting the kettle on, stocking up on biscuits**, getting a good pair of walking shoes and limbering up your hugging arms. But be careful when it comes to offering religious comforts to the non-religious. With the best intentions in the world, it can backfire in ways you mightn’t have expected.

*No, I’m not talking about you, C, and you know it. Put the notebook down and thrown on the kettle there garl.

**Cookies, for you Americans. Cookies.

“I’ll pray for you”