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The death of a dear agnostic father and a atheist mother


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Initial post: Jan 13, 2012 8:59:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 13, 2012 3:03:36 PM PST
Two weeks ago, I had the experience of watching my dear father die. He was 95 years old and had lived a rich and wonderful life - spending the majority of it (71 years) married to my mother. Although they were brought up in marginally Christian homes and attended church as children and young adults, neither of my parents were/are religiously inclined. Dad would have been best described as an agnostic - willing to accept that there might be a supernatural realm or intelligent creator, but finding no connection or interest in any personal theology. Mom is a "quiet" atheist, unlike her youngest son - sharing her lack of belief with just a few cherished friends and family. Her atheism was the result of deliberate consideration and deep contemplation after years of studying philosophy, culture and theology. She was a eighth grade drop out from a depression era family, who started back to school (an college) as a almost forty year old housewife, eventually earning a masters degree with highest honors and teaching English to 8th graders for 20+ years.

My father managed to die as he had always wished - in the comfort of his own bed with our mom and his three children at his side. Watching him pass was a cascade of emotions for us - that personal, somewhat selfish, sense of loss... great pride in what this modest, kind and decent man had accomplished, the binding unity and family pride that comes from an intense and meaningful shared experience. Somewhat surprisingly, we felt a sense of accomplishment with the ease with which dad was able to let go and die, peacefully. I honestly believe, the four of us still among the living found comfort with our own mortality issues.

I stayed with dad until the mortuary worker took his body away and I helped lift his corpse onto the gurney... at that point, the cold, withered frame was no longer my father. It (not he) was a strange, hollow shell. I was looking at a gray mannequin, an inanimate representation, completely detached from the person we knew - a modest man of impeccable honesty, generosity and humor. My atheist mother and I don't believe that dad is anywhere other than held dearly in our cherished vivid memories. We think that a life well lived is like a good book, a narrative that has a beginning, a full and rich cast of characters and experiences and, of course, a definitive ending.

Shortly before dad died, my mom found out she has advanced cancer which will end her 92 year life within the year. She didn't tell my father because she was aware that her illness would make it far more difficult for him to let go. Since dad passed, we've been opening up to each other about how non-believers, like ourselves, deal with the reality of death, the "mythological" projections of an afterlife and what "meaning" we can extract from these natural experiences.
In the coming months, my mother will certainly give me plenty to think about. I might just share what I've found out with interested (and compassionate) people.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 9:12:31 AM PST
dischism says:
A great testimony, Stephen.

Thank you for sharing how compassionate, rational people meet the inevitable with dignity, grace and acceptance. Your mother is a brave and unselfish lady.

My condolences for your loss of a much loved and valued father. (I have a lump in my throat).

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 9:15:56 AM PST
Brian Curtis says:
My condolences for the past and future loss of two such important people in your life. It sounds like they have both been a good influence on you and others.

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 9:29:11 AM PST
Thanks dischism & Brian,
In addition to the possibility that an honest discussion about death and the non-believer might illicit some fresh perspectives, I hope that it might also open up a rational discussion about morality and ethics without a theological underpinning. My parents are exemplary role models for secular humanism.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 9:44:02 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Jan 26, 2012 2:14:38 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 9:48:37 AM PST
dischism says:
Stephen

Indeed. I find your mother's strength and courage to consider your father's fulfilment and peace of mind before her own loss and imminent mortality truly inspiring. She's a quiet, unsung heroine and I only hope that I am capable of such unselfishness if it's ever required of me.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 10:38:53 AM PST
Ronald Craig says:
Thank you very much for sharing that, Stephen.

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 12:14:30 PM PST
Please somebody hold my hand
I'm scared and feel real shaky
Please somebody understand
I just now lost my daddy

Daddy said goodbye today
I miss him so already
I love mommy very much
But mommys can't be daddys

Chuck Mangione - (Lullaby) Children Of Sanchez

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 12:23:02 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 13, 2012 12:24:15 PM PST
Bubba says:
My condolences. If you wish to speak to a minister about it, may I suggest that you speak to a Unitarian-Universalist minister. A UU minister will have similar beliefs to yours regarding death, and many UUs are atheists and secular humanists.

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 12:30:25 PM PST
Brian Curtis says:
The fact that so many agnostics, atheists, and humanists face death without suddenly shrieking in terror and begging an imaginary god to save them truly bothers a certain subset of religious zealots. Some go so far as to invent "deathbed conversion" stories.

It's just more Lying for Jesus.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 2:28:56 PM PST
A very moving account, Stephen; thanks for sharing. Your parents sound like wise and admirable people.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 2:35:22 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 13, 2012 2:37:29 PM PST
Hi Bubba -
Thanks, but I'm content with my emotions about dad's passing and gradually adjusting to my mom's rapidly deteriorating health.
I should add that Hospice Services worked wonders for my dad and our family. The care they provided to my father was gentle and respectful. The spiritual counseling never intruded on my mothers lack of belief in a god or an afterlife, but provided helpful advice on the grieving process and sense of loss. The information they provided about the physical symptoms of death was very valuable in preparing us for that eventuality.
I mentioned to my wife that, in many ways, Hospice is comparable to Lamaze. What they do to demystify and assist in the dying process - to make it less painful, more understandable, manageable, inclusive of family and, ultimately more human - is similar to what Lamaze does with the birthing process.
Despite our loss, my dads death was about as perfect an ending as one could ask for.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 2:53:58 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 13, 2012 3:03:00 PM PST
Brian says "The fact that so many agnostics, atheists, and humanists face death without suddenly shrieking in terror and begging an imaginary god to save them truly bothers a certain subset of religious zealots".

My agnostic father never mentioned anything theological in his last few days. He wanted to be held and kissed by his wife...to be visited by his three children, most of his eight grandchildren and a few of his eleven great-grandchildren. He never showed any sign of distress or fear, smiling gently as he slipped from life.
My atheist mother knows that, at age 92 and with severe cancer, her life is near an end. She mentioned the other day that she had no interest in attempting to prolong her life with advanced medical techniques saying, "I could not survive these treatments, they wouldn't alter the quality of my life one bit and all it would do was waste the nation's healthcare money." She's always the rational "real world" person, I've cherished for so many years. Knowing her the way I do, I wouldn't expect any death bed conversions... not that such an act would offer any of us proof of an afterlife.

I worry more about people who believe in heaven and hell. I would think that there might be more fear as death looms near - worrying that a god might not forgive them, and thoughts of less religious friends and family who might not have made the cut. Then again, the people who willingly flew themselves into certain death (and killing thousands of others) during the 9/11 attacks were certain they would obtain a reward in an afterlife. I worry about that theological perspective, as well.
If the years we have alive on this small planet are all that there is, then doesn't it make far more sense to create a better world for ourselves, our loved ones and, even, the rest of humanity?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 3:30:00 PM PST
Bubba says:
People live on in the hearts of the people whose lives they touched and by what good they have achieved in their lives.

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 3:54:05 PM PST
Stephen, thank you so much for sharing this. I, too, have a lump in my throat.

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 3:56:14 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 13, 2012 3:57:02 PM PST
As an atheist who doesn't believe in an afterlife, heaven or hell - I can say that nothing is a as chilling as the thought of being in the final stages of life, having no ability to alter my actions and regretting that I deceived loved ones, cheated friends and associates or was unfair or indifferent to the plight of my fellow. Certainly nobody is perfect... we all make mistakes that we wish we hadn't, but on the balance, I can't imagine knowing that during my brief time on earth I was unethical or immoral.
By the same token, the theological concept that one can obtain a "redemptive pass" from doing horrible things and gain forgiveness - simply by honestly admitting we're all equal wrongdoers and embracing a supernatural entity - seems antithetical to real human empathy and morality.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 4:14:27 PM PST
Beautiful essay on being witness to your father's death, Stephen. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Your mom is obviously a woman of great courage.
(My dad will turn 94 this year. Mom just turned 84. I feel really blest to still have them both in my life.)
Karen

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 15, 2012 9:32:14 AM PST
Hello Karen,
Yes, having both parents alive at an advanced age is such a blessing. There's so much wisdom and experience to gain from them. My dad taught me so much during our 62 years together - most importantly about fashioning and maintaining "quality" (not quantity) in living and he showed us how one can die with humanity and dignity.
So celebrate your remaining time with your parents, Karen. From what you've told us about them, they are remarkable people, as well.
My siblings and I intend to share as much joy with my ailing mother as we can in the coming months.
All the best

Posted on Jan 15, 2012 11:00:59 AM PST
A Customer says:
Good story. What I took from it is that you should live a good life now. There is no afterlife and no second chance. Once you've died it's over and you're worm food. There's no need to believe in heaven or hell or anything metaphysical. That's all just myth. I was amazed to read that Steve Jobs questioned it at the end of his life. Perhaps I would too, but I doubt it. Lesson: live your life to the fullest, and do as little harm as possible. Speak the truth and avoid lies. Try to lessen the misery of existence.

Posted on Jan 15, 2012 12:04:53 PM PST
Nucleation Boiling Site - I agree with all of your lessons except the last one, which I would simply switch two words and restate it as "try to lessen the existence of misery". The world will never be a safe place devoid of natural perils or misery. It is also a place where we can observe great beauty and that offers humans a vast potential for discovery and knowledge.
However, when we accept our existence as the temporary stewardship of a tiny part of the planet - without the cop-out of a delayed reward in a
imaginary afterlife - perhaps we'll live our lives more in a more proactive, humanistic, realistic and environmentally neutral manner.
Religion seems to be the most formidable (yet, primitive) obstacle in the evolution of man towards this goal.

Posted on Jan 15, 2012 2:27:22 PM PST
Stephen,

Thank you for continuing to try and make the world a better place. Your father would be proud.

Posted on Jan 15, 2012 3:06:00 PM PST
Thank you for sharing these poignant and thoughtful reflections.

Posted on Jan 17, 2012 11:34:17 AM PST
theists go through the same things as atheists when dealing with death. i dont know of many theists who are anxious to go to heaven, but ive seen plenty cry at funerals, go to hospital, buy cars with good safety ratings, etc.

Posted on Mar 4, 2012 3:57:37 AM PST
BludBaut says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Mar 4, 2012 3:44:58 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 4, 2012 3:49:21 PM PST
Blutbot wrote:

>>BludBaut says:
Regardless of how anyone justifies their refusal to acknowledge or accept the sacrifice of the Son of God for the sins of the world, it is our joyful responsibility to say that the Bible is demonstrably true and those who don't believe it have ignored the overwhelming evidences that it is indeed the Word of God.

>>Jesus stated very clearly that everyone would be judged by His Words. It's very unwise to go through life and reject what Jesus said. He said that if we abide in His Word, we would know the truth and the truth would make us free. That's found in John 8:31-32

This language is strangely reminiscient of a Christian college brochure I picked up at the greeters table in the Chapel of my Christian High School, almost 30 years ago. I might have read *like* commentary in Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series of novels, if I hadn't had more than enough of his medieval medicine spliced to pop psychology when I read his Spirit-Controlled Temperament .

I sincerely doubt your vision or his or (to notice your reviews) Kenneth Copeland's vision of what constitutes the "Word" of God. Though I made a friend of one of those college singers who were recruiting in my High School that day, I found @ that college that even the administrative pastorate had little care for the claim of Jesus *being* the word of God from John's gospel, despite their insistence on the verbal and plenary inspiration of scripture.

It was, in their hands merely an anachronism with which they could secure their grasp of (political) power, and through which they had moved beyond the need for tact. Their feeble literalistic grasp of St. Paul's writings as scripture was likewise an *unnatural* selection.

The very passage of II Timothy which assures us that scripture is God-breathed (inspired), likewise was addressed to someone who had only the Jewish scripture (from childhood). II Timothy 3:15-17, ASV)

15 "And that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."

16 "Every scripture inspired of God `is' also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness."

17 "That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work."

What I'm left with is only the assurance of Jesus words that though heaven and earth pass away, my words will not pass away. This sounds so similar to quotations of Isaiah, and his teachings throughout the other gospels that not the least punctuation nor alphabet letter can pass from the Torah, that I'm persuaded he was strictly reitterating his confidence in his Torah teaching, in the durability of the material he presented, from it's historical durability.

So, maybe it's perversely logical to you that God might sacrifice himself to himself, to save humanity and creation from himself, from his indignation towards sin. I guess that's sort of what St. Paul writes about the foolishness of God being greater than man's wisdom. Paul seems to have believed God made a mistake.

And to be *saved* thus centers on being delivered from your own self destructive tendencies. That's just the way it's lived out, the pattern which the church makes of it anyway.
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Discussion in:  Religion forum
Participants:  48
Total posts:  757
Initial post:  Jan 13, 2012
Latest post:  Nov 2, 2014

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