Guest Post: My Atheist Advice to Grieving Ten Year Olds
by Susan Lynne Mehalick
This post was originally published on Saturday, November 19, 2011 in the blog Nutballgirl Uninterrupted. She posted the link to the Grief Beyond Belief public page at Facebook and founder Rebecca Hensler was so moved that she asked for permission to republish it here.
A few weeks ago, a little ten year old girl from our town died. I did not know her but news of the tragedy quickly spread. I was sitting with a few other moms at one of my son’s baseball games when I first heard. One of the women was passing around the memorial pamphlet from the Catholic church where services were held and the little girl attended school. The story was particularly disturbing to me because she had died during an asthma attack, when she began to vomit and then aspirated. Her mother was right there, driving her to the hospital, but it was too late. Since my son, Jack, has epilepsy and often vomits during his grand mal seizures, I live with the constant fear that this will happen to him, so hearing this instantly terrified and saddened me.
Soon the topic turned to the service–how beautiful it was and then how the priest was trying to comfort all her little schoolmates by saying that although they were all feeling angry and confused, it just wasn’t for them to understand why God had called her home. He had his reasons, none of which they might ever know, etc.
At that point, I had to detach myself from the conversation because the comments only became more maddening. I certainly wasn’t going to say what I was really thinking which was that situations like this should be one of the reasons that make people realize that there is no freaking God. And if there was one, we might rightfully call him an asshole. Do you not think that mother was praying as she frantically drove her car toward the hospital, her little girl dying in the back seat? Was her faith just not strong enough? Because the bible says that unless you are lacking faith, whatever you ask for in Jesus’ name, you will be given. If she had survived, you can bet it would be hailed as a miracle and a testament to the power of prayer.Instead, she dies and it’s just chalked up to God’s mysterious ways.What a bunch of bullshit.
And comforting those little kids with a bunch of nonsensical stories about your imaginary loving father whose motives are so beyond our comprehension that you can’t question them is bullshit too. Of course you should question it kids! How could a loving God do such a thing? Why? To what purpose? To teach someone a lesson? Who? The mom? That’s pretty harsh, don’t ya think? Could you imagine doing that to one of your children? You’re damned right to question the bullshit you’re being fed–I only wish someone had been around to answer my questions truthfully when I was your age.
So, here’s what I, an atheist, would have said to those poor ten year old kids, the same thing I’d say to my ten year old son:
Listen, what happened to your friend is horrible and sad and it’s not fair. You have every right to be angry and hurt right now. Life isn’t fair a lot of the time. We do the best we can as humans to make it fair but some things are beyond our control. Everything on earth lives and dies.
This life is not a gift from some imaginary God who supposedly loves us yet subjects some of us to unimaginable horror in order to fulfill some secret plan. The truth about your existence and all that came before you is so much more awesome than any fairy tale. Those stories were made up by people who lived a long time ago and didn’t have the knowledge of science and the earth that we have today. But just because your life wasn’t a supernatural miracle, doesn’t mean it’s any less precious and wonderful and yes, fleeting—you only get one! And that’s why it’s important to make it count. That is why we should appreciate each and every day that we have with our family and friends.
Most of us will go on to live long and happy lives, but some of us, as you now see, won’t and that’s the truth of it. There is no magical afterlife. Death is the end of consciousness and although it’s hard for us to grasp because it’s hard to imagine not “being,” you should know that in the end it will be something like going to sleep, except without dreaming. And when we are gone, the people we leave behind will cry, just like we are crying now. You should also know that in a way we do live on– in the minds and hearts of those who love us and whom we love. And just like some of you are now remembering little moments when your friend said or did something nice or funny, you should also realize that this is how the little things you say or do affect others in all kinds of special and wonderful ways. So go ahead and cry and cry, until you can’t cry anymore.Because it’s terribly sad when someone dies, especially someone young like you. And then hug each other and be good to each other because this day, this moment is all we have for sure. And we are incredibly fortunate to be the only creatures on this earth who can actually appreciate the awesomeness of that.
If you are afraid of dying, which all of us are at times, remember that the real tragedy would be to never really LIVE. Here are some suggestions that will help you make sure you don’t fall into that trap–just some things I’ve learned along the way;
Find what brings meaning to your life and then share it with those you love. Do good for goodness’ sake and the inner peace of knowing that you did the right thing. Be honest in all your dealings. Make your word your bond and cherish your reputation. Always forgive. Listen. Pick your battles and be honest about your motives and if you must fight, make sure your cause is just. Remember to laugh–especially at yourself. Be a true friend. Help others less fortunate and comfort those in pain. Defend your friends, even when they are not there to hear you. Honor the memory of those you’ve lost by helping those who are left behind. Be curious and kind. If you love someone, tell them. Never trade truth for comfort. Question everything and don’t let anyone ever tell you that anything is beyond questioning.