A coworker and friend recently died of cancer. She was only 55, and the time between her diagnosis and death was less than 60 days. It’s this kind of cancer-killing that reinforces the scary specter of a terminal illness. I cannot escape the feeling that she was murdered; her disappearance was that sudden and shocking.
She was also a skeptic and atheist. She freely admitted to her lack of supernatural beliefs, in ways I still don’t feel comfortable to proclaim, living now so deeply entrenched in the luridly theistic American South. This openness was on display at work as well, so it was with some further shock that during an informal memorial for our deceased peer, I witnessed a fellow coworker label her an “earth-bound angel” and then refer to her “somewhere watching us.”
I had no response for this declaration. Either this coworker is:
(1) blind/deaf/dumb (which includes not really thinking about what just came out of her mouth),
(2) did not know my dead friend well at all (let’s just call her Sally for my anonymity’s sake, because she certainly did not need it or want it), or
(3) foisted her own warped sense of reality onto the memory of a woman who decried such silliness.
What does one SAY at a time like that? My initial reaction was to be what would likely have been called impolite -- to call such absurdity exactly that and insist that Sally would laugh at that kind of pabulum. But before my rationalist mind could openly dismiss this display, I realized that it’s not for me to strip away others coping mechanisms in times of grief or loss. As much as I might have wanted to say, “Don’t sully her memory. She would be quick to call you out for that empty image you deploy,” I knew this was not a battle I wanted to fight, not in Sally’s memory, and not for my own satisfaction. Despite Sally’s blatant atheism, she was not arrogant about other’s theistic beliefs. She gently countered others’ assumptions so that they would know not to be arrogant themselves in assuming everyone around them believed in their same supernatural mythology. And so I held my tongue, out of gentleness, out of honoring Sally’s style and substance. Maybe sometime later, I’ll take that coworker aside and ask her if she knew Sally well, if she realizes that Sally did not expect to be an angel. I – in my own grief – could not take up that fight right then.
While it is perfectly fine to grieve in one’s own way, it is not okay to cast the dead in a paradigm that suits and comforts one but does not reflect the reality of the person. Yet that is exactly what the traditions of funeral and wake do! In an effort to “celebrate” the deceased, great effort is expended to make them often into something they very much were not. (Suddenly the lyrics for “Facts of Life” ricochet through my head: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life.” And maybe we have the lies of death.)
I, for one, reject that. I think real celebration should be celebration of exactly that – reality. Sally was really an atheist. She donated her body to science. She was a gentle, friendly human – strikingly so, as everyone in attendance at her memorial spoke about her easy approachability, how she went out of her way to be friendly and helpful to her coworkers … yet she did all that without the potential threat/reward of “life or punishment after death.” THAT was something that should have been memorialized. But I, in my grief and cloaked nontheism, could not find the will to counter the counter swell. And I, in my minority of atheism, felt I could not “steal” these people’s glamours and cream-of-wheat imaginings. Because it hit me, in that moment, that I could not just turn to Sally and say, ever again, “Can you believe the things these people say? Do they think at all?”
Goodbye, Sally. You are missed already, in ways you likely could never have imagined.