I have been fortunate in that I made it through 26 years of life before I lost somebody very close to me. This streak ended yesterday, May 23rd, 2017 when my grandmother passed in her sleep. Death is not something I had spent a great deal of time pondering before now, but sitting here in the aftermath of it all, I have had a great deal of time to think it through.
I think we all realize that death is the unfortunate end we are all moving towards. It is an inevitability, a when and how, not an if. In my experience, most deal with death by way of religion. Many major religions have a concept of a heaven or heaven equivalent, with this, it is easy to find comfort knowing your loved one is in a better place. I have no gripes with this, in fact I have found myself finding comfort through similar ideas since learning of my grandmother’s passing. However, I ultimately identify as an agnostic or atheist depending on the exact context. That said, I have been spending time trying to reconcile my beliefs with my need for comfort in such a difficult time.
In doing this, I read similar anecdotes by other atheists and one in particular caught my eye and truly resonated with me.
While I highly recommend giving the original article a read, the author is posed with a question by friend whose father had passed recently. The friend asks how the author deals with death given he is an atheist. The author discusses this in the form of a letter, during it he highlights this passage by Aaron Freeman:
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.
Having never read (or heard) this quote, I was very moved by it. I found it particularly interesting that the ideas conveyed in the passage so easily mirror those that the religious among us rely on during difficult times. When it is broken down, what we truly want to know is that our loved ones mattered, that their existence changed something in the world irrevocably, and through that change they live on.
While I am ultimately not sure if there is a heaven or hell, I do know that my grandmother lived a long, passionate and fulfilling life. She had two children, my mother and my uncle, both went on to have children of their own. My grandmother’s actions have profoundly changed the world, as a nurse she cared for the sick, as a mother she brought new life into this world, and as a grandmother she helped raise the future generations of our family. Her energy and passion live on in her children, her grand-children, and eventually my children, their children and so on.
I am comforted by the fact that, while yes, my grandmother is no longer with us, that her life had meaning. This meaning is not something that will ever die, it lives on in all of us, and in a way, my grandmother lives on too.