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March 3, 2009 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Someone close to me recently passed away. For the most part I'm okay, but what stops me in my tracks is the idea that there may not be an afterlife. How do I come to terms with this?

My dad died last month after a year-long battle with cancer. I was expecting him to stick around for a little while longer, but all of us knew that it was inevitable, and we were as prepared as anyone could be. Dad was happy, went peacefully, and even considered death to be something of an adventure.

Generally speaking, I'm doing okay. I miss him terribly, but I'm grateful to have had him be a part of my life. I'm grateful for all the people who have shared memories of Dad and let us know how much they appreciated him. I'm a little more teary-eyed these days, but on the whole I'm functional and my grief seems to be pretty manageable.

There's just one thing.

A few days after the funeral, I was home alone and realized: What if there's no afterlife? It hit me like a ton of bricks, and it still keeps me up at night sometimes. I had been okay with the idea of my father being deceased, but the idea of my father being completely nonexistent terrifies me. Until recently, it didn't occur to me that those two things might be one and the same.

I consider myself agnostic; reason leads me to believe that there is no higher power, but I'm not always a person of reason. Dad was a pretty spiritual guy, particularly in the last year, and although he didn’t talk about heaven, and admitted he didn't know what happens to us after we die, he did believe that something of us stuck around, continued on, after the end of physical life.

I always figured that if there was an "other side," and if it were possible for the dead to reach back and contact us from that other side, that Dad would certainly do it. I desperately wanted him to be right. As silly as it might sound, on some level I was expecting some sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi apparition, for Dad to appear and tell me that the Force was with me all along.

But with each passing day I'm less and less sure that's possible.

I've wrestled with the thought of death being the end before, but always in the context of my own mortality. These days, I'm not particularly concerned with what will happen to me, just the idea that Dad is totally and completely gone forever. I've looked at previous AskMes about grief, the afterlife, and mortality, but I haven't found anything that really addresses this particular issue.

I can't be the only person to wrestle with this – I'm guessing this issue is what first led people to believe in an afterlife. But I'm not sure how to wrap my head around it. I'm wondering if anyone might have any advice, or can point me toward something to read that might help me sort out my thoughts, or if this is just something that I'll figure out with time.

I appreciate your help and apologize if this question meanders a bit or sounds ridiculous. Thanks as always.
posted by Metroid Baby to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
It seems to me that a large portion of why people seek out religion is to solve exact problem. It gives people comfort.

If you don't believe in those pillars then the only way to come to terms with it is to realize that your mind doesn't except such reality and to work through that while he may not be around in the religious sense, he is and will always be around in the memories of his friends and family.

You could also choose to do something in his name / honor that will have a lasting impact on the world, which may ease your fears that he is "gone" and replace it with the knowledge that others will read of / know of him and the act you connected with his name.

I'm sorry for your lose.
posted by crewshell at 1:54 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

A fellow actually said something to me last week that might be relevant here:

"What if someone came to you when you were still in the womb and said, 'You know what? You're about to be born!' And you said, 'What's that?' 'Well, you get pushed right out that side over there.' 'What's on the other side?' 'I dunno, no one has ever come back from being born. There might be nothing.' What would you say? 'Noooo I don't want to be born!'"
posted by zompus at 1:57 PM on March 3, 2009 [26 favorites]

It might be trite, but I think as long as you remember him he won't be "nonexistant". And the part of him that rubbed off on you will rub off on others, and so on, and so on.

Personally, I think that is the afterlife.
posted by JoanArkham at 1:58 PM on March 3, 2009 [13 favorites]

I'm so sorry for your loss.

When I became a parent, for the first time I started thinking about my own mortality, and realized that I'm terrified of dying - because I'm terrified, I think, of ceasing to exist. Of having my son live on through his life without me.

But, of course, every time you think of your father, he is with you.

Every time you look at his photo, he is with you.

Every time you practice a skill he taught you, or swear because you're not as accomplished at a skill as he was, your father is with you.

Every time you tell a story about him, or tell a joke he liked, he is with you.

He is not totally and completely gone forever, so long as you make an effort to make sure that you remember him, that you make sure that he lives on for you, for someone.

People have children, in part, so they can live on. Be your father's memory. Be his existence from now on, and you'll do his life great credit.
posted by anastasiav at 1:59 PM on March 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This is an ancient platitude, but even as an utterly-non-spiritual atheist, I believe it: Your father is not completely gone; his memory and influence persist in the minds of those who knew him.

You still have so much of your father remaining to you. When you're in a quandary, you can ask yourself what he might do. When you're lonely or upset you can recall the times he comforted you and once again reflect on the perspective he shared. The sad truth may be that he no longer exists as a personality from which fresh input can be had, but his legacy will be as powerful as you make it with your persistent recollection and consideration of him.

Remembering your father will become like re-reading a good book - as you change and grow as a person, the same, unchanging material will take on new dimensions and you'll learn new lessons via deeper or simply different consideration.

Your father is gone from you permanently, in the physical, pragmatic sense. But he isn't gone in the most important, emotional sense.
posted by chudmonkey at 2:02 PM on March 3, 2009 [13 favorites]

There is no afterlife or other side. Sadly, or mercifully, as the case may be, when we're done, we're done.

You observed correctly that humans defy reason to believe in such things because it gives them comfort, makes them less scared when death is close at hand, helps them deal with tragic losses like a child, that sort of thing.

When my mom died of a brain hemmorage in the mid-1990s, I'll admit to wishing she was "watching over me" somewhere, but I knew she was not.

So instead I sought to comfort myself by concentrating on the affects she had while she was living -- the young lives she touched as a teacher, the people she helped later in her life as a social worker, the friends she had, the family she helped create (my sisters, etc.) the 3 chords she taught me how to play on the guitar, that sort of thing. Those are the things that "live on" after someone dies.

Also, there is a tough grief period that we all go through when something like this happens, and with time, you will come to terms with the passing of your father. I'm sorry for you, too.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:04 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Previous questions which may also be helpful: 1 2 3
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:08 PM on March 3, 2009

I'm so sorry for your loss. Your question reminded me of this essay. The author seems to be dealing with a similar set of feelings and beliefs during her grief. I find that, although I don't really believe in an afterlife for myself, when I think of loved ones who have died, I need gentler language than "no longer exists."
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:17 PM on March 3, 2009

How do I come to terms with this?

Having felt what you felt over the loss of a family member and being agonistic, my answer is "slowly," which means day by day. I kept her phone number on my cell phone forever and called it several times, just to see if there would be an answer. There wasn't and it took some time to let that sink in. It's was a process, not a sudden happening.

The pain may be too intense to examine full on at this point, so I found doing physical activities to be helpful, in particular planting a garden. Watching life unfold in this manner gave me some peace in terms of the cyclical nature of things and the fact that whether there is an afterlife or not didn't matter. What matters most is what we do while we're alive and it's all we have control over. Whether the gods watch us every minute, wait for us at the end or died themselves does mean anything to the connections we make and the actions we take while we still can.

There was an interesting book I read about a year afterwards, which helped. Be warned, it's a bit odd to be reading at a time like this and some of the later chapters may be completely ignorable. The book is called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and looks what happens to the physical remains and how they've helped human society advance. Learning what actually happens after the end was soothing. There's a process and our bodies are cared for at every stage.

I know it looks terribly cold and bleak in a sense, but you will come to terms with it. Shoot me an email or Mefi mail if you like.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:18 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm very sorry for your loss. My old man's been gone nearly 5 years now, and while I still miss him, think about him, and wish he could see how far I've come, it tends to be more with fondness now than with sadness. It will get "better".

I have to agree with everyone else who said that he will live in the thoughts, anecdotes, and actions of yourself and others that are influenced by his impact on your lives. I feel my father's presence, in a figurative way, every time I repeat one of his jokes, or tell someone "Yeah, my dad taught me how to do that." Even the things I didn't like about him(generally minor stuff like some foods he loved to cook/eat that I didn't care for, etc) have an influence on my life and can spur me to a short remeniscence if I come across them in my daily life.

It's totally ok to still be coming to terms with your father's passing. I think, in time, you will come to realize and fully believe that he will, in certain ways, exist forever.
posted by owtytrof at 2:18 PM on March 3, 2009

Best answer: Here is something that works for me...maybe it will help you...

We think experience time as linear, so when someone dies we think, where did they go? But maybe the answer to that is...'Oh they are right over there, in the past.'

Your dad still exists in a very real sense, its just in the past that you can't access, except for memories.
posted by ian1977 at 2:22 PM on March 3, 2009 [12 favorites]

I linked to this essay in a previous askme a while back. It's called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God, which I hope you will find comforting, or at least thought-provoking. I wish it had been around for me to read after my mom died, but of course YMMV.

Disclaimer: it's written by a friend, but it's topical and good and I'd link to it even if I didn't know her.
posted by rtha at 2:23 PM on March 3, 2009

I actually had an experience very similar to yours Metroid Baby. I am also agnostic and my dad passed away from cancer about 10 years ago now (although my father became MUCH more interested in Catholicism near the end). I was really angry for a long time that I couldn't be more religious just so I could have that comforting idea of heaven. But in the end, obviously, I just couldn't do it.

And so, as you know, the grief gets less painfully sharp as time goes by, but I have to say it does still sting from time to time knowing that I can't believe in something that so many people believe in that could offer me a kind of comfort. The idea that I could see him again...

As others have said though, it's really the remembrance that matters, talking to people who knew your father, the memories you have of your time with him, pictures, etc.
posted by trinkatot at 2:24 PM on March 3, 2009

My dad died 13 (!) years ago. He is still with me, just as others have said. I don't think of him every single day anymore, but I remember him always.

I am comfortable reading a map because of him. I always carry enough insurance and do my taxes and pay my bills in a timely manner because of him. I looooove hardware stores and fixing stuff because of him. I'm a really good defensive driver because of him.

And, because of him, I could come up with just the right slightly bawdy joke to tell my 84-year-old mother when she was feeling frustrated and blue last night because she has slight cognitive imparement and wasn't getting how to use her inhaler that the Dr. prescribed to help get her lungs working better after a cold:

"What did the young man say to his girl friend?"

"Suck! Suck...Blow is just a figure of speech!"

My dad told me that when I was 18 or 19 --- I still love you and miss you, Dad!
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:47 PM on March 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

How was your beforelife? Afterlife is probably similar.
posted by Elsie at 3:09 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is no afterlife or other side. Sadly, or mercifully, as the case may be, when we're done, we're done.

This is the kind of unhelpful flat statement that gives threads like this a bad name.

And I have an equal distaste for the "So and so lives on in our memories and stories and whatnot," because it takes a rather large spiritual idea that some take literally (eternal life) and reduces it to something so insignificant that it hardly bears considering. I'm surprised that this secular co-opting of a religious principle brings comfort to anyone; almost no one is remembered after a few generations have gone by, we're lucky if we even know our ancestors' names. If you don't believe that this life and world and experience are a means to some other life or world or experience, then anything important that makes us who we really are is lost at the moment of death, except for in the most inconsequentially semantic ways.

Metroid Baby, my heart breaks for you a little. If it helps, this time in your life would not be much easier if you did believe in any kind of post-death consciousness. I urge you to remain as aware and receptive as possible; one thing your father has given you is an example of how to live and die without really knowing; I think being able to do that is far more valuable than to arrive at a point where you "know." So much of our life is defined by our reactions to crisis and suffering, I hope during this time you're going through -- in which you are malleable, full of doubt -- allows you to understand ever so slightly beyond your own understanding, and strike a bargain with yourself and your world that you can life with for the time being. As Brandon Blatcher said, day by day is all you really need right now. If you need to entertain thoughts of certain things awaiting beyond, indulge. You can always amend your worldview later when you have healed and are facing whatever comes next. Please don't let anyone else define your experience for you. Your father was a singular being, and you only get to grieve him once... yes, "get to," not "have to."

I like ian1977's thoughts about the past. It's generally accepted that time doesn't exist in a way that conforms to our perception of it. Everything that is and was and shall be are all connected, regardless of our sunjectivity, and who knows what that means for us in the (very) long run?
posted by hermitosis at 3:22 PM on March 3, 2009 [14 favorites]

There is no afterlife, you will cherish your dreams. Sometimes they seem so real.

If your father had an effect on you he will still affect the rest of your life.

Pass his love and experience to those still here, that is what he has done with you.
posted by Max Power at 3:40 PM on March 3, 2009

I do believe in an afterlife--although not the sort of wispy immaterial heaven they show in the comic strips. I believe in a God whose plan includes the resurrection of those people who have died, the restoration of those things that have been lost, and the renewal of those the parts of our world that have been broken or corrupted. This is the grand vision the Bible calls the new heaven and the new earth.

Without that, I agree with hermitosis. Memories of a person last only as long as those who knew them were alive. Your good memories may be a comfort to you--I hope they are. But it doesn't really go far in the final analysis.

I think the best thing we can say in a godless world is that part of the mystery of human evolution and procreation is that each parent's DNA gets split, copied and scattered throughout the generations. Part of the genetic blueprint that made your dad who he was lives on in the generations that follow him. You have part of it, and on occasion, without even realizing it, you are going to think almost the exact same thought he would have had in the same situation, or say the same thing, or hold your head in just the same way. You aren't him, but part of you is made of the same stuff that made part of him.

Maybe a few hundred years from now, there will be a young man around who looks remarkably like your dad, and has the same kind of outlook on life and the same qualities that you appreciated so much in your father. In his time, he will be to someone else what your father was to you. Likely no one will be know about this unusual similarity, but it will be there. He'll be a good man, and one small fraction of one percent of the reason is that your dad was a good man and his chromosomes lined up the same way in a few key places. And when he eventually dies, his kid will mourn him too, and struggle with the same feelings you have right now. Who knows? Maybe she'll be a lot like you.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:05 PM on March 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

Your father has ceased existing. You can honor his memory by living a full life, doing the things he never got to do, and telling your kids and grand kids about how he affected you.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:07 PM on March 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: And I have an equal distaste for the "So and so lives on in our memories and stories and whatnot," because it takes a rather large spiritual idea that some take literally (eternal life) and reduces it to something so insignificant that it hardly bears considering. I'm surprised that this secular co-opting of a religious principle brings comfort to anyone; almost no one is remembered after a few generations have gone by, we're lucky if we even know our ancestors' names.

So wrong.

I just lost my baby daughter to brain cancer, 2 weeks ago today. I don't know if there is an afterlife, but I constantly think about my daughter's positive life and the inspiration she gave to others in only NINE MONTHS (and 2 weeks) of being alive. Her life has wrought so many positive changes on my own empathy, understanding, courage and patience. Other parents of children with cancer have been inspired by her courage to persevere through agonizing treatment for their children. These children have a chance of surviving cancer, because of Vivi. She lived for only thirty-eight weeks, and my memories of her smile, her courage and her lessons are a lastingly positive thing for many people. These experiences have changed me; my future children will be affected by it (hopefully positively) and their children as well. This, for me, bears more than "considering" - it demands respect.

There might or might not be an afterlife - I don't know. But I know that I talk to Vivienne, and when I am feeling absolutely under a truck with grief I tell her so, and I feel better. I look for signs of her, I see them, and I feel better. Not necessarily because I believe there is truly some way her energy, soul or molecules still exist to influence mine, but because it is absolutely undeniable that her LIFE existed, and that it influenced mine, and that nothing, ever, could happen that could diminish my love and respect for that brave, kind, sweet baby. When I can't take it today, or I feel so alone and purposeless without my little one to care for, I admit it to myself and ask, rhetorically, for help, support and bravery - and it comes. Sure, it probably comes from ME, but regardless of how it happens, I feel better. I take a minute to love and respect that baby.

So, I can't tell you how YOU should come to terms with the doubts about an afterlife, but for me, I just incorporated them into my worldview. I don't need to believe that there is a heaven, as it is depicted, where Viv is literally an angel, but I do talk about her that way. I appreciate her, and love her. I know that her life had meaning, joy, love and positivity, and that I am a much better person for knowing her.

I truly think that while people can offer love and support to you, and I certainly do so, there is NOTHING anyone can say that will answer this for you. You need to beat your own individual path through grief. Others can help, can suggest, can guide and can encourage, but you won't have an "Aha, so-and-so has it, I get it now and I'm okay" moment. But day by day, try to remember love and stay strong. I think constantly of Vivi being at peace - even if there is not an afterlife, she is not suffering now and she is loved no less.
posted by bunnycup at 4:21 PM on March 3, 2009 [27 favorites]

There is no afterlife or other side. Sadly, or mercifully, as the case may be, when we're done, we're done.

Thanks, I didn't realize we had such all knowing individuals on metafilter...seriously though, nobody will ever truly know the answer as to whether there is an afterlife until they are gone so I think most of you making this statement should pretty much stuff it as it's not very helpful and rather self righteous.

I remember when my grandfather died. I came into his room just after he took his last breath, and found it so hard to comprehend how he was there one minute and then gone the next. I began to wonder where, if anywhere, the life and soul that he once had, had gone to. A small part of me began to fear losing other people in my life and I began to wonder if I would see them "on the other side" or if that was it. But then I realized that whether I do or I don't, was beyond the point. I needed to focus on making the best of the here and now and not waste the life I was given in fear and uncertainty. What you are experiencing is completely normal and I think its just a way of trying to make sense of a traumatic situation. I think the best way to look at it from your stand point is that your father would want you to live your life to its fullest. One day, it will be your turn to see "whats on the other side", but until then, keep him in your heart and share his memory with others, and he will never be truly gone.
posted by scarello at 4:34 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss, Metroid Baby. My mother passed away ten years ago, and I remember having the same thoughts as you about an afterlife. I have always been nonreligious, and never gave the idea of an afterlife much thought except that I knew I didn't believe there was one.

Of course, once my mom was no longer physically here, the pain of feeling she ceased to exist was too much to bear. But I didn't believe in Heaven, so what other alternative could there be other than she was just utterly gone? I struggled to find a way around it pragmatically, philosophically, intellectually, what have you. I always came back to the same conclusion: my mother was no longer here or anywhere. And each time I came back to that seeming inevitability, I despaired all over again. Then one day, I remember agonizing about it while making a long drive (the grief always bubbled to the surface on those long lonely drives I made at the time). And suddenly, maybe out of exhaustion, I just let go of all the intellectualizing, and realized that on a very visceral level, I truly felt like my mom was there, nearby, somehow in the ether. I found some sense of comfort in that, once I'd given up on trying to define my beliefs, and instead listened to my heart, if you will.

It's not rational or a specific answer one way or another, and to this day my thoughts on an afterlife only really apply to my mother and no one else. I can't very well lay out in text how exactly I feel. And yes, I'm aware it sounds pretty trite to maybe anyone but me. But I do have this vague sense that she is around and able to keep tabs on me. I just don't try to look too closely at that notion, or try to fit that into anyone else's definition of anything.

Hope that's somewhat coherent.
posted by JenMarie at 4:36 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It might help for you to consider that your crisis over this issue might actually be your unconscious way of dealing with your grief for your father; that the abstract concept of his "being gone" when he passes became the concrete reality of his being gone when he passed, and as you work your way through the mourning process you're projecting that sense of loss onto the concept of no afterlife rather than the fact of your dad's passing -- possibly because it's easier to cope with abstract ideas than delicate emotional issues.

Which means, by all means, follow the advice above, dig into the issue, enjoy your journey of coming to terms with it, because it is possibly just your way of dealing with your father's death -- and that's 100% okay.
posted by davejay at 5:00 PM on March 3, 2009

I think part of the problem is that humans are incapable of imagining themselves not existing. It follows that it's almost as hard to imagine a loved one no longer existing.
I can't help you with the theology - I too don't believe in an afterlife and wish SO MUCH that I could - but I can tell you that loss does scab over, eventually. I've heard so many stories from people who say they were "visited" by ghosts or spirits or dreams, but no matter how I try to conjure him, my father stays silent and gone.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:10 PM on March 3, 2009

Best answer: Here's the thing. Your dad's conscious personhood has ended, but that in no way means that he has ceased to be. Those who bring children into the world pull off a pretty amazing trick: they sidestep annihilation. Three billion base pairs of your dad's DNA dance within the murk at the heart of every one of your body's cells, meters of it, spun up into unimaginably dense geometries, coils of coils of coils. They're the immense made tiny, those coils of DNA: angels on pinheads, only better, because Hey presto! They got together with your mom's coils and built you from scratch. And now they work tirelessly to make sure that you remain you. The ones in your irises, say, maybe they unwind a bit to make some pigment to keep your eyes the same pale blue as your dad's.

But it's not just that you're built from the same raw stuff as he was. In all the days of your childhood and all the days that followed, he passed himself along to you in a thousand ways that genes alone could not. Spirituality, philosophy, ethics, politics, language, humor, loves, hates, opinions, interests, preoccupations: deliberately or not, he shared it all. You didn't absorb a lot of it unquestioningly, maybe, but his understanding of the world, the things he knew, and the things he cared about certainly remain with you, have become facets of the prism of your own perceptions.

Your dread of broccoli? There's your dad. Your love of acid jazz (and I don't know you, so bear with me here), the ease with which you spin numbers in your head, see them flash against your retinas as you multiply and divide? Him again. Your encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and baseball stats, the color of your hair, your tendency to misplace your keys? The slight cant of your smile, the ease with which you strike up deep conversations with perfect strangers on the bus? Yup. Those figures of speech you come out with in mixed company, only to realize that they make sense only if you're Ohioan and it's 1954? You get the idea.

I'm sorry if it sounds trite, or seems like cold comfort, but that oft-expressed chestnut that your dad lives on within you and your siblings is literally true. A lot of what made him him, from molecules to moral compass, from genes to hopes and dreams, is the same stuff that makes you you.

For me, at least, understanding and coping with death in this way is a lot healthier than clinging to the labored fairy tales of afterlife we've ginned up over the millenia to cope with our uniquely human affliction: the pairing of rational analysis, which suggests that we're all going to die, with the survival instinct, which demands that we must not. Though at first the universe seems a little cold and empty when you dispense with the specious gabble of gods and demons and are left staring into the quiet alien immensity of what actually is, with time I think it actually provides more comfort (the alternative -- keeping hold of the old fictions and soldiering onward, always straining against disbelief -- doesn't sound very comforting at all to me).

I have also lost a parent before she was ready, or we were ready. It sucks. All rationalizations aside, I'm very, very sorry for your loss. Though it's a little sad to contemplate never again speaking with your dad, understand that when it's quiet and you find yourself musing on some inconsequential topic, the voice you hear isn't yours alone, but his as well.
posted by killdevil at 5:25 PM on March 3, 2009 [29 favorites]

Heidegger would say that your dread of non-existence is how you know that you are alive and that you exist—the Dread is the visceral sense of nothing.

Look, there's no way to know whether or not there's an afterlife. I mean, that's kind of a by definition truism. But what about trying to come up with ways to celebrate your dad's life for the living? It may or may not have any meaning for him, but if there's meaning for you and yours, why not embrace it?

Or, to put out an alternate view there, what if there is an afterlife, and it's pretty lame? I mean, look at the Greek conception of heroes waiting around, unremembered and unloved, wanting to relive past glories? That was for virtuous and scurrilous alike. Or what if he's reincarnated? Is there anything you could do for life around you that might hold your father's spirit?

More than anything else, and I realize that this sounds facile because I haven't lost my parents yet, I think that this will simply take time to work through. These are intense feelings! You'll have to deal with them for a while, but as the immediacy fades, the overwhelming effect of the emotions should too.
posted by klangklangston at 5:49 PM on March 3, 2009

but what stops me in my tracks is the idea that there may not be an afterlife. How do I come to terms with this?

There's no proof, either way. Perpetual existence in some alternate plane that we can't see, touch, or experience strikes me as pretty unlikely: things we can't see, touch, or experience are generally called imaginary. We'd sure love to not stop existing, so an ethereal place of perpetual pleasure is a very convenient fantasy. But that's probably what it is. Some people are so afraid of the idea of stopping that they'll cling to any belief system that promises them otherwise, even in the face of pretty powerful evidence that their belief system doesn't coincide with reality.

If there is an afterlife, I suspect it's in the part of you that lives on in the people you know, or perhaps in the works you leave behind.

As far as how to deal with it: you have to make that part up. Our brains just aren't wired to understand death, particularly not of ourselves. I think everyone who rejects the supernatural deals with it in a different way. For myself, I'm of the 'suck it up, buttercup' mindset: there's nothing all that special about this particular human, and there have been a lot of absolutely phenomenal people that have died before me, and many more who will come after. There may be people who rate eternal life in some paradise somewhere, but I don't particularly think I qualify, and I think almost everyone who believes they do, also don't. When I die, I'll just stop.

But that doesn't mean life is devoid of meaning. In the absence of the supernatural, that means we're free to make up any damn meaning we want. We are freer than any humans ever have been in that regard. We may be evolving toward something amazing that doesn't exist yet. We know, when we look at our children, that we behold wonder. After a few million more generations, maybe the God we imagine will be them.
posted by Malor at 5:52 PM on March 3, 2009

Killdevil's answer is worth some deep reflection. The idea of people living on in memories is not a trite saying, or a metaphor; it's literally true. As soon as you stop to think what you really mean when you use the phrase "my father", you realize that it couldn't possibly be exhaustively accounted for by the physical entity that has died: it's a concept that also includes all manner of influences, memories, relationships and shared experiences. These are your father, and you'll always have them. I can't really express this idea much more clearly except to recommend reading some good mainstream Buddhist books on the subject.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:17 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

When my grandmother died, I had difficulty coping with the idea she had ceased to exist. The notion that she was living on in my memory was of little comfort. I was talking to a friend about it and he asked me,
"Did she have a good life?"
I thought about it for a while and had to agree that she had a rather wonderful life. Then he said,
"Well there you go. If there's no afterlife and this is all there is, she had a good all there was to have."

That made me feel pretty warm and fuzzy.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 6:48 PM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think Ian1977 gets it right - your dad exists, but he exists in the past. This philosophy of time is called eternalism, and it is arguably the only theory of time compatible with relativity. The article on time in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a good summary of eternalism versus presentism (especially sections 5 & 6), and has suggestions for further reading on the subject:


For the theory that your dad still exists in a real sense in the memories of his loved ones, you might read Douglas Hofstatdter, I Am A Strange Loop. He wrote it based on his reflections as a cognitive scientist after his wife died suddenly at a young age. (He's also the author of Godel, Escher, Bach by the way.)


I found both lines of inquiry very helpful when my own dad died just over a year ago. Personally I find the eternalism argument more convincing, whereas I find Hofstadter's argument that his wife still exists in the present poignant but somewhat desperate - existing in the memory of others is I think a very different thing from existing as a living individual. And emotionally I find it more comforting to believe that my dad exists as the embodied person I knew, in this times and places he knew (knows?), rather than as some other kind of disembodied being.
posted by wps98 at 8:30 PM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think you're going through an ordinary grieving process. You had a thought or hope in your mind that you might be able to experience your father's personal existence again, at least once. I wonder if this isn't the more lamented idea than the rather abstract one of whether there is in some sense an existence after death. You're grieving the loss of your father in the here and now, and that is undeniable. These particular thoughts will diminish in importance as you mourn your loss.
posted by nanojath at 11:34 PM on March 3, 2009

For the most part I'm okay, but what stops me in my tracks is the idea that there may not be an afterlife.

Yes, the realization that this is for keeps, no do-overs, no sequels, often comes in much stronger at someones else's death than in idle musing over one's own fate. It did for me.

Just as we frequently presume that words have some fixed meaning running through all of their uses, so do we also presume that there is some fundamental substance, a soul, present through all the moments of a man's life, and even beyond - as though the soul was the essential, and life the accidental. Death brings it into question. And I found the idea of a soul to reads like fantasy. But there are spiritual views of the world which do not posit a soul (as identity) and that's been a response I've found honest and comforting.

This is from Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace:

[On chance] "We want everything which has a value to be eternal. Now everything which has a value is the product of a meeting, lasts throughout the meeting and ceases when those things which meet are separated. This is the central idea of Buddhism (the thought of Heraclitus). It leads straight to God.

Meditation on chance which led to the meeting of my father and mother is even more salutary than meditation on death.

Is there a single thing in me of which the origin is not to be found in that meeting? Only God. And yet again, my thought of God has its origin in that meeting."

If the above quote resonates, read Simone Weil.

I've found meditation helpful, which is really nothing more than a focus on the present and gratitude for it. When I am present to what's here, my mind isn't running around trying to eliminate the uncertainty of the future. And if identity persists beyond death, it can be a surprise. That's OK too.

Also, take care of yourself - be gentle with you.
posted by BigSky at 5:40 AM on March 4, 2009

Best answer: For me, there are two elements I think of when dealing with the absoluteness of death (which I do consider absolute, but I won't get into that here as I understand people not wanting to explore arguments and philosophy on a question about coping). They are, the beauty of experience and gratitude. When I explain what I mean it may sound a little hippy dippy, but both of these concepts can be found in plenty of ancient texts, religious and philosophical, including the bible, and I truly think many religions can be interpreted to be suggesting this sort of coping rather than believing in an afterlife.

By the beauty of experience I mean that everything we go through is interesting and worthwhile in some way, even the terrible, painful parts, which is to say, even when you suffer through grief, there is something you gain from it, a level of understanding or character that you did not have previously. It may not seem the least bit worthwhile during the period you are undergoing it, but you can learn things you could not learn from a perfectly, unconflicted and easily happy life. It is not simple, and we do not necessarily learn the right things, but bad events can be opportunities for growth, as cliche as that sounds.

By gratitude, I mean basically a thankfulness for whatever experience we get, which is to say, life itself is inexplicable and already an unexpected gift. To be sad or angry that it doesn't continue forever is in a sense not appreciating the original 'gift' (i use that metaphorically as I don't personally see their being an actual benefactor, but interpret as useful to you). So in the larger sense - which isn't always useful when you're dealing with immediate grief, but maybe can serve as a backdrop - death is not a taking-away of something, but just the completion of whatever it was that was given, however small it might have been. But in every case, we got something for nothing, we got more than we asked for or could have caused ourselves. Life happened, somehow, and we were here for it, whether briefly or for a long time. You had however-many years with your father - that was amazing. It hurts that it is completed now, and it may be too early to concentrate on this aspect, but eventually, this is where to find solace, I think: that you had what you had.
posted by mdn at 10:12 AM on March 4, 2009

I don't believe in an afterlife either, but when my uncle committed suicide... This is one of those things that logic can't quite pin down for me. It's hard to talk about that way. You're asking for a way to wrap your head around it, but I don't know that it works that way. This not-understanding is part of grief.

This is the closest to what I could settle with:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                    i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

- ee cummings
It's nonsense, but you know what it means.
posted by heatherann at 11:26 AM on March 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

looking over your question again, and your fear of "nonexistence", I just want to remind you that everyone has been through "nonexistence" at various times in their life, as we have all been unconscious at one time or another, most commonly in dreamless sleep. Your father's mind no longer being active is no scarier in itself than deep sleep. It is more sad because that mind will not awaken again, but the fear of eternal rest itself is making death more alien than necessary.
posted by mdn at 12:30 PM on March 4, 2009

I am very sorry for your loss. Your question is one that we ask in our hearts at some point. Personally, I recently lost a family member as well. It really is a struggle between reason and faith. My advise would be if you can make yourself believe in your heart that something beyond the natural world is real, by all means do it. The comfort you could claim would be worth it in my opinion. If your rational mind does not allow any faith to survive, then the best I could offer would be to just put off the significance of death and the departed and live in the moment and cherish the memories of the ones you love and have lost. Also, depending on which route you take I would recommend a few authors for either train of thought. For the road to reason alone Bart D. Ehrman, Christopher Hitchens, and Betrand Russell are at the top of my list. For faith, C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler and Peter Kreeft are beneficial. I hope that you find peace with whatever decision you make.
posted by gibbsjd77 at 3:14 PM on March 4, 2009

Response by poster: These are some great answers; thank you all so much. I marked some of the ones that helped me the most, though I agree with bunnycup that this is something I will ultimately have to answer for myself.

A lot of it has been that I've wanted to see him again, that there's still so much out there in the world that he'd want to see or talk about, that it's not fair that he's missing out on things - and it's awfully hard wrapping my head around the idea that he's gotten all he's going to get and been all he's going to be.

It helps me to think that just because he isn't anymore, that doesn't mean he never was. If that makes any sense at all. His life is over, the reality of his existence is in the past, but he was still here and he got to see and do a lot. That gives me some comfort.

The idea that he is a part of me, both genetically and in terms of what I learned from him over nearly three decades, helps me as well. In fact, when I was initially writing this question, I kept thinking, "this is something Dad would say." In this way it's likely that his legacy will dilute over the next few generations, that his influence on the world will get mixed around with everyone else's and no longer be recognizable as just him, but I think that's in line with what he wanted anyway.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:45 AM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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