My family experienced its third death in just over the last two months just over two weeks ago. The string of unfortunate circumstances (which should qualify as the pathetic understatement of 2011) started with my grandfather (on my father's side) passing away from natural causes at the end of May. Two weeks later, a cousin on my mother's side committed suicide. Fifteen days ago, the husband of one of my mother's sisters passed away from a heart attack in his sleep.
Three funerals in nine weeks has pushed me to post on what death means to me, an atheist.
What is death? Quite simply, death is the permanent interruption of the chemical process that we recognize as "life". Essentially, death is a part of existence on this planet of ours. We might be able to use medical and other technologies to lengthen our life spans and delay death, but it is an inevitability for each and every human. Large amounts of resources are dedicated to research into figuring out if technology will allow us to live forever, but I'm not so certain that eternal existence wouldn't be as much of a curse as a blessing.
So what do I think happens after we die? I haven't encountered any good evidence that leads me to believe in life after death. Consciousness is brought about by the electrical impulses of our nervous system, which is fed by a series of chemical reactions, which is in turn fueled by the food we take in. Any breakdown of that chain of reactions means the brain will cease functioning and die. I see no possible means by which those electrical impulses that form our personalities can survive outside of the device (our bodies) that houses them. I had no experiences from before my brain formed and began functioning, and I expect to return to that state of nonexistence after my body dies and decomposes.
I've been told by some people that this seems like such a bleak outlook, and that the idea of heaven (or reincarnation, the "New System", or becoming a part of the universe's "life force", etc) or any other type of afterlife in which they are reunited with their loved ones gives them the strength to go on in the face of such loss. At best, this seems like wishful thinking to me, and at worst, I find that it strips life of much of its meaning.
The idea that this life is nothing more than a precursor to an eternity of pleasure seems to childish way to deal with pain and suffering. I'm surrounded by religious family members that seem to dwell constantly on how terrible life is, and instead of working to improve their lives (or the lives of those around them), they are almost obsessed with how awesome it will be to die and find themselves in Paradise, or they express their sincere hope that Jesus will return and they'll never have to feel the sting of death at all. This even goes so far that one family member won't offer any ideas on what he'd like to have done at his funeral, because he's convinced he is never going to need one.
To me, that is a bleak outlook on life. The idea that the pleasures of this short life we live will pale to the perfect life we'll be blessed with after we die cheapens the entire experience we have on our little planet. For an analogy, imagine, if you will, that you spend hours toiling to make enough money to purchase or craft a thoughtful gift that you hope a loved one will appreciate very much. When the time comes to deliver the package, you are practically tingling with excitement as you hand them their gaily wrapped present. As they tear the wrappings off half-heartedly, you hope to see their faces light up with joy at that item you've worked so hard to obtain for them. Instead, your loved one looks at the object, then at you, then back to the gift. They shrug their shoulders and say, "Not bad, but Uncle Gerry is going to give me a much better one next year. See how flimsy this is, and notice how the paint doesn't match up here? The one I'll get later is going to be so much more perfect than this piece of thing." Yet when people talk of how wonderful the afterlife is going to be, this is what I think of.
Don't get me wrong, I understand that life is certainly far from ideal, and we in North America have it better than most humans have ever had life, but to gloss over the best that life has to offer in order to focus on the blemishes and spend most of your life wishing for perfection seems like such a waste.
So, if I don't hold to the fantasy that I'll ever see my friends or family again, how do I deal with it when my loved ones die? Quite simply, I recognize what it means when somebody passes away: I will never see them again. Hopefully, I have many cherished memories of that person, and some lessons in life that they've taught me, making my life that much richer for having known them. Those thoughts will help to carry me through the pain of losing a person I cared for.
Again, an analogy: a while back I did a bunch of work, toiling for a couple of hours to make some money, for which I had plans. Unfortunately, shortly after I received that money, it fell out of my pocket and I was unable to recover it. I didn't start fantasizing that once I died, I'd be rewarded with great riches in order to make myself feel better for losing that money. Instead, I merely resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be able to fulfill my plans that I'd had for that money, and instead found other ways to compensate for the loss.
Death is loss, albeit on a much more intense level. Losing a small amount of money is disappointing, while losing a loved one can be crushing. It is terrible to have to lose someone you care deeply about, but I find that the pain in feeling that loss is also a bit of a comfort, because the intensity of the sense of loss is an indicator of just how valuable that person was.
The worst part about the death of a loved one is that the universe continues to coldly unravel, regardless of the losses we humans encounter here on our rocky outpost called Earth. The whole planet does not grind to a halt to mourn for anyone. But for me, death serves as a reminder and the impetus to cherish and strengthen those relationships with family and friends that I do have.
Now, please excuse me, but I have to go call my Mom to see how she'd doing and tell her I love her.