You Don't Need to Believe in God to Grieve a Loved One's Death

by Seraphina Ferraro

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

When people die in my family, they disappear. They sometimes come up in an anecdote or story, but the emotional content of their deaths is missing. Like a step that you expect when coming up the stairs that isn't there. Emotionally, the jolt of that missing step occurs when I recall a memory of someone who has gone and the story exists, but the emotion is absent. It resonates throughout my entire body when I reach for a whole experience and find only pieces. 

My uncle Tommy passed away when I was in Germany studying abroad.  

It wasn't unexpected. He had lung cancer. It was bad. He had thwarted it twice before. He ran out of luck that last time. 

My mother had come out to visit me at the end of my program. She stood next to me at a public phone and called home. I stood there when she got the news. Broke down. We drank beers to him that night, attempting to say goodbye from half a world away. 

A year later as summer was coming on, I was overwhelmed one morning with a sense of grief so profound that I started crying. Big, sloppy tears rolling down my cheeks. My mom asked me what was wrong. 

"I miss Tommy!" I sobbed. 

She stared at me, baffled, then blurted out: "Sweetie, he died a year ago!" 

It didn't matter. I missed him. All of the sadness at never seeing him again bubbled to the surface and I spent several days fully grieving the loss of the man who had been my father's best friend and who had meant so much to me growing up. 

I have tried, since that day, to sort out why we don't talk about the dead. The absence of them hangs like a pall over family celebrations. I don't know if anyone feels it but me, to be honest. But I feel it. The year Tom died, I sat at the table at Thanksgiving and for the first time realized how somber a holiday it had become. The table that had at one point been filled with aunts and uncles and grandparents was empty. My memory of that Thanksgiving is suffused with the soft, low, whistling wind one would expect in a fantasy movie featuring a cursed and lonely tower. 

The problem with avoiding conversations around death and dying is that it makes grief into an isolating experience. Rather than sharing the burden of the loss of a person that we care about, my family all cope with grief on islands by themselves. Separated. Segregated.  

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I don't understand what makes death uncomfortable. That I don't understand needing to push it away. I am an atheist. I have no God to rely on to tell me that I will see these people again. Or that I will continue after my body expires. When I think about death, my mind bends away from it like fire bending in a strong wind. When I think about my own death I feel light-headed and dizzy. The impossibility of my ceasing to exist breaks my ability to focus. 

I understand not wanting to talk about death. But I also believe that pain shared is pain halved. And that the empathy involved in communal grieving is a lesson that should be taught at an early age and reinforced at every possibly opportunity. 

When I think about the people that I've lost, I try to compile pictures of them in my head. The pictures are grouped into a collage. My uncle Tommy's collage features him with a guitar, him laughing with my father when dad retired. Tommy with a burger. Tommy putting me on his shoulders in his pool. His laugh. His beard. 

But I want to put together my collage with the ones made by my mother, my father, Tommy's kids. I want to know more about the person that he was so that I can grieve for as much of him as I have access to. 

And I'm thwarted constantly by what seems like a genetic inability to talk about the ones who have left us. 

The truth is that the way in which my family refuses to acknowledge the dead emotionally makes me uncomfortable – in part or in full – because I am aware of my own mortality. And because I want to know that people will love me even when I'm gone. 

Seraphina Ferraro.jpg

Seraphina Ferraro lives with her girlfriend and their fur babies in Philadelphia. She is a poet, writer, homemaker, loud-mouthed queer, gamer, and social justice badass.