How as an atheist I cope with tragedy.

My mother had a and stroke because of an aneurysm about 2 months ago. She's currently in a coma, with sever brain infarct damage and her prognosis is not good. So, what do I make of all of it? Well, thank God I am an atheist. I can't hardly think how I could cope with this better if I were religious.

More than anything, it let me be calm about this tragedy. I don't blame anyone or anything for this. I know that our bodies are imperfect, that to die is part of all living creatures, and that we don't know how it may happen, just that it eventually will. I know and accept this, and that keeps me calm.

I am sad of course, I miss my mom. I didn't expect for this to happen soon because my mom is a very healthy person. Actually, it is somewhat 'interesting' because although she's in a coma (she is non-responsive), she is actually in very good health; all her organs are OK with exeption of most of her brain. When someone asks me about her status, I usually say she's both 'good' and 'bad', 'good' because she hasn't got any worst and 'bad' because she hasn't got any better.

Many of my more religious relatives are a little 'off' by my attitude. I am a little tired that they expect (and probably 'want') me (or my father or sister) to be 'devastated' and continously keep saying "what ever is God's will", "let's pray to god"... I somewhat pity them, I guess that deep down they envy me being calm or something. I am a software engineer, but my dad is a physician, with a specialty in anesthetics, so I have been rounded by medicine books and medical info all my life, so I am well aware of what many medical conditions mean and represent. I actually like this, because it helps me to be realistic about what may happen in cases like this. I know that my mom most likely not recover and that if she does she will be severly impaired. I know and accept this, why don't they? Why do they get so mad or angry when you say thing the way they are?

I'll venture to say they are somewhat selfish. My mom is (was) a very lovable person, pretty, funny, lovely grandma, great singer, smart... and I think they don't want to be privated from her, so they better surround themselves with the (false) expectation of recovery (a miracle) than face the truth that the person as they knew is gone.

During this experience, I've had to deal with a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo and I have experienced how easely people pick and choose from experience and how easely (and quite probably un-willingly) truth is distorted. The miracle cross that once saved a girl in the brink of death, the miracle priest that saved another girl in the brink of dead, and as you start to dig deeper in to the stories you realize that people have exagerated and disstorted the story, in order to make it fit the miracle-type event.

Case number 1: The miracle black-wax jesus. An aunt's friend has this black-wax jesus figure in a wooden cross. It is actually a very nice handcrafted piece and I think it is at least seventy years old. I actually liked it for its aesthetic value. So the story goes that this friend's daughter had a very serious car accident, and she went comatose for several weeks. So one day, while she was coming down the stairs (the figure being in the wall of the stairs), she sees that the chest of the figure is 'expanded' and she concludes that this was the sign of a miracle. So, it is supposed that that same day her daughter woke from the coma and recovered. Well, after hearing many people tell the same history, each one added some little detail that allows to see that that is not exactly what happened. I eventually puzzle the story like this: Indeed this lady 'saw' the expanded chest, but her daughter did not came out of coma inmediatetly, but several days later, and even after that, she still suffers some neuronal problems and had to take re-habilitation (is that spelled right?) for several more months. So, was that really a miracle, or just a favourable outcome? Why doesn't the wax-jesus just avoided the accident in the first place? You may have guessed my answer.

Case number 2:The miracle priest. There is this canadian priest called 'Father Thomas' who lives in a middle size town in the state of Verazcruz, in the Gulf of Mexico. I have never heard of him before, but it seems that he is very popular among the meduim-upper class back in my home-town. The story goes that this guy went to see a girl who had (also) a very serious car accident, and also was unconsious (is this spelled right?). So, this priest puts his hand on her head and starts saying things, supposedly in tongues or at least aramic. So, they told me, the girl suddenly wakes up and grabs the priest and start crying, and miracle! she got better. Well, as usual, there is more to the story. So it happens that this girl was suffering from seizures during her unconsiousnes (is this spelled right?) and the alleged 'wake up' was another seizure event, she didn't wake up then, but about one or two weeks later and still had to stay in the hospital for about a month and also require a lot of time more to recover. This guy went visiting my mom also, and did the same thing... any guess about the results? You guessed right. Nothing happend.

And yet, my relatives keep telling me that I should keep the faith, that miracles may happen. I honestly think that I woudl suffer much more if I was to think like that. Reality may sucks sometimes, but it is certain, that's for sure. As Sagan said about Kepler "He chosed the crude reality to his most cherished ilusions" (I am probably quoting it wrong, but the idea is the same).

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Comment by Howard S. Dunn on June 30, 2009 at 9:38am
*brain cancer (not sure what brian cancer is ... sorry)
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on June 30, 2009 at 9:35am
Man I feel for you. Last October, my Mother (who was the picture of health at 69 and doctors thought would live into her nineties as her father had done) was hit by an extremely aggressive form of brian cancer and died in May.

I can't tell you how many religious people seemed to think, smugly, that this was the time for me to 'rediscover God.'

Listen, my mother was more Catholic than the Pope - and yet, she never condemned me for my nontheism or the lack of religion in the upbringing of her granddaughter. I guess, at the end of the day, she placed more value on her love for me, my integrity, sincerity, ethics, compassion, etc. than where I found the strength to hold on to those things in a world full of hate, intolerance and corruption.

But people I work with seemed to have no problem saying - "She's in a better place" "God will give you strength" "The Bible has the answers" etc despite the fact that I make no bones about my belief that this is the only existence that we have (at least in any form that we would recognize this thing we call 'self')

The most enlightening thing, however, was giving the eulogy (one of her last requests was that her atheist son give her eulogy) in an ornate Fransiscan church to literally hundreds (she had many wonderful friends) of people - mostly church going Catholics and several dozen in her prayer group. I never mentioned god, her soul, heaven, hell, eternal life, Jesus, etc. I did acknowledge her deep faith in the first paragraph. But that was it.

Instead, I focused on her intelligence, her commitment to real friendship, her fifty years of faithful marriage to my father, her sense of humor and adventure, her curiosity, etc. and how she enriched herself and those around her. And two amazing things happened:

1. I totally understood that, as someone who believes this is all we have, nontheism gave me more comfort in the face of my fear of death than Catholicism ever had.

2. These deeply religious people were profoundly moved by what I said and her most devout, prayer group friends all asked for a copy of my eulogy. And not ONE tried to 'bring me back into the fold - even though I very conspicously refused to receive communion."

Amazing.
Comment by Daniel W on June 30, 2009 at 7:37am
GP,
I feel for you with your tragedy. Going through some issues myself. You are right, that going through life with your eyes open, your mind aware, and your reason intact, is a better way. When I have loss, I try to remind myself that I'm very lucky, because there have been some good times and some love in life. Superstition is annoying, but I usually keep quiet about that when people are processing their own fear and grief.

My Dad is declining rapidly, almost moment by moment. He's had a long and mostly good life, but it's still very hard to see.

The place that religion got in my way was the reluctance by some of his medical caregivers to accept him going into hospice. The seemed to think that, even if the procedures are causing harm, increasing suffering, and doing no good as far as extending or improving life, they are still needed in order to demonstrate that they are "trying". So I held firm about that aspect, but even then kept theology out of it. Too much to deal with.


Hang in there, and if it helps, keep us updated about your situation. Stay strong.
Comment by K. Walker on June 29, 2009 at 6:05pm
Angie says it like it is... I opt for truth myself, as do all of us here. Our good thoughts are with you in this difficult time.
Comment by Angie Jackson on June 29, 2009 at 3:38pm
I grew up in a faith-healing cult and I have to say lack of faith is a real blessing for me now. No victims need to be blamed for lacking the "faith" to get better; no god needs to be begged or forgiven for a sad outcome, etc. Because of course, for all the "miracle healings" that happened, lots more didn't happen. And then the question became, "What's wrong with HIM/HER?" My friend (raised in the same cult) had a father with muscular dystrophy, in a motorized wheelchair. The poor man was dragged to the front of services time after time and commanded to walk, and of course he couldn't. So eventually people stopped praying for him and decided it was just "God's plan" for him to be disabled. How much less conflicting it is to believe that some people suffer from disease and others don't, and that God doesn't factor into it at all.

Best wishes for you and your family in dealing with your mother's condition and prognosis.

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