(I was really on the fence about posting this. It's just some thoughts tend to go through around this time of year, plus some current new thinking that resulted from being a LW lurker).
Around this time of year, I tend to start thinking about death a lot. My dad died 12 years ago this month, and it’s still one of the most significant events of my life. Death is something that still seems to be solidly in the hands of religious and spiritual types as a discussion topic. I’m hoping that this post (in addition to not being too rambling) can provide some impetus for people to challenge that in daily life.
I don’t mean this to be an angry screed against religions. There was a priest on hand when my dad died. My mom, sister and aunt were gathered around, and it was in the midst of praying that my dad finally passed away (I apologize for the wording; our language can be so spiritually loaded, I just want to avoid saying died over and over). He told a really nice story about my dad being in heaven. It was comforting at the moment, a kind of way for my family to keep those awful, overwhelming feelings of loss at bay.
But it was after I got home and started calling my relatives that the enormity of the situation hit me. My uncle in particular broke down into angry tears when I told him the news. My dad was his older brother, and meant so much to him. There wasn’t any story that was going to make that loss any better. My uncle really thought there was more that could have been done medically. At the time (I don’t know what the state of the art medicine of today could have done), I really don’t believe that was the case. I remember watching my dad have seizures at the rate of about twice a minute. When he died, I was relieved to see that come to an end. He was going through intensive chemotherapy at the time, and died of sepsis. His body was just facing too much, and finally succumbed. There just wasn’t any way around what the eventual outcome was going to be, sadly.
The bright side in the situation, and what I hope to impart, was the strength I got from being around my friends and family; the community of people that came around to take care of us. We were inundated with food baskets, for instance. I was in such a state of shock in trying to process the situation, not having to worry about basic things like meals was a relief. And so many people who knew my dad or our family came by to share their condolences. The conversations were awkward. People didn’t know what to say. And it meant the world to me that they tried. Friends of mine came out of town to be with me specifically. I was so, so grateful that they took time out of their lives to do that.
I can give you all the standard but true things about death; live everyday like it matters, tell people that you love them today, for examples. But, I wanted to share that I think the best rational response to death is for the community to be there for people. I’ve been reading about the various meetups here on LW, and something that stood out for me was the community aspect of bonding. I really and truly believe that the way to make rationality matter is to keep building these rational communities, just as communities. I think it was the New York meetup that has really emerged into a group with strong bonds. I don’t see this as a condolences arms race, necessarily. But over time, these groups will be able to take care of themselves when these hard times come. We give a lot of power to religious groups, because they’re one of the few who step up when these hard times hit families. Often times, they are the only larger community a person is a part of. It’s really important, in my eyes, to offer alternatives to that.
So, I would encourage the meetups up and the like to emulate what I read about in New York. Sure, talk about rationality and related topics. But please do recognize the impact of just bonding in a group. Eventually, being the group of people that supports someone as they grieve is exemplary work, and I believe that is something that will naturally arise out of these communities. If you can step outside of that group and be there for others, so much the better. Rationally speaking, I think humans would be better off if there were ways to grieve openly and fully, without having to factor in religious stories.
I apologize if this post is a bit rambling; it brings up a lot of emotions for me. It meant so much to me that my dad said he was proud of me while he was still coherent, at a time when I wasn’t very proud of myself, for instance. That and so many other things are going through my head. I just wanted to get this out. Thanks for reading.
Thank you for sharing your heart with us, zaph. My grandma passed into nonexistence last year. The pastor at the funeral preached a sermon on the immediate ascension doctrine -- that she was not, as some christians claim, sleeping until the return of christ, but instantly ascended to heaven. Perhaps this was comforting to some who believed not only the bible but his particular church's interpretation thereof.
The only story I can tell that is true is that her family members still remember her. I sometimes fantasize that her actual memories can somehow be retrieved, along with those of my grandpa, by analyzing the reflected electromagnetic signals from interstellar dust -- but this is such a tenuous possibility that it makes cryonics look rock-solid by comparison. The reality is that I can only disapprove of death, not pretend it out of existence.
Thanks Isparrish. It was pretty hard to get all of that out. Your grandmother's funeral sermon sounds like so many other funerals that I've attended. The need to pretend death out of existence just seems so central to what religious approaches to death are all about. The other side of it, saying that death is exactly what it seems, feels so daunting. The fact that their memories lives on can feel flimsy, even if it is absolutely true. I don't have a neat and clean method of dealing with grief, but preserving those memories for yourself I believe is integral, or at least it was for me.
Memory is flimsy, but the good that people do can have effects which last for quite a while, even if it isn't connected to their names.
That's something I really learned from my dad's life. He was an electron microscopist, and I believe he did some great, if unheralded, work in his lifetime. I believe doing good work in general, in any number of different fields, can add to the general good in the world. Add to that loving people you have in your life, anyone has tremendous potential for adding to the good of the world.
hug I too have lost, and I sympathize.
I don't know if you're in the mood, but Yudkowsky's reflections on losing his brother are moving.
Thanks. And I did read that post from EY. I found it pretty enlightening about who he is a person. It was a very moving piece.
I'm a member of the NYC group. I was surprised at how quickly I felt close to the people there. The line that occurs to me from HP:MoR is:
I think that's a big part of the key. That and the hugging. I still feel a little awkward about that, like hugging is something that should be earned and I haven't earned it yet, but it definitely helped.
We're not there yet, and I'm not sure everyone wants this for the NYC group in particular, but I would like there to be more/better secular communities that fill the niches generally controlled by religion. Frankly, I think it's perfectly okay to describe oneself as "religious", even if your religion is Secular Humanism or Rationality or whatever it is that you believe in that moves you.
My personal experiences with death:
My grandmother died last year. The funeral was a very religious ceremony, which I didn't mind. She was Catholic, she lived a Catholic life, and most of the people mourning were Catholic. To ignore that (silly as I my find their beliefs) would have been disrespectful.
But last months my two dogs both died (a few weeks apart. Their deaths were not related but the coincidence made it harder. They were 14 and 19). My family dug a grave and read some poems, sang some songs and said a few words.
And was profoundly, profoundly annoyed that although 3/4 of us were atheists, the most moving things anyone had to say stemmed from a religious viewpoint. There was an incredibly moving essay about the things dogs do for us and how they slow down in their later years until finally they run down a hole where we can't follow them, and find themselves in a beautiful meadow where they can run around forever. The full essay was 2 pages long and was very beautiful, but when we got to the end I just felt so mad.
We didn't read the essay again when the second dog died (it was too recent and it was a long essay and it felt weird to do so). I spent the afternoon trying to think of something to say. I'm not even sure whether this is accurate (my knowledge of quantum mechanics is pretty awful) but as we buried her I said "According to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there's a universe out there where Whiskers is still bounding around like she did 10 years ago."
It was the best I could come up with. It felt like less of a lie to me.
I also sang the Kender Mourning Song, a poem from a fantasy novel that I always thought was beautiful and want sung at my funeral. What I realized I liked most about it (but not until I sung it then) is that it's a sad and beautiful song without mentioning anything about an afterlife. It's not a "Lifeist" song (it's clearly written from a standpoint of "death is part of the natural order of things, and we can accept it"), but if you're at a funeral that doesn't involve cryonics, I think it's a perfectly good way of dealing with the issue. (For the record, while doesn't HAVE to be part of the natural order, I have no problem with accepting it as such for the time being)
Perhaps the best thing to say at a funeral is "we will avenge your death!" (on death itself).
Never thought of it that way: I've always thought Donne's Holy Sonnet X was an incredibly powerful text for a funeral (more so than the heaven and harps approach)for those who believe in the religion. But the main thrust of it would be highly suitable in a cryogenics setting.
"One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die."
I read Donne at my dad's funeral. I don't know how many countless times he quoted "For whom the bell tolls" (Meditaiton 17), but everyone recognized it when I read it. That actually isn't the line that stands out for me now, though. "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind" carries a lot of impact for me. My dad's death just made me more aware in general, I think, of just how big of an impact an individual's life has on the people around them.
The quote you gave was very insightful, and to me underscores why you need communities. You need to take time getting to know people; no one normally just bares their soul the first time they meet someone new. The whole group doesn't have to be ready for that, or even intend it. The bonds just form naturally (hugging can help that).
I think that death and mourning is like everything else, in that religious language and viewpoints have been the only game in town for the longest time. Like that essay you mentioned (do you have a link), some of it can be very beautiful. But the "end", so to speak, is always saccharine, and doesn't really speak to the truth of the intense emotions surrounding ones loss.
Thanks for that poem, too. Is there commonly used music for it?
Aaron (oh, and I'm Aaron btw)
Oddly enough I hadn't thought of it that way - I think the NYC community is successful because people are encouraged to share things about themselves sooner rather than after they've become "comfortable" (or, I guess, just tries to make them comfortable sooner). Maybe that's what you meant. I think both are valid (communities give you time to feel comfortable with large groups of people, and good communities make you feel comfortable sooner).
There is not commonly used music that I know of. I do have a particular tune I sing it to. (Are you Filk Aaron or a different one? There were a lot of Aarons)
I've been looking for the dog essay online, but haven't found it. It's possible it was actually written by our neighbor, who was in the process of becoming a pastor.
Yeah, I think we're on the same page with people getting to know each other in groups. I was actually surprised and humbled by seeing how much my friends truly cared about me.
I'm not the filking Aaron, just the lurking one :) We haven't met, it's just that I didn't feel like just using my nickname when the conversation got more serious.
(wait, to clarify: you're an Aaron from the NYC group [because we have a lot of them], or an Aaron from Less Wrong who figured it'd be silly to have a conversation about being personal while using a pseudonym? I'm Raymond, in any case. ["Raemon" is pronounced just line Raymond if you leave off the D. Most people pronounce it "Ray-o-mon" like I'm some kind of pokemon, which I suppose I have no one to blame but myself for])
Edit: Wow, I totally did not need those parenthesis at all, but I thought I did when I started and I kinda like them now that I'm done.
"or an Aaron from Less Wrong who figured it'd be silly to have a conversation about being personal while using a pseudonym?"
That one :)
The last funeral I went to was tough. It was Catholic, as most of my family is. The Priest kept talking about the "folly of those who believe death is destruction", and how we would all see him again. As the only atheist (I think) in attendance, I felt like I was the only one who didn't have that hope. My family was singing songs, and I got a bunch of funny looks when I was just standing there silently, but I really didn't feel in the mood to sing hallelujah. It didn't help that I didn't have really anyone to talk to about it, since I'm not close to any other atheists/rationalists. A community really would help, but it hasn't been started yet. Maybe I should try, if I can get some time.
I don't know how to put it exactly, but the Christian funeral seems to be about a direct denial of what is obviously an emotionally devastating event. I grew up Catholic, and served as an altar boy at funerals, and it was just the same formula repeated over and over. I'm sure you're not the only one who was there who didn't believe the story, you were just being honest about your emotions. That's why I think communities really help. Sorry I don't have any recommendations on putting one together with a busy schedule.
Thanks so much for sharing this story and encouragement. I can't imagine what it's like to lose a close loved one and haven't really gone through that myself. I've lost a grand father and great grand mother, but was not especially close to either.
I have had a different, but perhaps similar-in-some-characteristics struggle and wish I had a LW community close by. I tried to "rally" one together but no one responded from MN. It would be great if there was a better way for LW participants for find other locals.
Thanks again for sharing your insights and thoughts and, especially, braving the difficult emotions to compose this piece.
I'd like to thank you for sharing your story as well. It was one of the things that prompted me to post (I was concerned this subject might be too off topic for LW). I do hope you find success in finding a community you can be yourself in.
I'm sorry about your father, and I'm glad you had a community to help you through that.