Death and Consolation


We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

—Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

When I told New York Times science writer Natalie Angier that I was working on this book, she offered a little advice. Sure, religions give their members rites of passage and structure and all that, she said—but the afterlife myth is the big prize. “Unless you tackle the subject of death head-on,” she said, “you’ll be leaving your readers in the lurch at what are likely to be some of the darkest moments of their unchurched parenthood.”

She was right, of course. So—how are you doing with the idea of death?

Forgive me for asking. But since you are reading this, I assume you’ve set aside the consolations of theology and are asking your children to do the same. Nonbelievers tend to focus on how and what we know without spending much time acknowledging the gaping existential questions that are, after all, the real reasons religion was born and persists. We are, each and every one of us, going to die. There is every reason to believe our consciousnesses will vanish into nothingness. We live a very short while, then are dead forever.

So how are you doing with that? And if the answer is “not too well,” how are you going to help your kids with it, without turning to the usual comforting illusions?

Let’s not pretend this is an easy question. I often wonder what it really means to cease to exist. I can’t imagine it myself. It is beyond our ability to form a conscious notion of our own utter nonexistence. Hence the alternative so many choose: to simply deny it. We don’t really die after all; we ascend to a higher reality.

It works! Try it. You’ll feel ever so much better. And you won’t find out that you’re mistaken until . . . well, you’ll never find out! That’s the beauty.

But most of us became nonbelievers once we decided honesty was better than comfort. We fell in love with the idea of knowing what is and learning to deal with that rather than hiding our eyes behind comfortable myths. Seems the grown-up way to be a conscious thing, doesn’t it? But that doesn’t make it easy.

So how can we turn away from the consolations of religion in the face of death?

After his beloved four-year-old son succumbed to scarlet fever, the 19th-century biologist and agnostic Thomas Huxley asked himself much the same question. The Reverend Canon Kingsley had urged Huxley to renounce his agnosticism in the face of his loss and to embrace the consolations of faith. Huxley politely declined, replying with moving candor in a letter that many consider the single greatest and most profoundly moving testament to intellectual integrity:

My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is Oh devil! Truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.1

Huxley is among my greatest heroes. But even Huxley, turning from false consolations in the midst of his grief, offered little in the way of compensation other than a picture of breathtaking intellectual courage. Yes, I want to reject the false consolations of theology—but might there be true consolations out there somewhere?

Yes, indeed. They are the consolations of philosophy.

Science has worked wonders in recent centuries when it comes to replacing superstition with reason. But when it comes to setting aside superstition in less concrete areas—such as morality, attitudes toward death, and the like—progress has taken place not in the bright light of scientific inquiry but in the quiet, reflective works of philosophy. And it is to these works we can turn for true consolation.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus thought that we are afraid of death mainly because we fail to really grasp nonexistence. Creatures of consciousness, we can only picture it as “me-floating-in-darkness-forever.” Is it really surprising that that horrific idea sends people racing to the kneelers to pray to someone who is said to have conquered it for us? Heck, if the darkness was really the thing, I’d be wearing out my own knees. But it isn’t. The key, Epicurus says, is to really get that death is the end of experience. One can only experience life up to its final moment, not beyond. “As long as I exist,” he said, “death does not. Once death exists, I will not. Why should I fear something I will never experience?”

Thinking hard about that simple fact can make for real consolation—and give parents one more small way to help children deal with death without immersing them in dishonest fables.

Epicurus also offered the symmetry argument. If you fear death, he said, consider the expanse of time before you were conceived. The past infinity of nonexistence before your conception is just the same as the future infinity of nonexistence after death. You have already been there, in other words—though that is really just exactly the wrong way to phrase it. We don’t consider having not existed for an eternity before our conception to be a terrible thing, so we shouldn’t think of not existing for an eternity after our deaths as a terrible thing. There is literally no difference in the two other than our ability to contemplate and anticipate the future. (See Yip Harburg’s “Before and After,” coming up next, for a poetic take on the idea.)

Though it may take a lifetime to grasp, it should be possible to come peacefully to terms with our mortality by fully understanding it. And it never hurts to recall that life is made immeasurably more precious by the fact that it ends. Life as a preamble to afterlife would be just a warm-up. But understanding this existence as an unimaginably lucky shot at consciousness—in the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here—has the power to make every moment unspeakably precious. We should wake up every morning laughing with amazed delight that we are here at all, not weeping because it won’t last forever. Easier said than done, I know. Believe me, I know.

After Yip Harburg giving death a philosophical raspberry in “Before and After” comes Rebecca Hensler’s “Helping Your Child Live with Grief without Religion.” Since the death of her young son in 2009, Hensler has devoted herself to creating and maintaining Grief Beyond Belief, the first comprehensive support network for addressing grief and loss in a nontheistic context. I offer a snapshot of the first difficult conversation in which my daughters grappled with the idea of death (“Where All Roads Lead”), followed by my older daughter’s first painful loss in “The First Really, Really Hard Good-Bye.”

Yip Harburg lightens the mood once again with “Small Comforts”; then we end with a returning essay by the Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, “Dealing with Death in the Secular Family.”

Gibbons is among the most articulate and thoughtful of a very articulate and thoughtful breed: Unitarian humanists. If the idea of a minister who doesn’t believe in God is new to you, she is a marvelous introduction to the concept.

The modern Unitarian Universalist movement is a fascinating post-Christian institution consisting almost entirely of nontheists. Despite having set aside traditional belief in God, they still seek the other benefits of religious institutions: the shared search for meaning, a sense of community, the consolation of others in time of need, and dedication to the good. Among her many gifts, Gibbons brings the wisdom of a counselor who has provided solace in time of loss to countless secularists without benefit of the easy answers available in traditional religion.




I cannot for the life of me

Recall at all, at all

The life I led

Before I tread

This small terrestrial ball.

Why then should I ponder

On the mystery of my kind?

Why bother with my great beyond

Without my great behind?

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