Orginally published in Freethought Today. ffrf.org
As I got into my car to leave my mother’s house late in the summer of 2013, my mother said to me, “If I don’t make it, I promise I will prove to you that there is an afterlife.”
She was preparing to go into surgery the following day. I had driven to her house to help her clean and prepare for her recovery when she returned home. Earlier in the visit, we had been discussing my atheism and nonbelief in an afterlife. Having been raised strictly Catholic, at 71 she had let go of a lot of the dogma associated with her religion, but held on to the belief that there was a loving god who would reward her for her struggles on Earth with an eternity in heaven.
Although she had tried to instill the same faith in me, by the time I had reached the age of reason, I had come to the conclusion that there was no god. This did not bother my mother, in spite of her beliefs, because she knew in her heart that God would not punish good people even if they denied his existence. She firmly believed that I was a good person and would not suffer the eternal damnation preached by the nuns of her youth.
Heaven as a salve
The idea of an afterlife was a concept that proved more resistant to my logical mind than the idea of a personal god. Whenever an elderly relative died, there was the comfort of knowing that they were no longer suffering, that they had gone to a “better place” filled with their loved ones that had gone on before them. Although it was inconsistent with my sense of reality, I found it easier to not apply reason or logic to this concept. Especially as a child, the idea of heaven provided a much-needed salve to the pain of loss.
As I grew older, I could not escape the fact that I really didn’t believe our consciousness survived outside of our physical selves. The only evidence I had seen to the contrary was the occasional compelling ghost story. But, eventually, I had to concede that this life was all we got. My beloved kitty would not greet me in the arms of my grandma when I died. There would be no endless bowls of my favorite ice cream for all eternity. I had to accept the fact that this life was my one and only, and I had better get to living.
I had found the concept of an afterlife to be a hindrance to actual life. If everything was to be so much better after I’m dead, why bother living now? Why not jump in front of a bus? Why bother living through the trials and tribulations of life on Earth? If you’re looking forward to heaven, then aren’t you just waiting to die?
My mother’s surgery did not go as planned. After a week of ups and downs, my siblings and I made the awful decision to remove our mother from life support. I held the hand of the priest along with my family as he delivered the last rites to my dying mother. My beliefs, or lack thereof, had absolutely no bearing about how I felt. My goal was to honor my mother and her wishes. Over the next 12 hours, as my mother’s body shut down, my brother and I held her hands. I held on to her well after she was gone, unable to believe that it was over. My brother finally had to explain to me that the heart beats registering on the machine were not our mother’s, but my own. Devastated, my brother and I finally left the room.
Trying to believe
The next few days and weeks were a blurring whirlwind of emotion and grief. Explaining to my 8-year-old son that grandma was gone is still to this day the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. As my mind began to process the events, I thought that I might revert to my childish belief in heaven. My family talked of our mother riding her lawnmower or playing her piano in heaven. I desperately wanted to believe. I tried.
The crushing pain of this loss was something I didn’t think I could bear. My stubborn non-belief rivaled my mother’s absolute faith. No matter how hard I tried, I was utterly unable to take comfort in something that I simply couldn’t believe to be true. Through all this, I never let my family know how I really felt. In fact, I was jealous of their beliefs and the relief it provided them.
Well-meaning people talked about how she was in a better place or about how energy doesn’t die. Maybe I should find a medium to contact her? If I only opened my mind, she would reveal herself to me. All the good intended advice was in vain. As much as I desperately wanted to believe in any, if not all, of it, my stubborn unopened mind simply refused.
In trying to process my grief, I began to look to the things she left behind. My mother was an accomplished musician. I sat at her piano, desperately hoping to somehow feel her essence. I wore her sun hat, listened to her music, and looked at photos of her, thinking maybe I could start to fill the hole she had left in my life. But her things were just things. They invoked memories, but utterly failed to fill the void.
One day, I passed by a mirror in my house and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother. I stepped back and looked again and only saw myself. Later, I passed by the same mirror, and once again I saw my mother out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and looked again, this time slightly changing the angle of my face, and there she was. My mother was looking back at me. In my eyes, I saw her. I saw her in the slight crookedness of my smile. I saw her in my nose. I even caught a glimpse of her in my rear end. In my son’s retelling of one of my mother’s off-color jokes, I heard her. I started to see her everywhere. It was then that I realized that mom was not in heaven riding her lawnmower. In fact, she never left. At least not entirely.
She lives on in me, and, in turn, will live on in my siblings. She lives in my son, and my nieces and nephews. She lives on in the minds of all the people she touched in her life. The healing started then. I didn’t need to imagine her in paradise. I didn’t need to wear her sun hat or sit at her piano. I needed only to look in the mirror. She would be very pleased to know that she did prove an afterlife to me. She lives on in me.