An Atheist Deals with Death
If you were an atheist, how would you deal with death? You wouldn’t believe that your loved one has gone to a better (or worse) place; you wouldn’t believe they had been “called home” by God. You probably wouldn’t believe that their soul survived death, although some atheists do (Buddhists). You wouldn’t believe that they were met by others who were already dead. You wouldn’t believe that they were rewarded or punished after they died.
While you can easily see how the beliefs of others are often misguided, it is probably much harder to see how your own beliefs could be blocking your growth and happiness. However, looking back at your life you can think of beliefs that you held fervently that you have since outgrown. Perhaps it was a belief in Santa Claus, sin or heaven and hell, soul mates, or in the reality and importance of guilt, embarrassment, boredom, or shame. At that time you could not conceive of a meaningful life without them, yet perhaps now you cannot conceive of a meaningful life within the confines of their limitations. Could the same be true for you now? Could your most cherished beliefs actually block you from direct contact with the sacred today? Are you destined to outgrow them? This feels very unlikely; you hold on to your beliefs for good reason. For example, almost all people who have near death experiences, believers and atheists alike, come back believing in life after death. You can use that knowledge to justify continuing to believe in God or life after death. But what if all your beliefs and the reasons that you give yourself for having them were gone? What would you do?
This is the situation atheists not only find themselves in, but often actively prefer, because it feels more authentic, genuine, and realistic. Beliefs have failed them; they see the beliefs of others either failing them or keeping them asleep, dreaming a comfortable delusional dream. So if you were an atheist you would have none of those common beliefs to cushion your loss and to help you deal with your grief. Maybe you “should,” but you wouldn’t. What would you do? Would you be destined to sink into despair and depression because you would have no sense of meaning in your life to help you deal with grief and death?
That is not the case with the atheist interviewed here. As a young person, Claudia realized that she did not want to believe in any definition of the divine that allowed injustice, cruelty, and needless suffering. She did not have beliefs in religion or universal love to fall back on when her father died when she was fourteen or when she experienced the loss of other loved ones over the years, including beloved pets.
At the time of this interview, Claudia had lost a very close friend, Shadie, an eleven year old white German shepherd, only two days before. Claudia’s amazing knowledge of medicine, combined with her equally amazing intuition, kept Shadie alive and in good spirits, living a normal, active life, almost a year after he was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer and told he needed to be put down immediately to keep him from suffocating to death. Claudia had poured so much of her life into Shadie that his death was indeed a significant source of loss and grief.
In this interview you will see an example of how grief and suffering can be dealt with without your current belief system. You will see how they can be approached as wake-up calls, which, when listened to, can help you to grow into perspectives that transcend and include your losses. Following the interview are some comments about what you can learn from Claudia and Shadie that can help you deal with grief and death, whether or not you are an atheist.
Which issue brings up the strongest feelings for you?
Feeling wounded, lonely, as if something had been torn out of my heart. Emptiness at my side, as if I had been two and I am just now one. I know I’m, not alone, but I am.
If those feelings had a color (or colors), what would it be?
Imagine that color filling the space in front of you so that it has depth, height, width, and aliveness.
Now watch that color swirl, congeal, and condense into a shape. Don’t make it take a shape, just watch it and say the first thing that you see or that comes to your mind: An animal? Object? Plant? What?
Shadie’s head, with his certain way of looking at me.
Now remember how as a child you liked to pretend you were a teacher or a doctor? It’s easy and fun for you to imagine that you are the shape that took form from your color and answer some questions I ask, saying the first thing that comes to your mind. If you wait too long to answer, that’s not the character answering – that’s YOU trying to figure out the right thing to say!
Shadie, would you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing?
I’m looking at Claudia with equanimity, clarity, peace and love.
Why are you doing that, Shadie?
Because I love her! Because I want to guard her. Because I feel strongly connected with her.
Tell me about that connection you feel to her, Shadie.
Like an invisible cord. Strong channel of awareness. I always know whether she is sad or not, what she’ll do next. I feel the same connection from her toward me. That’s why she always pick up what I feel or what I need. It also is enhanced when we look at each other like this. There is a profound feeling of being and of acceptance.
Shadie, how do you feel about the way that Claudia is dealing with your death?
She’s sad. The depth of her sadness equals the depth of our relationship.
If she healed from her sadness does that mean your relationship would have less depth?
No! But what else could she be but sad? I would be very sad if I had lost her. Very sad. I couldn’t just replace her, no matter how kind other people are to me.
It makes me think that it is better that you died before her because she has more abilities to deal with your death than you have to deal with hers.
She promised that she wouldn’t die before me because of that.
Does your death free her to die?
No. She still has to survive her mom because it would break her heart and finish her life if she dies.
When her mom dies, does that free her to die?
So Shadie, you’re dead now, right?
What’s it like to be dead?
I can only answer as a representation of me in Claudia because otherwise I couldn’t answer now because I’m under the ground rotting away. I don’t see, smell, suffer, or enjoy anything any longer. I’m not free or anything either. I’m just dead.
What do you think of that, Shadie?
I don’t think or feel anything about that either, because I’m dead. If I could feel anything what would be nice about it is the absence of pain. Everything else about being dead is shit.
Are you still looking into Claudia’s eyes?
In a way, I’m not. When you look at the sun and close your eyes you can’t see the sun but you can still see it. In that way I am still looking at Claudia.
In that way that you are still looking at Claudia, what do you like about looking at her?
I’m just witnessing. Because there’s nothing I can do. I can see her sadness.
What do you think about her sadness?
It’s the only natural way to react to such a loss. I don’t just see sadness in her eyes. I also see love and compassion and a deep connection to everything that’s alive. She feels in the same way connected to every little bird and every tree. Claudia is even able to mourn the death of a little mouse, because life is very precious.
What aspect of Claudia do you represent or most closely personify?
Unconditional love and acceptance.
Shadie, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be and take any form you desired, would you change? If so, how?
I want to play along the beach at the Baltic Sea! I want to go places! I want to pee! I want to sleep! I want to check the fridge! I want to welcome Claudia and find out what bait she’s brought home. I want to run through the woods down to the Havel. I want to meet my friends, Bilche, Zinna, and Rambo. Maybe even make more friends. I want to be happy. I want a task. I want to work out trails. I want to be self-confident because I am very good at not letting myself be distracted. I want to drink the lake water.
(Continue, answering as the transformed object, if it chose to change.)
Shadie, how would you score yourself 0-10, in each of the following six qualities: confidence, compassion, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing? Why?
Confidence: 8 I am pretty confident, but there can always be something that might scare me.
Compassion: 5 with myself, 5 with others. That actually makes 10, but…
Wisdom: 8 I’ve been getting wiser and wiser, but one can definitely become much wiser.
Acceptance: 8 I have also learned to accept people though some people and animals I still don’t do a good job of accepting.
Inner Peace: 8 Pretty good – if it’s not totally disturbed by pain.
Witnessing: 8 The more life experience I’ve had the bigger…lately I’ve practiced witnessing a lot. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to withstand my pain. I’ve spent long times at the fireplace, at the beach just witnessing.
Shadie, if you scored tens in all six of these qualities, would you be different? If so, how?
I don’t care!
How would Claudia’s life be different if she naturally scored like you do in all six of these qualities all the time?
She pretty much has these scores, particularly when she’s sad. Sadness makes everything stronger. When Claudia is sad she doesn’t become desperate or in a selfish way. She sees and feels everything much more intensely. You are much more compassionate with everyone and everything that is suffering because everything is much more precious. There is not much distraction from what is really important for Claudia when she is sad.
Is sadness a good thing for Claudia because it makes life more precious?
I don’t know about that. It would be good to experience the preciousness of life without the sadness. When you feel deep joy it’s the same. The opposite of sadness makes for the same.
But is that a practical, realistic option for either you or Claudia?
Of course! We have shared deep joy in the past!
But what about now?
Joy is from remembering what beautiful times we had and how we shared our life together and how we were always there for each other!
If you could live Claudia’s life for her, how would you live it differently?
No; just don’t get into depression or despair. Fight those feelings.
Because they are too narrow – too small. There’s not just sadness and death, but Dayo gets her out of despair by reminding her that there are Ferkle Balls too! Dayo can do that. He’s done it in my life, when I was depressed after I lost Rambo (another beloved dog). That little thing was pretty irresistible!
If you could live Claudia’s waking life for her today, would you handle Claudia’s life issues differently? If so, how?
Her grief at my loss: Pretty much the same way. I would make sure I didn’t forget to eat, despite everything. She could take the vitamins that I’ve been taking.
What three life issues would you focus on if you were in charge of Claudia’s life?
Being! Living! Go for long walks in the woods! Go swimming! Go out on the boat! Have bonfires! Play with Dayo! Teach him some of what she taught me! Support his potentials the way she supported mine! Feel close to Joseph. He’s a really nice man. He’s a good man.
In what life situations would it be most beneficial for Claudia to imagine that she is you and act as you would?
When she needs unconditional love. Total acceptance. Absolutely no criticism. No judgment. And gratitude. She can always have that from me!
Shadie, do you do drama? If not, why not?
I sometimes get into drama…
What is your secret for staying out of drama?
I don’t know…
Why do you think that you are in Claudia’s life?
I’m the representation of Shadie in Claudia’s mind. Shadie’s dead. I always will be inside her; I am alive and inside her though I am dead. As I said about the sun, you can look at it and close your eyes and still see it for a long, long time. If you love something more than the sun you can keep it with you all life long. Maybe it’s not a question of loving more; you can’t love the sun – it’s too bright and hot. You can’t love it the way you love me and trees. So when you close your eyes you stay there for much longer.
People close their eyes when they sleep and dream. Does that mean that you are there for her more then?
I do not know. I used to be there quite often in the past but lately I have not. I was there as a feeling of peace or equanimity. Like a void – not in a negative way –
Is there anything else you’d like to say to Claudia right now, Shadie?
Being dead I cannot, but as a representation, “I love you.”
Claudia, what have you heard yourself say?
That he’s dead and that all I have now is his inner representation. Inside me is the only place where he cannot only be dead but be alive. He is going to be alive in me as long as I am alive. It’s getting pretty full in there of dead ones that are alive. It shows the degree of how much shorter the road to my own death has become.
If this experience were a wake-up call from your inner compass, what do you think it would be saying to you?
Lick your wounds and go on living.
Is there anything you want to take away from this interview to apply in your everyday life?
Take good care of the living! Play Ferkel Ball with that goddamn idiot! (Dayo, her other German Shepherd, was licking her and knocked over the ash tray…)
I have a greater feeling of equanimity and peace within the sadness. At the same time there is this depression and hopelessness lurking around the corner because there is a hope that there is life after death or he is light that is lovingly looking upon me. I cannot find anything like that within myself. On the one hand I am relieved. The task remains to live in a loving way that encompasses all life, yet there is no way out. There is no God, no life after death, no nothing. The only truth that I can find, as I said in the interview, the dead ones are alive inside me as long as I live. It throws you back into life in a good, practical way but it also leaves no space for illusions. Illusions can sometimes be so consoling but I don’t think they help any starving child or anyone who is being tortured, shot, or killed. They create a false peace of mind that I have been fighting all my life. It takes courage to live without illusions. If I lose that courage I could die, but I haven’t lost it yet.
Notice that in this interview there is no denial of loss or of the appropriateness of sadness. There is no attempt to say there really hasn’t been a loss or that Claudia doesn’t have to be sad because Shadie is happier now that he is dead or there are others still alive for Claudia to love instead. There is no reference to God, soul, or a life after death. Instead, Shadie says that Claudia’s sadness is appropriate and that he would feel the same way, that just as she would be irreplaceable to him, he understands that he is irreplaceable to her. What is important about this is that there is no ignoring, rationalizing, or smoothing over of death. The loss is real and permanent. Claudia’s sadness about her deep loss is appropriate and not to be ignored or swept away by caring but shallow assurances.
Notice also that as soon as Claudia becomes Shadie she immediately connects to the profoundly healing qualities of equanimity, clarity, peace and love. Many people might say, “Ah! Those are the qualities of the divine, of God! Claudia is not an atheist. She believes in God because she believes in these qualities.” However, this is not how Claudia thinks. If one wants to define God as such qualities, why not simply experience those qualities instead of creating an artificial metaphysical construct (God) and belief structure that is likely to be outgrown someday? Are such qualities of enlightenment not good enough, real enough, sacred enough to be ends in themselves?
We learn that Claudia made a promise to Shadie not to die before him, out of an awareness that she is better able to deal with his loss than he would be with hers. We learn that Claudia has made a similar promise to herself regarding her mother; as long as her mother stays alive, she stays alive. The implication is that Claudia may feel free to die once she does not have anyone to stay alive for, when she feels that important others no longer need her more than she needs them. This is the type of script assumption, generally unconscious, that can keep people alive for the wrong reasons and cause them to die prematurely for the wrong reasons. Claudia’s interview has unearthed this assumption, bringing it to her attention so she can examine it and decide what she wants to do with it.
Notice that Shadie knows that he is both dead and a representation of Shadie. He knows that Claudia is not having a telepathic communication with a dead dog. There is no glorified sense of what death is. The absence of pain is good; everything else about being dead is “shit.” However, also notice that Claudia is having a communication with her representation of Shadie as dead. So Shadie knowing he is dead is not proof that he is not really dead. It is proof that Claudia can imagine being Shadie dead and look at her life from that imagined perspective.
So why would one want to access an imaginary part of themselves? How could that possibly help deal with the reality of tragedy? What Claudia is accessing within her says it is the clear witness, a part of herself that observes dispassionately, without drama, with compassion and unconditional love. It’s a perspective that is big enough to contain her sadness: “I don’t just see sadness in her eyes. I also see love and compassion and a deep connection to everything that’s alive. She feels in the same way connected to every little bird and every tree. Claudia is even able to mourn the death of a little mouse, because life is very precious.”
Notice that Shadie wants to experience life, and that the only way that he can still do that, as Claudia’s representation of Shadie, is for Claudia to experience life for him, as a part of her. It is as if Shadie can then vicariously experience those things through Claudia. This is no doubt true; life wakes up to itself through incarnation in form. So Claudia’s emerging potentials, Shadie included, vicariously experience life through her. This does not mean that Shadie is still alive, but that we exist so that through us, life can wake up to itself.
Shadie explains the positive function of Claudia’s sadness in a very interesting and helpful way. The fact that grief has been and is beneficial for Claudia goes a long way to explain why in her life she has had trouble getting over sadness. “Sadness makes everything stronger. When Claudia is sad she doesn’t become desperate in a selfish way. She sees and feels everything much more intensely. You are much more compassionate with everyone and everything that is suffering because everything is much more precious.” It may be that the beliefs that comfort and console others have not worked for Claudia because they have in the past served to anesthetize her to her sadness and grief, which help her experience life as more precious. This is an important for believers to understand if they wonder why anyone would consciously choose to be an atheist and still be healthy and happy. For atheists, life without beliefs makes life more precious, immediate, and real.
Shadie indicates that there is a better way to access the preciousness of life than through being sad, and that’s through joy. What is joy? For Shadie, “Joy is from remembering what beautiful times we had and how we shared our life together and how we were always there for each other.” Shadie recommends that Claudia focus on this and fight getting into depression or despair. Shadie tells Claudia to use the joyful experiences, people, and dogs in life to access that joy. Claudia is told to take care of herself – not to forget to eat and to take vitamins. Focus on being and on living, on doing those simple things each day that bring joy and build potential.
Does an embracing of joy replace the appropriateness of sadness? Apparently not. While Shadie says joy is preferable, he also clearly says that Claudia needs to experience her pain, but to use it as a doorway to the preciousness of life and not let it take her into depression or despair. Will the embracing of joy cause Claudia to outgrow her atheism? To the extent that atheism is a system of belief, like a belief in God, man, humanism, or life after death, the answer is probably “yes.” Atheism is just one more limited belief system.
Shadie also tells Claudia that it would be helpful if she remembered to become him when she needs to experience total acceptance, unconditional love and a sense of gratitude. Think about what that means: now Claudia has an immediate way that she can move herself into those qualities whenever she wants. How important is that? How might your life be different if you could do that?
Notice that Claudia needs none of the traditional beliefs about life after death, God, or soul in order to have an immediate, relevant, and powerful healing contact with the sacred. The implication is that you don’t need yours either; you just think you do.
Could it be that you have already outgrown those assumptions that you most centrally base your life on? How would you know if you had? One of the purposes of IDL interviewing is to get you in touch with your potential self. It will not only help you see more clearly who you want and need to become but also to discover the shortest route to it. Consequently, I encourage you to suspend your belief in your current assumptions about who you are, why you are here, and what the meaning of life is, in favor of deeply listening to your own unique emerging potentials. They will have concrete suggestions for you about new, broader beliefs and new approaches. Trust yourself. Listen. Apply. Then judge the results for yourself.