By Leo Igwe
How does one grieve if the person does not subscribe to any religion or a belief in a God? How does one make meaningful sense of the tragic loss of a relative without pandering to ancient myths and misconceptions? Simply put, how does one thoughtfully come to terms with the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one without clutching some supernatural and superstitious mumbo jumbo? These questions have agitated my mind for some time. The agitation has become intense following the death of my father. Growing up in an intensely religious environment, I grappled with these propositions because I knew that one day I would come face to face with grief and bereavement. Until the passing away of my father in April, questions about death and bereavement have been more of an academic exercise. But now they are no longer so. Death has hit so hard, and so close. Right now, I am mourning. I am grieving in a way that has never been the case. I introspect, and reflect on death and dying. In the event of death, many people use religious and supernatural narratives to make sense of their grief or to console the bereaved. Some point to comforting myths and superstitions codified in scriptures and traditions to provide emotional support to those who mourn. Some years ago, while on a condolence visit, a Christian friend noted that religion -as opposed to non-religious outlooks- was richer in consoling and comforting those who are mourning. After the bereaved murmured some prayers in honor of the dead, he turned to me and said “That is why it is good to be religious”. I kept wondering about the substantial difference, if any, that those intercessory lines made on the fact of death and bereavement.
The religious way of grieving is predicated on the premise that the dead are in a better place; the dead have gone to heaven or paradise where is no suffering or pain. Religions teach people to believe that the dead are not dead; that the dead have transited into another realm of eternal bliss where they would live and rejoice forever. People of faith claim to draw strength from these propositions. People of faith console the bereaved or try and make them draw strength from these misconceptions. They tell us that people who die depart this world for another world; the dead leave the here-and-now for the hereafter, this life for another life- the afterlife. Is that the case?
Meanwhile, there is no evidence at all to substantiate these extraordinary claims. As a mourning habit, people of faith deploy these suppositions to make sense of grief. But they never asked: are these narratives consoling? Or better, are these propositions not empty words, or mere condolence formalities that signify nothing? I am not interested if or whether a proposition is comforting or consoling. Grieving is a subjective experience. Those who are experiencing shock and trauma can temporarily be relieved even by a statement that is a lie. I am not interested in whether claims bring some relief to people who are mourning. That may be so, why not? I am particularly interested in what is true; what is based on facts, not fiction. Of course, I am not opposed to using fictive claims in everyday interactions. Fiction must be treated as fiction. Fantasies should not be presented as facts in the name of consoling those who are grieving. People who grieve or mourn are not stupid or dumb. Are they? Mourners are mentally alert and intellectually alive. That people are grieving does not mean that they suspend their sense of reasoning or rational judgment. Those who are grieving do not disable their faculty of understanding and appreciation of what is true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, credible or incredible. Mourners should not be lied to as a traditional or institutionalized way to support them. I do not see the purpose that the superstition-filled grieving process serves.
I am not consoled by claims about death and the dead that (I think) are false. Many believing folks that I know are unpersuaded by those absurd and baseless declarations that the religious-minded make at funerals. Some consider those religious rituals and ceremonies to be unnecessary encumbrances on the mourning experience. Some regard them as a form of entertainment and temporary distraction from the painful reality of death.
I find those mistaken assumptions about death and the dead unhelpful. I deem it immoral to lie to those who are grieving or to peddle falsehoods about the dead. It is said that one should not talk ill about the dead. Right? So one should not say what is blatantly untrue, or what is not based on fact about the dead or dying in the name of mourning. Why should people lie to one’s face or lie to the face of the dead because one is mourning or grieving? Some would say: “But these are narratives to help those who are grieving cope with a tragic situation and achieve closure”. That is understood. But my question is: Why not use propositions that are informed by facts and sound reasoning? Why not deploy consoling lines based on evidence? For instance, in times of grief, people of faith console those grieving by saying that the dead have gone to rest somewhere, in heaven. They tell those who are mourning that they would meet their dead friends and relatives again where they would part no more. Really? Many, who make these declarations to support those who are grieving, know that this meeting in the afterlife is highly improbable or would never happen. But they still urge mourners to look forward to this imaginary Rendez-Vous. Believing folks claim that these suppositions provide relief and consolation to the bereaved. Do they?
In my case, my father is dead. He is no more. That is the fact. That is reality. His body will decompose and supply nutrients to other life forms. My father came from nature, and to mother nature, he has returned. We all who are alive will go the same way at some point. I do not intend to meet my father or any other dead friend or relative any time anywhere again. No, no. I do not nurse such aspirations. My father lives on, not in any extraterrestrial heavenly realm. He lives on in my memory and in the memories of those who knew him. He lives in the minds of family members, former students and colleagues, and others who met and encountered him while he was alive. My father lives on in the genes that he passed on to his children, and in so many ways that he impacted my and other lives. I draw strength from fond memories of him, memories of the good and bad times that we shared, memories of our agreements and disagreements, memories of his trials and tribulations, successes and failures, perfections and imperfections. As I grieve, I am comforted by these thoughts and reminiscences. They provide me with more meaningful ways of coming to terms with his demise than the comforting myths that religions and other supernatural enterprises peddle.
Death is one of the reasons why religion exists and holds sway over the minds of many across the world. Religion helps many persons to grieve and mourn the dead. Religion enables some people to make sense of their mortality. But as a humanist, the religious idea of life, death, and mortality does not hold. Its transcendental pretensions have little or no appeal. The humanist way of mourning offers an enriching alternative. One grieves without illusions, and superstitions about death and the afterlife in a fictive otherworldly realm.
Leo Igwe is a Public Policy Analyst.