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The task of confronting death isn’t easy for anyone to handle on their own; to say that we humans struggle with the concept of death is an understatement. It can feel almost impossible to internalize the idea that when we die, that really is the end of us, and this short time on Earth is all we’ll ever get to experience. It can feel almost impossible to accept that when we lose our loved ones, they really are gone forever, and we won’t ever get to see them again. In the face of something so unbearable, we often can’t help but to feel an overwhelming desire that it simply can’t be true – that there simply has to be some kind of afterlife; death can’t just be the end. And it seems likely that this is one of the biggest reasons why religious belief arose, and why it continues to hold such a deeply-rooted place in the human psyche. The belief in the afterlife can often seem like the only psychological defense we humans can muster against the overpowering force of death.
I mean, just imagine being an early human and having to comfort a child attending his mother’s burial, for instance. What could you possibly tell that child that would make things better for him? In a vacuum, there’s really nothing you could say that would make things better – losing a loved one is just unequivocally tragic and devastating, and there’s nothing to do but endure it. But you can’t tell him that – you have to tell him something; you have to make things better somehow. So what do you say? Well, one thing you could say is that his mother isn’t actually dead at all. She’s still alive – and not only that, she’s in a place where everything is happy and wonderful; and if he’s good, then one day he’ll be able to see her again. This idea is practically tailor-made to ease the child’s pain; in fact, it puts his loss in such a positive light that it ostensibly leaves him with nothing to be upset about at all. If his mother is in Heaven, then nothing tragic has occurred in the first place; her death is a cause for celebration.
But the fact that this explanation so conveniently addresses his grief in such a seemingly perfect way is exactly why we should suspect that it was given for reasons other than its truth value. After all, we’ve all seen people use the very same approach in other contexts where we know that what they’re saying is untrue. Think about the classic cliché of the family dog dying, and the parents trying to spare their children the heartache of losing him by telling them that he hasn’t actually died at all, but has simply gone to live on a big farm upstate where he can run around freely and happily with all the other animals. In this situation, the parents know that what they’re saying is untrue – but they decide that giving their children a perfectly accurate account of reality simply has to take a backseat to the emotional needs of the moment. And in a way, that’s the core of what a lot of religious belief is about too. It’s not that it’s deliberately trying to hide the truth; it’s just making people’s emotional needs its foremost priority. And if that sometimes means seeking comfort in wishful thinking rather than always forcing people to face the cold hard truth no matter what… well, even the most rationally-minded nonbelievers can understand that, even if they disagree with it. Here’s Carl Sagan on the subject:
My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are – really and truly – still in existence somewhere. I wouldn’t ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There’s a part of me – no matter how childish it sounds – that wonders how they are. “Is everything all right?” I want to ask. The last words I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were “Take care.”
Sometimes I dream that I’m talking to my parents, and suddenly – still immersed in the dreamwork – I’m seized by the overpowering realization that they didn’t really die, that it’s all been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over again. Plainly, there’s something within me that’s ready to believe in life after death. And it’s not the least bit interested in whether there’s any sober evidence for it.
So I don’t guffaw at the woman who visits her husband’s grave and chats him up every now and then, maybe on the anniversary of his death. It’s not hard to understand. And if I have difficulties with the ontological status of who she’s talking to, that’s all right. That’s not what this is about. This is about humans being human.
I feel much the same way as Sagan does. Life can be hard sometimes – and in its hardest moments, it can feel like it’s just too much to bear. So I can’t begrudge any believer for clinging to their faith if that’s what it takes to keep their head above water.
As for myself and my own beliefs, though, I just can’t overlook the fact that there’s a difference between what’s comforting and what’s true. As wonderful as it would be if truth were always uplifting and reassuring, sometimes it just isn’t – sometimes it’s harsh and painful – and trying to avoid that fact only makes things worse in the long run. True, it might help in the short term – and again, I can understand why some people might feel it necessary; but in the long term, it all it does is reshape the pain into a more subtle form of discomfort that gnaws away at you subconsciously. By telling a person who’s lost a loved one that Heaven is real, and that nothing bad has actually happened to their loved one at all – and that there’s therefore no reason for them to feel as devastated as they do – you’re not actually taking away their pain; all you’re doing is taking away their opportunity to properly mourn their loved one and to fully go through the grieving process that they need to go through in order to truly heal and find closure.
You might say, of course, that letting them believe that their loved one is in Heaven does provide closure – and in a sense, it sort of does. But I don’t think that this can count as true closure unless the person knows for sure that their loved one really is in Heaven, and they’ve fully internalized that knowledge. And based on people’s behavior when their loved ones die, that hardly ever seems to be the case. People might fully convince themselves on a conscious level that their loved ones are in a better place; but on a subconscious level, there almost always seem to be nagging qualms. After all, if you really believed in your core that your deceased loved one had gone to Heaven, then you might miss them terribly, but you wouldn’t mourn them; you wouldn’t grieve for them. It’d just be as though they’d moved to some faraway country and wouldn’t be seeing you again for the next couple decades; it wouldn’t be as though you’d truly lost them for good.
The thing is, as easy as it might be to reassure ourselves that our loved ones are in a better place, that’s not the same thing as genuinely internalizing that idea and believing it as fully as we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. There’s always some part of us that can’t help but to feel, when we lose someone, that we really have lost them, and there really is something there to be upset about. There are always those doubts. And I think that those doubts are worth listening to. When we try to suppress them, all we’re doing is stopping ourselves from working our way through the emotional processes that we need to work through if we want to come to terms with what’s happened.