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(Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)
(Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)

My friend's dying tested my atheism Add to ...

Sandra, my friend and colleague for 20 years, lived with a terminal cancer diagnosis for the last seven years of her life.

Like me, she was a convinced atheist. Many of our discussions through the years had delved into our shared secular understandings and rejection of organized religion.

I had come to define myself as a humanist, believing that human life is of the highest value, and morality should be concerned with enhancing our well-being on Earth - nothing more. I have lived comfortably with the belief that this life is all there is, but the experience of watching my friend die put this comfort to the test.

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Somewhere around the age of 12, I figured out that God the Father was invented to make people feel safer in the world. It seemed apparent to me even then that people couldn't possibly know why we were here or what happened after we died. I had pets that died, and I felt certain they were gone for good. Why should it be different for humans?

The difference, I came to understand, was that we humans can think about our own non-existence - a terrifying, incomprehensible idea. I remember a period in my early teens when I would wake up panic-stricken at the very idea that I would die one day. So most people invent gods and an afterlife. I managed to resolve my fears without religious intervention, though it did help me understand how dread of death might be assuaged by religious beliefs.

While Sandra had outlived her initial prognosis of two years, inevitably her health declined to the point that she had to be hospitalized. For a while she was exactly herself, only weak, bedridden and in palliative care. She was still in possession of her wit and irony, saying, "Well I'm not going to problem solve my way out of this predicament, am I?" Or, "I guess I won't start any long novels now."

Surrounded by the love and support of her husband, other family members and good friends, she was still considerate to a fault, asking, "How did your meeting go? Oh dear, it sounds like it was difficult for you." She was still dignified and needing to be in control of her life as best she could, telling visitors, "I have to wear diapers now. Please take a little break while they change me."

On a more sombre note, though not openly giving way to fear, she'd say, "I'm not kidding myself, I'm here to die. But I don't know what's still in store for me. Will I panic?"

Our bedside conversations mixed the existential and the commonplace. She reaffirmed her atheism: "I accept that I am not going to exist any more - that hasn't changed," she said.

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I wondered if she could possibly remain comfortable with this outlook as she faced the darkness, but I never pressed the point, and she never seemed to waver. Sometimes we laughed at silly or ironic things, like the absurdity of a dignified middle-aged woman having to be diapered. When I cried she told me it wasn't time for that yet.

Then, her further decline showed that her death was surely close: sleeping more than she was awake, with drug-induced partial release from pain and discomfort that she would never complain about, even though its signs were so awfully evident in her murmurs, moans and twitches.

Even then, when she was awake, she was completely aware, listening and reacting to what was going on around her. Her warmth, amusement and mental intensity all showed on her face and in her eyes.

What was she thinking as she lay trapped in her bed, in her failing body, now no longer able to say more than a phrase or two? What could I say? Our friendship over so many years was constructed and articulated through conversations about nearly everything: We were smart, funny, angry, insightful, sad, gossipy and sentimental together. I so much wanted to tell Sandra about my observations and feelings as she lay in her death bed, and I wanted to hear her responses. I still regret our not having this last conversation.

Sandra's dying made me confront the boundaries of my atheism as nothing had up to this point. I realized how profoundly comforting it must be to believe that this life is not extinguished forever, that this personality - or soul if you will - continues to exist on another plane. And how beautiful to imagine that people who matter greatly to you will be re-encountered in recognizable form.

For the dying person, what comfort must lie in the belief that you are going to be gathered into the embrace of a supreme being - that you will lose neither yourself nor your connection to eternal life.

Neither Sandra nor I were able to enjoy that comfort to see us through her experience. But she died without abandoning her atheism. While I felt pure loss, my belief remained intact. Denied the comfort provided by theism, my humanism was nonetheless reaffirmed. Sandra was a splendid human being whose voice lives on in me and in those who benefited from knowing her. And that, I believe, is all that matters.

Cerise Morris lives in Montreal.

Editor's note: This marks the final Facts & Arguments podcast. Many thanks to Irene Spadafora, executive producer of Indigo Audio and the podcasts' female narrator, and John Devenish, the male narrator, for giving a voice to The Essays over the past two years.

 

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