It’s never easy. Or fun. Or comfortable. Ever.
But it’s yet another one of those things that gets even more complicated for the post-faith crowd. As an evangelical pastor, I had always reminded our community that grief was a normal part of being human, that God had created people with a breadth of emotions because of its role in mental health and human connection, that though First Thessalonians encourages readers to make sure their grief is not “like those who have no hope,” we also find in Jesus a model for the kind of overwhelming grief that features public weeping so intense everyone else stops to watch with a gasp.
Healthy humans need to grieve. Healthy communities help them do so.
Last week on Christmas morning, I lost my grandfather. If you’ve heard me talk about him before, you know that he was arguably the strongest voice of Christian faith in my life. His faith was his central characteristic, and he infused that same love for Jesus within me. But it was more than that. He was also a voice that filled me with the kind of confidence that never backs down from seeking out truth—even and especially when those in authority may be in disagreement. But even apart from religious influences, he and I were indescribably close. Throughout my teen years we would meet for coffee every few weeks to talk and discuss faith and politics. He’d take me on little local expeditions and on visits to farming shows. One time when I needed a new car, we journeyed up north where his retired license as a used car dealer got us into an auto auction. We made a day of it. It was amazing. And even long after I moved away from my rural Minnesota upbringing, every time I’d visit from Chicago we made time to catch up over coffee, complete with a couple hours of ever-warm-and-playful debate.
And now he’s gone.
My grandfather has not had it easy the last several years. Plagued with heart disease, we were first told he “probably wouldn’t make it” some twenty years ago. Since then he’s continually defied the odds over and over again. Six years ago, he was given one of those fancy new heart pumps that technology has made possible. You know, where they in essence bypass your old human heart and connect everything to a manufactured replacement. Dick Cheney has one. And here again, the life expectancy on these heart pumps is an average of three years. He made it six. He’s survived death so many times, everyone likes to refer to him as a walking, talking miracle. The fact that he died on Christmas morning has been interpreted as an extension of that.
I was asked several years ago, back when I was still a pastor, if when that inevitable day arrives, I’d officiate his funeral. I of course said, yes. And on my laptop I still have a file where all those years ago I began collecting memories that I’d one day like to share publicly in honor of my grandfather. Lessons learned. Moments treasured.
But everything’s changed now that I’m an atheist. The new pastor at my grandfather’s church officiated the funeral instead. My brother read a collection of bible verses. Several others sang and contributed in other beautifully breathtaking ways. As one who always likes to be prepared for anything and is now an endorsed humanist celebrant, I made sure to bring my black officiant’s book—just in case. But alas, it wasn’t needed and remained in my travel bag as such.
I’ve often wondered over the years what it would be like to attend his funeral. I’ve always been a pretty expressive and emotion-full individual. I easily feel the fullness of whatever context I’m placed within. But not here. Not this day.
Keep in mind that my entire extended family is quite religious, coming from various evangelical and even fundamentalist Christian traditions, all markedly conservative and vocally faithful. And then there’s me. The evangelical pastor who became an atheist. Sure, there might be a handful of others scattered about who have come out to me as disbelievers privately. But I’m the only one who’s public about it. That makes me something of a target.
And it made me something of a target at the funeral. Especially on the day of the funeral of the Christmas-morning-homegoing of the walking-and-talking-miracle I’d always called my grandfather. Maybe target is too strong of a word. No one was seeking to harm me. They all simply meant their best, they really did. Even those few who were more aggressive were only doing so because they really believe my salvation is on the line. Tough love, I guess.
But over those days, a fairly continual line of extended relatives kept making an effort to turn me back to God, to challenge my thinking, to tell me what I still apparently knew to be the truth of the gospel. Some would be firm, grabbing me by the shoulders and telling me that enough was enough and that I needed to stop playing games with my own soul. But though some were more aggressive, most were not. Most would simply tell me they’re praying for me and for my spiritual re-healing, that they know Grandpa is looking down from heaven and pulling for me to return to the very God whose presence he now enjoys, that if only I would open up my heart, I could be made whole once more.
Every time I looked contemplative or quiet, I was asked if I was okay. I would say I was actually doing pretty well, and they’d tell me they were there for me if I ever needed to talk. It seemed that everyone saw this—that is, my grandfather’s homegoing to heaven—as an event that would naturally lead me to reassess my non-belief and to follow any apparently spiritual promptings in return to God.
The only problem is that, just as I’ve often written, my lack of belief isn’t that I was upset with God or was bitter with God or felt neglected or abandoned by God. It’s just that the evidence has failed to convince me that any gods exist, including the Christian god right along with all the others. And despite the pleadings of all my hometown faithful, a new set of evidence wasn’t magically constructed. The evidence remains unconvincing.
Now to be fair, the vast majority of my family members were really cool. I had tons of great conversations and catch-up sessions. And I absolutely loved seeing so many loved ones for the first time in oh-so-many years. On top of it all, my parents were awesome. Just lots of hugs and freedom to let me be me. They’re great. They really are!
But to be totally honest, I feel like I really didn’t get a chance to grieve my grandfather’s death over the course of my trip home. It was actually pretty hard to focus on my grandfather at all. I was so constantly distracted by the questions, comments, and occasional demands of others that I felt like I was constantly being watched and assessed. And being on guard so continually, it was kind of hard to let myself relax enough to truly be present in the funeral, to truly let myself grieve.
When I left Minnesota to return to Chicago the following day, that’s when it hit me that I had yet to really let it hit me. And so I did. And that’s what’s happening now, back here in Chicago, even as I type this. Not in a hysterical sobbing sort of way. But in a calm and peaceful reminiscing sort of way. I’m spending these days reminding myself of all those good times, looking at pictures, allowing myself to simply feel the events of his loss. And it’s good. He’s been one of the most dearly loved individuals in my life. I truly treasure his memory.
I share all this because I know I am not alone. I share this to confirm that you are not alone. At The Clergy Project and with other connections built elsewhere, I’ve known and met and discussed with untold numbers of post-faith nonbelievers around the world who are going through similar situations. It’s not always easy being literally the only person you know who’s seen what you’ve seen and come to the conclusions you’ve come to. And many have had it much harder than I have. For many, the judgement and castigation is unspeakably more severe. At least I was allowed to attend the funeral. I know plenty others who would not have been. So the struggle is real. And it can be really hard.
So am I grieving today? Yes, of course I am. Am I a bit melancholy? Sure, that too. But I’m also focusing on all that my grandfather taught me through his long and vigilant life. And above them all, he taught me to seek truth at all costs, even above family and friends and other relationships. He really told me that. Repeatedly. And I have. I guess its that drive that ultimately brought me here at all costs. And all told, the cost truly is worth it.
As always, if you’re reading this and going through similar experiences and looking for some support, please reach out. Feel free to share in the comments, but also feel free to email me at DrewBekius@gmail.com. Many already do so, so you’re in good company. Also feel free to check out the resources I’ve provided at HumanistCoach.com. Together we’re building new chapters even as we march forward into 2017.
One step at a time, together.