I was ten years old when my Grandaddy died, and I clearly remember being told that he was "watching me from heaven." It's a little hard to put into words how completely disconcerting it was to think for years that I was being watched, pretty much all of the time. It was like Santa Claus all over again, without the enticement of new toys in December.
When I was eighteen, one of my dear aunts passed away, and my crying was curtailed at the funeral home by my grandmother, who calmly told me I was being selfish, as my aunt was in a better place. I still picture my grandmother sitting in that hallway, stoic and dry-eyed, which strikes me as a strange image to have of her on the day that she buried her eldest daughter.
In both of the above cases, as with every funeral I've attended (and there have unfortunately been many because of my large extended family), the comfort I received was not from these ideas of heaven, but from the love and sharing of grief with friends and family members around me.
One of the questions I've received multiple times from people who discover I'm an atheist is "What about heaven? How can you think your mom is just gone?" The first issue I have with this question is that it assumes I have somehow chosen to be an atheist, which simply is not the case. Disbelief is not a choice. I could no more will myself to believe in a god than I could will myself to believe in Santa again.
The second issue I have with the above questions is that the Christian idea of heaven is simply not comforting to me. There is nothing about it that makes sense. I read a beautiful article written on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by blogger Greta Christina that explains how I feel about the idea of religion and heaven being comforting. She writes:
It’s comforting to think that you and your loved ones will live forever. Until you think carefully about what immortality would mean, and you realize that any sort of immortality would either mean being static and unchanging, or eventually changing so radically you’d no longer be yourself. Both of which would, in essence, constitute death, and would thus be a rather monumental missing of the point.
It’s comforting to think that justice will be done and good people will be ultimately rewarded. Until you think carefully about what Heaven would mean. Until you realize that there’s no way to be in a state of perfect bliss created by someone else without losing your ability to make choices. Until you realize that existing in a state of bliss while others are suffering would mean a fundamental loss of the best part of you. Both of which, again, would be a rather monumental missing of the point.
It’s comforting to think that justice will be done and bad people will be ultimately punished. Until you think carefully about what Hell would mean. Until you think about questions like, “how much worse is the best person in Hell than the worst person in Heaven?” Until you consider the inherent injustice, and indeed the cruelly grotesque disproportionality, of any kind of infinite punishment for finite crimes.
And it’s comforting to think that everything that happens is part of a plan — a plan dreamed up and brought to fruition by someone who’s infinitely smart, infinitely powerful, and infinitely compassionate. Until you start realizing that being a cog in someone else’s machine isn’t the most liberating experience in the world. Until you start realizing that the idea of everything being part of an all-powerful being’s plan is simply not compatible with the idea of any sort of free will… and no amount of saying “Is too! Is too!” will change that. Until you start realizing that any being whose plans include droughts, earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, tornadoes, parasites, birth defects, genetic diseases, pediatric cancer, and people flying airplanes into buildings has got to be either pitilessly callous or gleefully sadistic, and if you’re going to call that being “good,” you are re-defining the word “good” to the point where it has no meaning.
Christina writes multiple times in the article that religion is only comforting if you don’t think about it very carefully. The more you think and question, the less any of it makes sense.
My kids have already lost two grandparents. As an atheist, I have not tempered their grief with assurances that Granny isn't really gone or that Grandaddy is watching over them. Not only do I not believe those things, but I don't want to send an implicit (or explicit in the case of my grandmother) message that grief is not warranted or normal.
What I do tell my kids is that Granny and Grandaddy can live forever through our memories. Bonnie has a special responsibility to tell her brothers about their grandparents, since Fred was not born when Dad died, and only a baby when Mom passed away, and Jack can only barely remember Mom. We tell stories, look at pictures, and watch home movies. I try to make sure my kids have relationships with their great aunts and uncles, my parents' siblings. When I look at my beautiful children, I don't need to hold onto a false idea of heaven to see that my parents are living on, right in front of me.