My 19 year old daughter, Andrea, died in May, 2013. The outpouring of support from our friends has been absolutely overwhelming and my wife, my son and I are forever grateful.
Since that day, there have been a few cards, messages, emails and posts to which I have wanted to respond but didn’t because I was too angry and upset. But today, on Father’s day, which should be a joyous day, it is instead an extra sad day for me and I’ve decided that I am now ready to respond.
I am an atheist. Andrea was also an atheist and felt as strongly about it as did I. Indeed, she often called me from college when she saw something that minimized science in favor of religion. The main difference between us was that she did not really share her atheist position with her friends as she didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Solely out of respect to her, I’m responding in my personal blog rather than on Facebook so that people who prefer not to read this will not see it in Facebook or in an email message. Although I agree strongly with Rick Gervais’ quote “you do not have the right to not be offended”, I have no desire to offend anyone right now.
Like most of us, but unusual for a young person, Andrea was always very afraid of death. Along with her other amazing insights into life and people, she understood from quite a young age that death meant non-existence. She knew deeply that once someone died, they were just “no more”.
Along with me, she loved science and science fiction. We spent a lot of time enjoying shows like Star Trek, Star Gate and Dr. Who (David Tennant was her favorite doctor too) and then talking about some of the ideas. She used to tell me all the time that she hoped she would live long enough to the point where the technology would be available to download her consciousness into a machine so that she could live forever.
She knew what death meant.
Non-existence means that she is not in a “better” place or “happier”. She is not looking down at me or anyone. She is not having her nails done every day or going to a dance every night. Her essence is gone and her body is buried 6 feet under the ground. She is simply “not”. It is only our memory of her that must and will survive.
We have wonderful memories, photographs, stories and even a song she wrote and performed some years ago from her all-too-brief life. She impacted so many people (far more than I ever realized) and had an incredibly bright future. She got to see me perform on stage with the Security Project and she was very proud. She knew this was one of my dreams and had she not pushed me hard me a few years earlier to pursue some musical avenues, I would not have had the courage to step up to bigger challenges. While we were busy guiding her in her life, she was quite busy guiding ours as well.
We hope our friends will continue to share their stories and memories of Andrea with us for many years. And although hearing such stories will certainly make me cry, please don’t let that stop you.
Over the last month, I have had plenty of time to think about this issue and I have realized that as an atheist, I am actually in a better position to ultimately move forward from this tragedy. This is because I am not living or focused on some eternal “hope” that I might see her again after I die. In the DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) world, there is a notion of “radical acceptance” where you learn that when there is absolutely no way to change anything, your healthiest option is to simply accept and move on without dwelling. Hard to do but the research (yep, science again) has clearly shown that it works. Telling me she is in a better place does not actually help me. In fact it simply invalidates my feelings and hurts, another concept that Andrea deeply understood.
C.S. Lewis once said:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Yet no matter what happens, we have to stay vulnerable.
Although I hope to live a long and as happy as possible a life with the rest of my family, the strangest fallout from the tragedy is I’m no longer afraid of death. I have Andrea to thank for that.
With much love and wonderful memories,