Goodbye, Andrea Lauren

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,

Dad

31 comments

  1. Zach.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I can’t conceive of any belief system that would make the passing of a child easier to bear, so please know that you and your family are in my thoughts today. I am happy to hear that your loss hasn’t pushed you toward faith the way it does so many people, and I’m thankful you took the time during this difficult situation to say this. With this post you have ensured that as you honor Andrea and the memory of her, this will serve as a monument to her that anyone can see for as long as the internet exists. I did not know Andrea at all(I live in Florida), but I know I’ll remember this. She was lucky to have you for a father. All the best to you and your loved ones.

  2. Chris

    You’re very strong, and I applaud you. I wish you a happy life and to stay strong in your beliefs. I understand it must be extremely difficult for a parent to lose a child. Best wishes.

  3. BT Richards

    I am so deeply sorry for your loss.
    I am a fellow atheist, and father. I lost my best friend of 25 years to a hunting accident, but I can not fathom the depth of pain in being preceded by a child. I know that when I first laid eyes on my eldest, something deep within me changed forever. In one single instant, her existence changed forever the capacity within me to feel emotion. That has never changed and never will. It’s something that truly needs to be experienced to be believed. And that is something you did.
    Be happy in the relationship and honesty you shared with Andrea. You raised and got to know a beautiful person who touched others. The world is a better place for her having been in it. Go forward and live up to the person she believed you to be. be well.

  4. Mark Moore

    You have my sincere regrets. Having two children, it is hard to imagine one of them gone. There are support groups for parents who have lost a child. My sister was active on one for a few years after she lost her youngest to a car accident.

    You have all my hopes.

  5. john c barros

    I’m sorry for your lost, I’m a father myself…and I can not bear the idea of losing one of my kids, life is fragile…I respect your beliefs. Just keep in mind that she was a light in your life full of love….and you have spent with her the best days of her life. Even do we do not have the same beliefs….i feel your pain…..all we have is this life and there is nothing better than to share love and make the most out of it. Love like there is no tomorrow……sorry for your lost.

  6. James Crawford

    I like your post, particularly the quote from Lewis. It nicely amplifies the idea that love and compassion are human, rather than theistic, qualities, being from the noted Christian and applied to your rational, human grief.

  7. Levon

    Well written sir, and I’m sorry for your lose. It’s very refreshing to hear when free thought is truly being taught & defended. keep on keeping on brother.

  8. Lori

    So sorry for your loss, I’ve been there. I’m an atheist, but my family and most of my community are religious. My first daughter, Zoe, passed away when she was one week old. At her funeral, so many people tried to comfort me by saying things like she’s my guardian angel watching over me, and we’ll be together again someday. The worst was when my former boss told me that god needed her more than I did, but I’m young, so I can just have another. It took every ounce of self control I had to not strangle her.
    I just had to keep reminding myself that people typically don’t know how to comfort someone after a death, so they repeat the same religious “words of comfort” they’ve heard their whole lives, simply because they just don’t know what else to say.
    Thank you for sharing your experience, best wishes to you and your family.

  9. Shari

    David, to you and all the family, you are still in my thoughts. I cannot imagine the days and nights you must be going through. I am not an athiest, but I do believe when you’re gone, you’re gone. I once argued with my step father til I was blue in the face, that death is death. What lives on and touches our thoughts are our beloved memories. Perhaps I have a confusion of all the fundamentals of religion, but I do believe in a higher power, forces of nature and my beloved family being the centre of my world. My one sad thought is that I met your daughter once only in her life, when she was very young. That memory of her and her brother, playing my aunt’s house back garden will stay with me. I only hope to see you all again soon so that we can know a little more of each other. Time is too precious. xx

  10. Lisa @ The Valley Vegan

    After years of pondering death from the viewpoint of a religious person, it is actually quite liberating to now be in the Atheist camp. As you said, it is freeing to know that the end is the end, there’s no need to long and dream, just accept what has happened and pick up the pieces of your life and move on.

    I cannot fathom the pain of losing a child, so I cannot offer that kind of sympathy. But I can say that you honor her by living her beliefs, and taking comfort in the fact that you were able to spend her entire life with her. THAT is a gift. And I am grateful for you and that opportunity.

    Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu. Peace peace peace.

  11. diana

    i’m so sorry… thank you for sharing your thoughts… i hope that were i ever forced to be in your position, i would be as strong and as dignified… happy father’s day…

  12. Mary Harper

    I grew up in a religious household and for several years after the passing of my mother I was so angry at the very idea a supposedly all power-full being would decide that a mother was no longer needed by her children and that it was her time to be taken from this earth. It was not until I decided to break from the church and focus on the facts rather than faith that I was able to accept that although my mother’s death was a tragedy, it was simply a part of the life-cycle, and that no matter how long a person’s life is, the important thing is the impact they’ve made. As you said, the only thing you can do is accept their passing and move on in the best way you can. Her memory will be with you wherever you go and I can tell you first hand that sometimes, that memory will make you cry, but other times, it will make you smile as if she were still sitting right next to you. Be strong and carry on.

  13. Julie

    My mother died when I was 11 years old. The reality of her being gone prompted me in the mourning to lay in bed with the covers over my head, my eyes closed, to achieve the sense of being gone, too, so that I could be closer to her experience.

    Your mention of your daughter’s understanding of death being “non-existence” brought this memory back for me. It is real.

    “There is a moment in the life of every human being where innocence is lost. It is the moment in which we lose another human to their death; and that moment is hard.”

  14. John

    Thank you for this. I wrestled with this same issue and the frustration that the general outpouring of intended comfort can come across as pandering denial of the real grief we suffer from losing someone. Clearly, you and your daughter shared a real gift of being able to be internally honest with yourselves…something few people really can understand. May you find comfort in the days ahead my friend. Thank you for giving words to the feelings I’ve shared in the past.

  15. Kelly

    I wanted to thank you for your very eloquent post. Our son died on April 30, 2011 – his time with us was a short 20 years and we miss him every minute of every day. It is hard to explain to people how you get up everyday and move thru this world after losing a child with no religion as a crutch. But I, like you, think that the notion of “radical acceptance” is the clearest way forward. My husband said to me in the days following our son’s funeral that we had choices on how to move forward. His choice is to get up every morning and continue to participate in the world, no matter how difficult it is for him. He asked that I do the same. We both knew Stephen wasn’t coming back, we weren’t going to meet him in another place at a later date and if we were to survive his death, we had to just live. So that is what we do. We also found that our son affected many peoples lives in so many positive ways. We continue to this day to meet people who knew him and were influenced by the time he had spent in their lives. That is what comforts us – to know that he was loved, he loved and he did make a difference in so many peoples lives. Not that he waits in a heaven that doesn’t exist waiting for us to join him when we die. Our ashes will lay beside his but that is as close to him as we will get. Thank you again for your post.

  16. Benjamin Smith

    As a father of six beautiful children, we’ve had our fair share of adversity. We’ve already dealt with the near-death of 3. Two fight chronic, long-term disease. I have held my beautiful wife in tears, wondering if all our years of effort and love were in vain for our beautiful children. Three times over. Yet I have raised 6, beautiful, intelligent, thinking persons who are adept at questioning everything, and who appropriately value the contributions of science, aka “real knowledge”.

    I tear to myself as I read of your loss. You did everything right and, by odds, you should not have to write these prosaic words, yet the laws of chance mean that some of us must write these words of sadness. By those same odds I have every possibility of having to write such sadness, and yet, as of yet, I have been so lucky.

    So tonight, know that a loving father of such a large, vibrant brood of mine tears a little, sharing your loss. For a few moments, I feel your pain.

  17. Colin

    As a 19 year old athiest who also loves sci fi and thinks about and sometimes fears death on a daily basis this really hit home. All we can do is live life to the fullest and move on from the tragic things that happen. It’s sometimes very hard to stay with a positive mind set and easy to go down a path of depression and other issues. I wish you the best in the rest of life, and thanks for sharing your story.

  18. Lucas

    I’m literally logging offline right now to go watch my 10 month old daughter sleep. My condolences, and from a father in Wyoming, I’ll take a moment to reflect on my roll as a father as I watch my baby girl sleep. I’ve a 4 year old boy as well. What you’ve endured is the kind of freakish parental nightmare that keeps me up some nights. God dammit life is such a rotten bitch sometimes.

  19. Ian

    I have always found comfort in my realization that any mourning done is not for the dead, but for the living. Feeling sad about the death of a loved one is to be sad for yourself – sympathy at this point is wasted.

    At least for me, this sadness seems much easier to overcome knowing that I’m only sad for myself. It’s a selfish sadness and it achieves nothing other than adversely effecting your mood. It is also absolutely not how anyone worth missing would want you to feel. It’s okay to be sad, but don’t forget that it’s also okay to be happy – no sense of guilt is justified for either.

  20. Robert LaCombe

    I can understand the ‘not’, as in, she’s not in some after world (heaven for example). But think of something different, her body is/was composed of material made of atoms. Over time, however many atoms from her will have potentially become something else. For example, what if atoms that was once her, end up being a part of life of a beautiful butterfly, or a living tree. Basically what I’m trying to get at is that… in a way, parts of what was once her can potentially live on in/as other life forms. So as time goes on, who knows, maybe you’ll feel a wonderful breeze on your face in the future and see some leaves blow by, and one of those leaves have the same atoms that helped make her. I guess we atheists/non-believers could think of this as a kind of after-life. Regards.

  21. Mark

    Thankyou for that heartfelt post. The pain must still be very raw. I agree from a similar experience (not that anything could compare with loosing a daughter) that everything religious someone said in the wake of a tragic death just reinforced my unbelief. Every trite platitude seemed childish, but the ones about imaginary Gods and afterlife were the worst.

  22. Frank

    Unfortunately, my wife and I know what you’re going through. Our daughter died 17 years ago, at the age of 21. At her funeral, in my wife’s church, my two emotions were grief and rage. The grief part needs no explanation. My rage was due to the fact that I had to sit through a sickening Christian service, where several people babbled on about the love and mercy of their god. They meant well, so I controlled my temper and said nothing. However, as a long-time atheist, it confused me why so many adults actually believed that there was anything loving and merciful about a deity that would allow such a young person to die.

    When she died, my grief was so overwhelming that it sort of felt like I was in a round room where relief from the pain could only be found in a corner. As you know, there aren’t any in such a room. Eventually, the pain will become bearable, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away. I can’t say for sure, since it’s only been 17 years.

    Your attitude seems like a good one that will help you endure this tragedy. Try to ignore the religious idiots who say obviously stupid things to you. They mean well, so take comfort in their friendliness, while ignoring their religious mumblings.

    Take care.

  23. Max Beaulieu

    The girl in the box was not my daughter,
    yet I stirred,
    she was memory, A wisp of the mind,
    though flesh be buried, and soul a myth,
    memory pervades.

  24. Chuck

    Isn’t what you are espousing a belief system? You mention you are a follower of faith and science/ Are you able you quantify the love of your daughter or take it out and show it to me? I’m sorry for your loss but I can’t help but feel like some good can come from this. Right now you seem to be using it to reinforce your belief in nothing.

  25. David

    I wasn’t planning on fostering any discussion on this blog — but I’m not sure whether your email address was valid so I’m approving your post and my response for a couple of days after which time I’ll remove both.

    The answer to your question is a very definite “no”. It’s a common misperception (usually pushed by religious apologists) that atheism is itself a belief system.

    As many have said, only partly in jest, atheism is a belief system the way than baldness is a hair color or abstinence is a sex position!

    I am not a follower of faith, not sure what I said that made you think this but let me know so I can make sure I correct it.

    I don’t know where you’re going with the question about quantifying the love of my daughter. Certainly one cannot infer anything from my personal inability to quantify my feelings. I would however point out that science and technology has certainly advanced to the point where it is in fact possible to measure (quantify) feelings using such techniques as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and this is now routinely done in many kinds of experiments to help us learn more about how the brain works, how it responds under different circumstances.

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