Sudden loss messes with your sense of reality, no matter what you believe.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
I never set out to be an atheist. I was baptized a Lutheran and later chose evangelicalism. But sometime around age 40, the questions became too much—the unsolvable problem of suffering, the ahistorical nature of so-called infallible books—and I reluctantly turned atheist.
Now that I have a dead child, I would LOVE to believe Josh lives on somehow, that he and I will meet again in an afterlife. But just as the Christian deity lacks evidence for his existence (extravagant claims demand extravagant data and all that), I see no compelling reason to put my faith in a life after this one.
The case for Josh in the hereafter isn’t aided by the fact that the two people who have most aggressively asserted special knowledge of Josh strumming a harp next to Jesus are—how shall we say it?—problematic individuals. One is a fundamentalist in-law, whose conduct and mental state are a smorgasbord of personality disorders, some narcissism here, some borderline traits there. She routinely feigns divine insight and supernatural power to wallpaper over a lifetime of alienated family and friends.
The other is a snooty physician with a god complex. As a school board member, she helped make Josh’s life miserable around the time of my divorce, necessitating a change in schools. (She alleged that acting-out behavior by this diminutive second-grader was a threat to fellow students.) I suspect her attempt to insinuate back into my family by friending my daughter online is an unconscious compensation for guilt over her treatment of Josh.
In the days following Josh’s death, both insisted they just know he’s in Heaven. Isn’t it funny how the Christian God so frequently chooses toxic people for his great purposes?
In joining the suicide survivor club, I’ve learned that these sorts of spiritual macroaggressions are commonplace. They’re yet another form of nastiness we must defend against, at the most vulnerable point in our lives.
In reality, if Josh were to communicate with anyone, I’m certain it would be with his siblings or me, the people who knew him the best and loved him the most. I won’t speak for Liz or Paul, but all I’ve heard is spiritual static.
At the risk of losing some atheist cred (something I give zero shits about, by the way), there have been nights as I’m drifting to sleep that I’ve spoken with Josh and pleaded for a sign he’s out there. Just as I used to manufacture internal promptings of the Holy Spirit back in my praying days, I can transiently create Josh’s voice in my head. But this voice never says anything remotely close to Josh’s words in life, so I know it’s only my wishful neurons as I enter slumberland.
But I now understand why some bereaved claim to see signs of their loved one. I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories, of critters or clouds signaling from the afterlife that all is well. I would never be callous enough to dissuade a grieving person of comfort they’ve received, but I’m convinced these signs are nothing but wishful thinking, a desperate grasping for the person forever gone.
In sudden traumatic loss, the shock is so overwhelming that even an empiricist like me is prone to magical thinking. In the days after Josh died, I would get trapped in cyclones of believing there’d been a mistake in identifying Josh’s body. I would have to spend minutes reasoning with myself. Yes, that was his bloodied phone the police sergeant returned to me. Yes, that was his body I identified.
A part of me still waited to hear the distinctive sucking sound of the outside door nearest his bedroom opening and closing. Josh was home! (Even now, it’s triggering to hear my wife Jessica use this door.)
Almost six months later, I still talk to Josh daily. Sometimes I tell him about things he would’ve loved: a silly YouTube video, a massive manga store in Seattle, a scrumptious ramen place on Whidbey Island, a cat café I walked past in Bellingham. At other times I reminisce about moments shared, funny phrases uttered.
Mostly, I simply tell him I miss him. Or say I’m sorry, in response to that persistent unformed feeling I failed him somehow. Or ask why.
There’s no answer, of course, nor do I expect one in these wide-awake states. But these one-way conversations help me stay connected and remember the person I miss so achingly and desperately. It’s another coping mechanism as I adjust to existence without Josh, both here and in the fictional hereafter.