Love over afterlife

I wrote the following in 2012, about a year after my mother, Patricia (Patti) Elaine Brooks died.  I revisited it today, on the fifth anniversary of her departure, and it seemed a worthwhile time to share it. Perhaps because I lived on another continent from her for 15 years before she died,  I haven’t had to look for her in the next room, only to find she isn’t there. The memories be green.

Mum and me, somewhere in Kruger National Park in about 2001.
Mum and me, somewhere in Kruger National Park in about 2001.

I learned a lot about death last year. I kept no count of the number of public figures whose passing moved me, but my impression is they were many. Two close colleagues died, within weeks of each other. And between their funerals, I made two trips to South Africa. One with my children to say a long and very positive goodbye to my mother, and another, barely a week after I had returned to Sydney, for her funeral.

From diagnosis with a brain tumour in late September 2009, Patti lived a little over two years. Not long, but not bad for a stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme patient in her sixties. She enjoyed well over a year of good health, between the initial operation and her eventual decline. She even snuck in a visit to Sydney, inspiring all of us who loved her by climbing the Harbour Bridge.

At the same time as mum was recovering from her operation, enjoying a brief remission, and then deteriorating again, I followed closely the prolific writing of Christopher Hitchens who was, at the same time, “living dyingly”. Hitch shared that brutal pragmatism about the odds he faced. Soon after his diagnosis with stage 4 oesophageal cancer, he pointed out, “the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.” Hitch died less than two months after my mother.

 Hitch prepared us for his impending death with characteristic honest candour, and refused to accept the consolations of religion in a way that gave me, and I am sure many other atheists, enormous strength. He was happy for people to pray for him, as long as they were aware they were doing so for their own benefit, rather than his. And he took immense pains to ensure that nobody had any grounds to claim he’d taken the cowardly Pascal’s wager and converted to religion on his deathbed.

I don’t mean, in writing this article, to compare my mum to Christopher Hitchens. Like any two randomly chosen people they shared many differences and several similarities. One similarity, it turns out, was dying from cancer at similar ages and within two months of each other.

Mum, for one thing, was a practicing Anglican, who drew strength and consolation from the prayers offered by others, and whose faith grew stronger as she recovered from her operation. Yet she died with as much dignity and honesty as Hitchens. It matters nothing to me whether she held any religious beliefs or not.

Between my parents, my sister and I, our family comprised four very different takes on religion. We have always been at peace with this, without constructing artificial rules about not discussing religion. We simply love each other and respect one another’s choices. I despair when I hear of families or communities ruined by religious difference, when everything in my background says it need not be an issue. Mum’s funeral and my many treasured discussions with my Dad and sister gave me plenty of chance to reflect on religion and how it deals with death.


Mum’s memorial rites were steeped in Christian ceremony and the consolations that religion seems to bring so many at these difficult times. Other atheists sometimes profess to envy these consolations, but I did not feel that way myself.

Yet I found myself – a scientist even at the least opportune times – observing and marvelling at the reassurances that death isn’t final, and that this life is but an overture to a more glorious afterlife.

My favourite book in the so-called New Atheist ouvre isn’t Hitchen’s God is not Great, or even fellow evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The one I enjoy most is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. One of the many ways in which religion, according to Dennett, emerges from the cognitive and social machinery that we evolved long before anybody ever conceived a deity, has to do with dying and grieving.

Our species is, by any measure, a supremely social one. In order to operate in our complex human societies, we have evolved the remarkable ability not only to recognise and remember other individuals, but also to conceive and decipher their intentions, wants and needs. Psychologists call this ‘theory of mind’ – one person has an understanding or theory (however limited) of the mind of another.

This remarkable ability allows us to think about and continue our relationships with several people, even when they are not present. This might seem an obvious capacity, but that doesn’t make it trivial. Imagine what your love life would be like if, when you are at work or anywhere else away from home, you were unable to think about or even imagine your significant other, much less remember that she asked you to pick up milk, eggs and some tuna for dinner.

So for each of our relationships, we have a kind of mental filing cabinet for each person, where we stash our concept of them – a concept that we often access and update. The great thing about these files is we can access them whenever we want to – even if we haven’t seen the person for years. When my colleagues go home at the end of the day, I know they are still alive, and I am not surprised when they return the next day.

But what is the difference between somebody dying and somebody simply going away on a journey?

In one sense, there is no difference at all. When somebody – especially somebody close like a parent or a spouse – dies, we are left with that bulging file that contains not just our memories of them, but our entire concept of them.

Somebody who dies is no less real in our social imagination than somebody who has just left on vacation. Anyone who loses a loved one knows how often we make a mental note to share an anecdote with the deceased, how we pick up the phone to call them or even go from one room to the next in search of them only to painfully catch ourselves with the realisation that the anecdote, phone call or search will forever go uncompleted. Only with practice do we come to recognise this.

Dennett points out that religions, as they form, very quickly invent the idea that the deceased has gone on a journey or ascended to some divine destination. Religions invite us to stash our files in the great virtual data cloud, where we can continue to access them, secure in the knowledge that the departed is in a better place. How soothing a thought, that we need only perform the little mental trick we already do hundreds of times a day, of telling ourselves that the departed has left the building, than that we accept the far more obvious fact that she simply is no more.

Religions console the bereaved this way. At funerals the main repeated message is that the loved one is not gone, but that in some form she still exists. I am attracted to the idea that this is the chief purpose of the funeral or memorial service; for all those who knew the departed to align their accounts of where she has gone and to share this one last common memory of her. That way our files, divergent as they are on some of the content of her life, can all end on more or less the same note?

My view on heaven and the departure of any kind of soul from the body, as you can probably tell, is completely materialistic, as it is for most of the growing number of us who hold no religious beliefs. Folks like me tend to fixate, often to the irritation of the religious, on the reality – or the realness of things. So it might seem strange that here I quote Professor Dumbledore, himself appearing as heavenly apparition to Harry Potter, recently arrived in a celestial parallel of King’s Cross station, having departed at the hand of Lord Voldemort’s killing curse:

‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. ‘Is this real. Or has this been happening inside my head?’

Dumbledore beamed at him …. ‘Of course it has been happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’

The most real form of our love is what happens inside our heads. We might not notice this in everyday life, when our love is materially manifested in our actions and the words we exchange, the gifts we buy and the sacrifices we make. But when somebody has died, we have only our memories – our files where we have stashed our concept of that person. We have only the real essence of love that exists in our brains – our magnificent social brains – that enable us to think of somebody who isn’t here as if they were in the next room or the next village.

I never quite trust myself when writing like this, not to lapse into the kind of pseudoprofound garbage that corrupts otherwise honest thoughts in sentimentality or faux spritualism. I had been struggling for a while to articulate my thoughts about this and how it relates to my mother’s death, when I received a wonderful and thoughtful email from my dad. In it, among many things, he speaks of his conception of heaven:

Heaven , to me, is the continuing relationship of love. I have felt that so often [since mum died] …. It is a flow of love from as well to. ….. Those whom we love live on in so many ways, that’s …. in her children and grandchildren and the hundreds of lives which she enriched. Once you have been part of this world you will always be part of this world. She lives on in multitudinous ways and her love also reaches me in so many ways. I pray that mine is reaching her. That would be heaven.

I love my dad’s idea of heaven. It is infinitely more generous and loving than the mean-spirited version peddled by many organised religions. Before I ever identified as an atheist, the idea that there was an afterlife to whom admission was restricted to those who had accepted some mumbo-jumbo account of salvation or submission struck me as a mean and childish form of social exclusion.

What kind of deity would run an exclusive frequent-flier departure lounge only for that small subset of people who had heard, grasped and embraced a particular set of beliefs? If those are the rules for entry, then I don’t want to go to that party. No matter who else is there.

My mum’s cancer illustrated very clearly to me another problem I have with heaven and the idea of any kind of afterlife. In the last few weeks of her life, the growing tumour steadily destroyed not only her motor coordination, but it seemed to me that it also eroded her memory and those parts of her social brain where she filed her sense of other people and of herself.

Many people remarked how she never once bemoaned her fate. When I visited her, and told her how much I loved her and how proud I was of her, she smiled to acknowledge it, and I thought she understood that this was my way of saying a little goodbye every day. Yet she never spoke what those of us around her knew – that she would never get better.

To this day I cannot tell whether she was incredibly stoic or if her disease had insulated her from conceiving her fate. Stoic as I know she was in other matters, my own limited ability to fathom her mental state suggests that the one mercy her tumour extended to her was to spare her deep insight into her rapid decline.

In other small ways, we knew that her social brain was succumbing. Misplacing names, forgetting faces, drawing false distinctions between the young version of my dad who married her in 1968 and the 2011 version who cared for her every day of her illness. The mistakes came and went, but we couldn’t escape the certainty that not all of her – of whatever made her her – was present.

So what does this have to do with heaven? Well, which version of Patti is supposed to have ascended? It may be comforting to believe that somebody who was here yesterday has now stepped into another realm as into another room, but it is harder to imagine this feat for somebody whose sense of self has seriously faltered.

For those of us who accept the prosaic fact that our loved one simply is no more, and that the most real thing about them is the love they had for us and the love we had and continue to have for them, our acceptance is more difficult and yet much simpler. Like the patient who has to endure painful surgery to set a broken limb, the short term agony for me is better than the long-term complications.

Dad wrote to me about how ‘now it is time to dwell not on life without her but on how fortunate I was to have so many years with her.’ For me, that transition sums up everything profound about losing her. I too have come to accept that even though it feels like she could be just a hand’s touch away, she isn’t.

Being able to talk honestly about her and appreciate and be grateful – not to anyone, just grateful – for our time together in the real world is more important and more comforting than easy promises about a cosy afterlife reuinion could ever be.