Today would have been my grandmother’s 99th birthday. She passed away in 2011, but I still struggle with the idea that she is no longer alive and I will never see her again. As an atheist, I do not have the luxury of the idea of being with her again once I die. There is no heaven. There is no hell. Who we are – our mind, consciousness, personality, and character – is a unique combination of chemicals and neurons, which disperse once we have died.
The greatest loss, at least for me, is who Gram was is no longer present. Her thoughts, emotions, imagination, sense of humor, and love for me is no longer here. The only remnants of her persist in my mind. What made Gram the wonderful human being whose company I enjoyed is simply gone.
She was only 88 years old when she died, but we have no way to preserve her or store her. What I wouldn’t give to have a Bobiverse version of my grandma.
One idea that comforts me is there is an indelible part of her which survives. Her memories she shared with me are my memories and what are we if not a big pile of memories? Her memories and mine combined to create my view of the world.
Her matter will also live on. We cannot destroy or create matter. It only changes form. The essence of who she was is gone, but it may very well have shifted into something else, a plant, a bird, the dirt below my feet.
While this is a nice idea to comfort a person, her memories I share are only a small reflection of the person who was my grandma. I will never be able to create new thoughts or ideas with her. I no longer have moments in time where I can hear her speak, have her provide advice, or laugh at something silly.
While Gram is no longer physically here, she did leave something tangible behind – me. I am a combination of myself, but also what she taught and who she was that I observed, and she instilled in me many of the things she was and what she thought to be important.
Spending time with me was important to her. She did not provide unsolicited advice. Instead, she provided peace and a sense of calm. We could enjoy something without yelling, cheering, or making any noise – just the quietness of occasional conversation.
When I sit and look at the stars, look up at the sky and appreciate its beauty, I think of the beautiful nights we spent together watching my first lunar eclipse and Halley’s Comet as it sailed by Earth.
“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries. The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” – Carl Sagan
Gram and I are both made of the amazingness of the universe. I know she understood my awe at the vastness of it all. Although I gave the eulogy at her funeral, I wish I would have had a physicist to speak at her funeral. I think she would have like it.
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.
Pre-monotheistic Hebrews and the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the dead lived on as shades, or ghosts, in an underworld. The dead would gradually fade from existence as the living who knew them either forgot about them or died.
It would, therefore, be my duty to remember Gram. She is the most important connection I have ever had with another human being. A large part of who I am is because of her as she shaped and defined my character. I am who I am because of her teachings, compassion, and kindness.
I have many of the same thoughts and emotions Gram had because she taught me well. More than anyone else in this world, I identify with Gram because I always saw so much of me in her. I suppose it really was the other way around and, if she were here now, she’d chuckle at my slightly faulty logic, but let it pass anyway with a smile on her face and a shaking of her head.
Gram is not out there waiting to take my hand and show me the afterlife. It does not exist, but a piece of her will always endure inside me. It will remain there until I, too, pass from this world. Maybe a piece of both of us will linger as shades once I’m gone, but I can hold her memory for whatever time I have left on this earth.
On what would have been her 99th birthday, I grieve the end of her life and selfishly wish I had had more time with her. Death would be easier if I believed in the fairy tale of seeing Gram again. It is a difficult topic for me to grapple with because it is the end of something that was once so vibrantly alive.
All I can really do now is take the lessons she taught and use them to be the best person I can be because, when my life is over, I hope it will be as good as hers and that I made her proud.