I have found myself lately, surrounded by friends and family with near fatal illnesses. My aunt has recently survived a bout of pancreatic cancer which is usually fatal. My father-inlaw has apparently survived mesothelioma though he's not completely out of the woods yet. And my wife's sister's mother is still being treated for stage four breast cancer which has spread into her bones. I have therefore been inundated by statements like "They are in my payers" and "I will pray for her or him" along with requests for prayer by their friends and family. My wife has, understandably, stated in no uncertain terms that if her father dies no one had better come to her and tell her "It was God's will" or "He's in a better place now" or any of the usual vapid religious platitudes. She doesn't care if he's with Jesus and the angels and all of their ancestors. She wants him here with her. She doesn't want him to suffer through lung surgery and chemotherapy only to be "called home to Jesus" and she is a Christian. I hold no such illusions about death so I cannot imagine what I would feel were it my mother going through what Christie's father is going through and I was being bombarded with bullshit.
I know it is well-intentioned bullshit. I know they are stating their sincere and honest beliefs and trying to be consoling and supportive, but the death of a loved-one is really a pretty horrible and distasteful moment to try to foist your beliefs onto someone. I don't think I'd handle it well.
So how do atheists find comfort in moments of sorrow and death? How do we cope with the loss of a loved one or our own impending end? No different than any other tragedy I should think. No different than the loss of a job or a house. We wouldn't say it was God's plan or that it's "all in God's hands" or any such nonsense. We would recognize the unfortunate series of events that led up to this happening and try to figure our way out of it. We would try our best to find cures to employ specialists to find the best treatment and when none of that worked we would resolve ourselves to the reality. We did all we could and now it's over just as the end has come for hundreds of millions of other human beings throughout history. It is the deal we each make with life from the moment we take our first breath, that eventually we will also take our last.
I had a bout with pancreatitis a few years back and the doctors were not certain what was causing it and were not ruling out pancreatic cancer which is often a death sentence. As I was being wheeled into surgery there was a possibility that I might never wake up. The one thought that kept me from panicking was my near certainty that death was the end of all consciousness, all sensation, that I would never experience death since being dead I would not be able to experience anything. The anesthesia would put me under and I would either wake up or I would not. If I didn't I would never know that I didn't because knowing is a condition of the living. Those who do not live do not know. I tend to agree with Epicurus on death:
"Death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more."
I look at the death of a loved one with the same degree of sorrow (and no more) than when a friend moves away to another state or country and I know that I will never see them again. I am sad that we will no longer share each other's company. I cherish the memories we had and I look back upon those memories with longing from time to time. It is painful but seldom devastating. There is no unique or special sadness reserved for death over other types of loss. If it is a friend who has suffered long than I am happy that he or she is no longer suffering.
My wife often asks me if I will feel the same way when my own mother finally passes and I could not imagine how I could possibly feel otherwise. What is the alternative? I have no God to find solace in or rage against and raging against the laws of nature would be absurd. That would be like being angry at gravity were she to perish in a plane crash. Perhaps there would be anger at the failings and limitations of modern medicine or of my doctor in particular but unless I planned to go to medical school and make it my mission to find a cure for whatever finally took her that anger would subside and I would be left with nothing but acceptance and eventual healing just like everyone else, regardless of belief. Because once all the usual religious blatherings have been uttered the truth is that we all feel the same pain and loss regardless of what we believe. It is disingenuous to say that those who believe in an after-life suffer less at the death of a loved one than those who do not. I was once a believer and I can tell you that this is bullshit. What we grieve is that our time with them on earth has ended. That we will never again have a meal together or reminisce about old times or share a joke. It is the loss of their company that we mourn not whether or not they are going to Nirvana or inferno or non-existence. We cry because we miss them and that loss is universal.