Grieving as the only atheist at the funeral.

Grieving as the only atheist at the funeral.

My Mamaw died this past week. It wasn’t alto­geth­er unex­pect­ed — she’d been in the hos­pi­tal with pneu­mo­nia and var­i­ous com­pli­ca­tions relat­ed to it for a few weeks. But she’d been get­ting bet­ter. She’d been tak­en out of the ICU. There was a plan for her recov­ery. But she died, which just…wasn’t part of the plan.

The few weeks she was in the hos­pi­tal were an emo­tion­al roller coast­er. I’m so glad that I was able to make the trip with my par­ents to vis­it her before she died. There were so many times we just weren’t sure if she was going to make it. Every time she wors­ened, I grew tense — watch­ing my mom deal with the heart­break of a seri­ous­ly ill moth­er, imag­in­ing a world with­out my Mamaw in it, and real­iz­ing that this is the first death I would be expe­ri­enc­ing as an athe­ist.

I’d be lying if I didn’t won­der if I’d give Chris­tian­i­ty anoth­er thought, if I’d con­sid­er com­ing back to the fold in the face of death. I wor­ried, per­haps child­ish­ly, “How do athe­ists grieve?” I thought often of the verse Chris­tians cling to, about not griev­ing as those who have no hope. I sup­pose those peo­ple are peo­ple like me.

When I got word that she had died, my world shift­ed. It was like falling, only to catch your­self at the last sec­ond, then won­der how you could con­tin­ue to walk as if falling wasn’t an option. The world hasn’t stopped spin­ning because she has died, but the worlds of every­one in her fam­i­ly are for­ev­er altered. Falling is always an option now, at least for a while, until we for­get, until we remem­ber. It’s prob­a­bly not a great metaphor, but it helps explain how I’ve been feel­ing, at least.

To my relief, I didn’t have an exis­ten­tial cri­sis of faith. But what came into sharp focus was the fact that now, more than ever, was a time for me to be respect­ful of the Chris­t­ian beliefs of my fam­i­ly. Now was not the time to bring up our dif­fer­ing opin­ions, nor to insist that those around me tem­per their lan­guage or feel­ings. What­ev­er griev­ing for me will end up look­ing like, I couldn’t in good con­science get in the way of the griev­ing of my fam­i­ly.

It was hard. It was so fuck­ing hard. I didn’t real­ize how hard it was until I got home and talked to my part­ner non­stop for a cou­ple of hours, unable to stem the tears that I’d most­ly held at bay the cou­ple days I was in the moun­tains. At times, hear­ing every­one talk about how she was in a bet­ter place, how she was with Jesus now, how some were envi­ous of her for pass­ing on to the next life with God…honestly, some­times it felt like a delib­er­ate attack. But thank­ful­ly, so thank­ful­ly, I real­ized at the time and I must con­tin­u­al­ly remind myself now, that my family’s expres­sion of faith in the face of tremen­dous grief is not an attack against me. In fact, the entire sit­u­a­tion wasn’t about me at all.

And so when things were said that hurt or frus­trat­ed me, I remind­ed myself to be respect­ful. I remind­ed myself that it was no one’s job to cater to me. When I was asked to sing “It Is Well” with my par­ents, a song we’ve sang togeth­er so many times in days long past when I’d glad­ly don a head­cov­er­ing and med­i­tate on the words as I sang them, imag­in­ing the day when I too would be with Jesus…I agreed to sing. Because Mamaw loved to hear me sing, because it meant so much to my mom, because the most painful thing I could have done was refused. I sat with my fam­i­ly and rem­i­nisced about Mamaw, about our fam­i­ly, about shared expe­ri­ences and life in gen­er­al. And togeth­er, we griev­ed.

I’m still fig­ur­ing out how to grieve on my own, in the pri­va­cy of my own home and in my own heart and mind. I’m find­ing that think­ing about Mamaw and what I know of her helps. And that’s how I’ll end this post.

Mamaw was born in 1933 in the coal dis­trict of south­ern West Vir­ginia. A dif­fer­ent time, a dif­fer­ent place. She got mar­ried at 16 to Dan­ny Lee, the man I’m named after, and had five chil­dren with him. She was a fiesty woman, who some­how man­aged to speak her mind blunt­ly and hilar­i­ous­ly while also strug­gling to voice affec­tion and admi­ra­tion that she felt for her fam­i­ly. Papaw, I’m told, liked that about her. He liked that the chase didn’t end when they got mar­ried, and he worked every day of his life to pro­vide for her and his fam­i­ly. He ran for Jus­tice of the Peace at one point, and wasn’t elect­ed, which Mamaw attrib­uted to him being too hon­est for office. Some­times she expressed her love and affec­tion in words oth­er than “I love you.”

She had to bury him in 1981, so far before his time. She nev­er remar­ried, main­tain­ing that it would have been impos­si­ble to find anoth­er man like him. After his death, she had to raise their youngest child by her­self. She has 5 chil­dren, who mar­ried and gave her 10 grand­chil­dren, who have all mar­ried and giv­en her 19 great-grand­chil­dren (and quite a few grand-dogs and grand-cats).

Mamaw loved to trav­el. My par­ents say she loved it when­ev­er they would move to a new state, because that meant she got to come vis­it and learn a whole new town. She’d pack her Har­le­quin nov­els and come stay with us for a few months, cook­ing and shop­ping and read­ing and telling us all how we should do things or think about things.

I’m told that, when she lived with us in Ten­nessee while my dad was in Mary­land to find a place for us to move with him, that I would fol­low her all around the house, telling her I loved her. I was 5 years old, and in my world, if some­one said, “I love you,” the expect­ed response was “I love you, too.”

Mamaw? I love you.”

She’d con­tin­ue about her busi­ness.

Mamaw! I said, ‘I love you!’ ”

Still no response.


At long last, I’d chased her to the room where she was stay­ing. She spun around and huffed at me, “I love you too, okay?!” and slammed the door shut. Vic­to­ry, I’m sure, was sweet.

There’s this laugh. We call it The Lola Jean. Mamaw had it, Mom has it, and I have it. It’s very, very rare, and some­times has no real dis­cernible trig­ger. But once some­thing strikes us fun­ny, we laugh until we can’t breathe, and keep laugh­ing until we’re cry­ing, rock­ing back and forth and occa­sion­al­ly squeal­ing with laugh­ter. It’s so rare, but so mem­o­rable when it hap­pens.

Mamaw had a very bold sense of fash­ion. She loved cos­tume jew­el­ry and bold col­ors and prints. Mom tells me a lot that I have a sim­i­lar fash­ion sense. Some of my favourite pieces of jew­el­ry are things that have come from Mamaw.

When­ev­er she would vis­it us, she would always make cube steak with home­made gravy and bis­cuits, at least once. Even the last cou­ple of vis­its, when she wasn’t feel­ing too great and had trou­ble get­ting around as well, she insist­ed on mak­ing it. It was always one of the high­lights of the vis­it, all of us sit­ting around the table, eat­ing the tru­ly amaz­ing amount of food she’d prepped for us. That was real­ly anoth­er thing she did out of love, even with­out real­ly say­ing it. You could see, as you took delight in her cook­ing, that she was just tick­led to death to make some­thing every­one loved.

She liked to fuss at peo­ple. When I was lit­tle, I would some­times call her Mean Mamaw Jean, because she was way too blunt for super-sen­si­tive me to han­dle. She did mel­low as she aged, and I learned that peo­ple are dif­fer­ent and it’s okay for them to be dif­fer­ent. It prob­a­bly helped that I learned to deflect or give back as good as I got. Mamaw def­i­nite­ly liked peo­ple who had spunk to match her.

At the hos­pi­tal a few weeks ago, after she was tak­en off the ven­ti­la­tor and revived a bit, she was dif­fer­ent. Less inhib­it­ed, but not in the way you might think — less inhib­it­ed in express­ing her love for her fam­i­ly. When I walked into the room to see her, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “You’re so beau­ti­ful. I have always thought you were such a beau­ti­ful woman.” Through­out the vis­it, she raved about how she loved to hear me sing and play piano, and kept ask­ing if I was still draw­ing and doing art­work. She told me she was sor­ry “for every­thing she ever said about me” (which made me laugh a lit­tle bit), and that she loved me. At one point, she asked me to sing for her. I looked up an online hym­nal and was ready, but she’d for­got­ten and soon fell asleep. I’m so sad I didn’t get to sing to her while she was alive. I know she would have been thrilled that I sang at her funer­al. When I couldn’t quite reach over the rail­ing of the hos­pi­tal bed to kiss her fore­head good­bye, she moved clos­er so I could reach and squeezed my hand — dif­fi­cult feats for how weak she was.

We didn’t always get along. I don’t want to pre­tend that. She was a fiesty woman from a dif­fer­ent time, and I didn’t always appre­ci­ate her. But I’m so glad she was such a big part of my life grow­ing up, and I’m so, so sad she’s gone.

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