My grief for my son makes me wonder about God

I'm a proud agnostic, but science offers little comfort

Published August 19, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing to you because I am looking for a thoughtful, reasoned response to my question like the ones you tend to give to people in pain. I need this kind of answer because I have been pondering this question for months now and I am at an impasse. My 30-year-old son passed away after a very short and mysterious illness earlier this year. He seemed healthy one day and seemed to have a bad flu the next and three weeks later after two weeks in intensive care and more operations than I can count the doctors told us he would never recover and we (his father, brother and I) decided it was best to take him off of life support. Since then life has been brutal for all of us. The guilt and suffering are beyond words, but I know these things will pass and we will slowly recover.

My question, though, has to do with signs and belief. I am a proud agnostic. I have come to this place after many years of study on the subject. I believe that we cannot know whether or not there is a god and I cannot make such a leap of faith to belief in a god. But my son has died and I want to know if he is OK. I have been reading and watching every program I can find on physics and science and dimensions and anything that will give me something to hold onto. I have even started to think I'm seeing signs of my son's presence. Several times I think he may have come to comfort me or to let me know he is here. But when I try to find logic in my belief in these signs I don't see any and then I ridicule myself for straying from my agnostic beliefs.

It's too painful to think that he is just gone and is not seeing what is going on in this world. Last night we celebrated his son's 5th birthday. Next month we will celebrate his daughter's 7th birthday. When I picked the kids up at camp yesterday I got another one of these signs and I thought, "Oh good, he is letting me know he will be at the party." So, Cary, my question is: Am I just in the grips of extreme grief and in a year or two I will return back to my agnostic beliefs or am I experiencing one of the reasons that religion exists; that the thought of nothingness is too painful and belief is comforting?

Thanks. I await your reply.


Dear B,

Say you are in your car or you are alone somewhere and you hear the voice of your son or see his face. That is an experience. It has meaning and force. It matters. You can choose to honor this experience and welcome it. You don't have to defend it against ridicule from yourself or others. It is not the property of the church or the state or of other members of your family. It need not be submitted to peer review. It is yours. It belongs to no one else. It is an experience. It is a phenomenon.

It is helpful in such situations to distinguish between phenomena and belief.

Life is full of phenomena. Since no law prevents me from doing so, I am free to experience phenomena without defending them or fitting them into a belief.

We go through life experiencing all manner of things that do not fit into a belief. We may see an insect flit by and not know its name; must we then pretend we didn't see the insect?

We see and hear things that we cannot fit into a classification system for phenomena. If you hear your son's voice then you hear your son's voice. If you experience your son as present then he is present. I have certainly had such experiences, though I refuse to argue with others about their validity or meaning. Such arguments are pointless.

At any given moment, what is in your mind is a treasure trove. You have memories of your son that you can call upon. Who is to say that when you call upon these memories you are not in some way calling upon your son? Who is to say that the dead do not literally live in our memories?

So we go about having our distinct, individual experiences of phenomena, both those that are tangible and those that seem to have no tangible reality. We visit our departed family members. We hold them close to us. We listen to them and are comforted. It has nothing to do with belief. It has everything to do with the truth of your own experience.

Be comforted by these visitations from your son.

Be comforted. Take the comfort that is offered.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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