I’m Dani Ward,

and I do lots of things.

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.

“MAMAW. I SAAAIIID, I LOVE YOU!”

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.

  • I’m sorry for your loss.

    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.

    I agree.

    Reminds me of the quote from a caller on Seth Andrews’ “The Thinking Atheist” podcast: “My tragedy is not your soapbox.”

    https://m.facebook.com/faithfreegriefsupport/posts/166949026780098

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