“The falling leaves drift by my window
The falling leaves of red and gold
I see your lips the summer kisses
The sunburned hands I used to hold
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall”
Coping with great loss
The heat of the summer nights are fading. Coats are clenched to the body. The pensive beauty of autumn is here. Any stable state will eventually change. At some point bliss will end. Such is the nature of existence. Any outlook denying that the good times will end will assuredly be a fearful life. Learning to accept, endure and overcome our inevitable losses and failures are lessons we all will learn, sooner or later. Sooner is better.
We are now transitioning into Synthea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the autumn equinox and winter solstice Syntheos. It is from Synthesis, the Greek word for “bringing together”. Undoubtedly the greatest asset of any religious community has always been in times of personal crisis, helping us deal with loss, being there for us when we need it the most.
This season we will focus on endings, death, transformation, change and ridding oneself of the old and redundant
Synthea, autumn equinox
Philosophy and science teaches us that the world we have in our minds, our memories, are all symbolic representations in the brain. This is undoubtedly true. So why does if feel differently being in the moment, than having had it pass? What is the difference between a cool breeze on our faces a hot summer’s day and our memory of it? What about an imaginary breeze? What is the difference between a the memory of a friend alive or dead? What is the difference between an imaginary friend and a real friend?
I write this text moments after having learned of the death of a friend. I’m now a whirl of conflicting emotions and my conclusion is that none of my understanding of the nature of the world matters. A heart in pain doesn’t care about the philosophical implications or what science tells us is natural or normal. It doesn’t care whether it makes sense to feel hurt. All it requires is human contact and comfort. To find the warm and caring eyes of compassion. A place to feel safe.Sanctus: Written by Zbniew Preisner to his friend and artistic collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski as he was dying in hospital.
Since we’re atheists, shouldn’t it make us, the Syntheists, better at dealing with loss than other religions? We aren’t afraid of the naturalistic reality of life. I have to conclude; probably not. All religions are excellent at dealing with grief. Which is odd considering that the vast majority of religions have ideas of an afterlife. An outright denial of death is standard practice. When a loved one dies why are they sad at all? Their loved one is now, allegedly, in a happier place? Aren’t they?
Which brings me back to my earlier point. The heart feels what the heart feels. Comforting lies and wishful thinking, no matter how often repeated, cannot give comfort in times of great emotional turmoil. Only the genuine caring compassion of a community will be good enough. It certainly seems like all major religions figured this out early on and are all good at it. They’ve just neglected to tell anyone. They all have successful models we can use.
An Islamic funeral ritual
1) Bathing the dead body, The immediate family and others trusted by them clean the deceased together. Psychologically it works on many levels. It brings home the reality of what has happened powerfully. It serves to remove any sanitized image one might have had about the person. This body is unquestionably lifeless, but life has to continue and those surviving can find help and solace in each other. In the shared ritual they are physically helping each other, and may act as a bridge to allow them to open up and help each other emotionally.
2) Enshrouding the body in white cotton or linen cloth. A symbol of our equality. At birth and death we truly are all equal.
3) The funeral prayer, Salat al-Janazah
“O God, if he was a doer of good, then increase his good deeds, and if he was a wrongdoer, then overlook his bad deeds. O God, forgive him and give him the steadiness to say the right thing.”
If one wants to be cynical, one might say that it’s not about asking God to forgive the deceased, but the congregation, family and friends; and not allow any perceived sins besmirch those surviving the dead. Allowing each person to be their own.
4) Burial of the dead body in a grave. Emotionally it’s normal to outright deny that somebody you have lost is actually lost. The burial acts as forcing the survivors to physically expel the dead from their lives. Not their memory of course, but unhealthy hopes of a future together.
5) Positioning the body so that the head faces Mecca. To emphasize the Muslim identity and being part of a community.
It is arguably the single most important feature of any religion. What we can do differently is cut the bullshit. Leave the platitudes and one-liners we all know have never helped anybody.
The way we react to death of loved ones makes it all too obvious that we’re primarily emotional beings. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all, at times fragile and in need of being taken care of and comforted by somebody we trust. Much like a parent comforts a child. It doesn’t matter how rich we are, how economically efficient world we create for ourselves if we don’t primarily focus that world on taking care of human insecurities and character flaws. Without compassion from our fellow humans, we are truly alone in this world. We need to support each other, help each other, because we know nothing else will.
Please take some time to think about those in your life, the people you care about, who you know are suffering from a loss now, those who are overcoming grief or hardship. What kind of support do they require? Is it within your power to help them? Is your help welcome? Often all that is needed is to let them know that you’re there for them if they need you.
The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.