My View on an Afterlife as a Secular Person

“Where Did My Baba Go?”

My mother died unexpectedly on July 8th. Yes, she happened to be diagnosed with a brain tumor fifteen years prior to that, live cancer-free for eleven years, and have it return to leave her with a right-side disability for four years leading to her death.

However, that is not what killed her. It was a stroke – inexplicable in a lot of ways, since she had never suffered from high-blood pressure, had always been active despite her weaker right limbs, and her diet contained close to zero cholesterol.

Yet, there she was – in a hospital bed, unable even to sit up, to hold her head up, speechless, left side completely immobile and right side severely weakened. Three months later, the day after I brought her home, she passed away at the age of fifty-nine. One moment she was completely awake, while being fed dinner, in front of me and my four-year old son. The next she was gone.

My mama’s passing has left a huge void in my heart and my life and put me in a state of a deep shock. Days after her death I was walking around in a daze, the scenes coming back to me over and over again. The medics trying and failing with the AED heart saver; Max, my son, climbing all over her breathless body, bringing her toy cars, while I was waiting for the police; a couple of joking police-officers zipping her up in a black plastic bag and taking her away; my first tears while Max asked me: “Where are they taking my Baba?” All these flashbacks would sweep over me many times a day and leave me crying.

Friends offered emotional and financial support. Some would say she was in a better place. Some would offer thoughts and prayers. Although incredibly grateful to them for their circle of love and care, I kept searching for answers for myself, and most importantly, for my 4-year-old.

At first questions like: “What means "died"? What is she going to do now? When is she coming back to life? When will she not be sick again?” poured out of Max daily. The easiest answer of a religious person: “Don’t worry, she’s watching over us in heaven, and one day we’ll meet again” would not satisfy me, since I do not believe it to be true. How could I explain the truth to my son, without being too morbid and graphic? To be completely honest, my grieving self needed that kind of gentle truth about passing as much as my child did.

We started talking about the cycle of life, the dead nourishing the living earth, a new life appearing with the help of its nutrients. New trees will grow and help us breathe, therefore, give us life. My mom's ashes will be spread out in the Ural Mountains, a place where she used to go backpacking all year round, swimming in its icy lakes in the summer, and skiing over its sparkling snowy hills in the winter. After death my Mom will eventually become part of a place that was so close to her heart. A beetle buzzing happily in the summer light. A pine tree, the smell of which she loved so much, standing up tall and strong, just like my mother always has. A woodpecker, restlessly fighting and saving trees, as Mom would constantly fight for justice for everyone around her.

A person is alive as long as their memory is alive. In several cultures there is a beautiful tradition of displaying the image of the deceased loved one for their family to remember on an altar. It's done in order for their soul to be alive and come visit. This touching ritual actually has a scientific basis underneath it. When you are remembering a dead person, the memory part of your brain gets activated. The molecules composing the memories of the loved one – their physical appearance as well as their personality – come alive. Therefore, we may say, our loved ones physically continue to exist in the form of neurons in our brain. If the person is forgotten, those connections in our brain disappear, thus the physical substance gets destroyed.

We try to remember and mention my mama and Max's Baba every chance we get. What would Baba say if she could hear her grandson reading for the first time? Would it make her proud to hear him perform in Russian on the stage? Would she frown upon learning he had a fight at school?

As we are cooking dinner, I sometimes mention Baba's favorite dishes; we’ll be celebrating her birthdays as another way to honor her. We often look at pictures and videos of my Mom and Max together in order to keep the memories of the woman who mattered so much to us alive in the fragile and an ever-changing brain of our child.

Turns out, you do not need heaven for a loved one to wait over for you. They can be with you forever, as long as you keep a memory of them in your heart. (Or, to be more scientifically correct, in your brain).