How I grieve my brothers, knowing there is no afterlife

This first person article is the experience of James Harvey, a writer from Sackville, NB. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, visit the FAQs.

My eldest brother John was a kind man. He loved his wife and cared deeply about the welfare of the animals, which he told me were “all innocent”.

He taught Andrew and I, his two younger brothers, how to be kind by example. I remember him saying that if you want to help other people, you have to take care of yourself.

Although my brothers and I were raised Roman Catholics, he was the first apostate among us and I admired his courage in abandoning a religion he did not believe in.

He had conviction and compassion, and I have no doubt that had he lived longer he would have created more happiness in the world.

John died of a sudden heart attack in 2005 at the age of 23 while going out to get groceries one evening.

While I still went to church and tried very hard to believe, I was forced to accept by faith that there was a plan that would explain why classmates die in car accidents and people get cancer and other very bad things happen .

A black-and-white photograph shows a man in a suit and a woman in a wedding dress smiling at the camera.
John Harvey died of a sudden heart attack in 2005. He was 23 years old. (via James Harvey)

I would not be comforted by a plan that called for John to die like this, falling into a ditch without knowing what was happening to him, while my sister-in-law was at home waiting for a husband who would never return.

The fact that he died unexpectedly isn’t comforting, but it’s the plain truth; and that’s enough for me.

I don’t fret over a nice day because it fades into night – I’m thankful for the time I’ve had with it. Things have causes, but nothing happens for a reason.

Like the animals that John loved so much, insignificance is supremely innocent. Confronting what happened gives me more comfort than shoving aside my grief with a simple explanation.

Don’t bet on life after death

My brother Andrew was more spiritual than I was, but open discussion in the years after John’s death made it clear that he was not a believer in life after death.

Andrew was open to all possibilities – that’s the beauty of science and objectivity. None of us definitely agreed that gods or the supernatural didn’t exist. There is simply no evidence that they do.

Our rambling discussions of the nature of human existence settled on the resolve to proceed as if this life were all there was.

Since I made that assumption, I wasn’t disappointed. My wife and I have an amazing daughter who loves to hug, walk around and laugh like crazy.

Andrew married his partner after almost a decade of dating. They bought a second home in Gros Morne National Park and adopted their beautiful daughter in 2021.

Our life was filled with joy and contentment. Andrew’s career as a social worker often brought him into contact with people who had been written off by society, and he never hesitated in his efforts to provide compassionate service to all.

A man and woman holding a baby smile at the camera.
Andrew Harvey’s brother James remembers him as a devoted father and spouse who devoted his time to others. (via James Harvey)

Although John’s death in 2005 first spurred me to reconsider my views on life and death, it was Andrew’s sudden death on October 18, 2021 that prompted me to write this.

As I look back on the life of a devoted spouse, father, brother, son, and friend like Andrew, I am struck by how much time he devoted to others.

Without believing in karma or a better afterlife for his actions, Andrew gave himself entirely to others. He was not a good man because a holy book commanded him to be. Andrew was a good man on his own merits.

I am sad that Andrew passed away. I’m just angry that Andrew died when people tried to attribute his goodness to an outside source of morality like a god.

In memory of the life they lived

Even in grief, I don’t have to look far for comfort. I don’t need a promise to see Andrew and John again to take heart after their deaths.

I may not have time with them anymore, but they shaped me by being excellent role models. They lived fearless and exemplary lives that continue to benefit the world because we are better people for having known them.

Knowing the value they place on truth and integrity, I cannot bring myself to have a pipe dream of seeing them again when I have no reason to believe it to be true.

I think about it: someday I will have read every book they read, seen every picture that was taken of them, learned everything about my brothers whom I loved so much. And then what?

Then what I really know about them will slowly and inevitably fade away, the sharpness of who they were rubbed away like words etched on an old brass plate.

One day I won’t remember the sound of their laughter or the lines on their faces, but I never lose them all – as long as I live, what they helped me will remain.

Everything, even beautiful things, come to an end. And that’s okay.

James Harvey is the youngest of three brothers who both died unexpectedly of a heart attack. (James Harvey)

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