This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
A lot of religious and spiritual believers find themselves stymied, at a loss for words, when the atheists and other non-believers in their lives are grieving. The comforts and consolations they’re used to offering, and that they rely on themselves, don’t do much good with atheists and other non-believers. “It’s all part of a plan.” “I’m sure they’re smiling down on you now.” “You’ll see them in the afterlife.” Etc. At best, these notions are useless for atheists: at worst, they’re actually upsetting.
Some believers behave very badly indeed at these times. It’s all too common for religious believers to use death and grief, and the heightened vulnerability that comes with it, as an opportunity for proselytizing. And when confronted with the reality that non-believers usually aren’t comforted by religious sentiments, believers often get churlish and defensive: insisting that grieving non-believers should be comforted when believers offer religious platitudes, and getting irritated or even outright hostile when we don’t.
But many believers are entirely sincere in their desire to console the non-believers in their life. They care, they sympathize, they mean well. They genuinely want to help. They just don’t know how.
Which is understandable. Even some non-believers have a hard time knowing what to say to the grieving non-believers in their life. Many atheists were brought up in religion: they’ve been brought up framing death and grief in religious terms, and dealing with it with religious customs. And in American culture particularly, our social customs around death are very much rooted in religion. So when atheists reject those customs, they often don’t know what to replace them with.
So what, specifically, can people say — or do — to comfort and console the non-believers in their lives who are grieving?
I’ll say this right off the bat: There is no one right answer to this question, no answer that’s going to be good for all people and in all situations. What you say or do with people who are grieving can, and should, vary tremendously depending on the situation: how close you are to the person who’s grieving, how soon it is after the death that they’re grieving, their unique personality, your unique personality, the nature of your relationship with them. And, of course, the unique nature of the person who has died, and the nature of their death, and the bereaved person’s relationship to them, is going to affect what you say and do with someone who’s grieving.
But I recently took a survey of readers of my blog, and of members of the Grief Beyond Belief online support group on Facebook, asking this question, and asking people what they’d found helpful in their grief. And a number of common themes cropped up quickly. If there’s a non-believer in your life who’s grieving a death, and you’re at a loss about what to say or do… these are some good places to start.
You don’t have to be creative about the wording. When people are stymied in the face of grief, often they say that they don’t just want to spout stock phrases. But some experiences are so common as to be near-universal, and it’s okay if the words you choose are common as well. At times in my life when I’ve been grieving, I heard versions of “I’m so sorry for your loss” probably hundreds of times… and every single one of them meant something to me.
“I remember when… / My life is so much better because of…” In the face of death and grief, we often have a reflex to shy away from discussing the person who died. We think it’ll be too painful, that it will make the loss too fresh or immediate.
But many grieving people say exactly the opposite. They want to hear stories about the person who died. They want to know that the person they love will be remembered, and missed. This is true for anyone — but it may be even more true for atheists. Atheists don’t generally believe in an afterlife: for us, the only thing we have that approaches immortality is the work we’ve done, the memories people have of us, the ways the world is different because we were here.
So tell stories. Talk about how the person who has died touched you. Talk about something sweet they did, something brave, something generous, something funny. Talk about how your life is better because they were here. Say how much you admired them. Say that you’ll miss them. (Assuming it’s true, of course.)
In the conversation on my blog, a commenter with the handle GRIM described the humanist funeral of their grandmother in a very positive way: “We were there to remember her as she was. We shared stories and anecdotes, acknowledged the role she’d played in our lives and we remembered her and that’s the best thing, I think. To be positive, to remember the good (and bad) and to know that the person had an influence on our lives.” Tamsin had a very specifically atheist and humanist take on this as well: “I was also very moved when one of Mum’s friends from her childhood told me that he didn’t feel that Mum was entirely gone — not in the sense of her spirit watching over us or whatever — but because he kept noticing bits of her — a turn of phrase, a facial expression, an aptitude, a firmly-held belief — in me and my sister.” When RedSonja spoke at her father’s funeral, “I shared something a friend had told me when I mentioned that I felt I could talk for hours, but we didn’t have that kind of time; she said ‘You were lucky to have had a father that you can speak of for hours with love. Not everyone does.’ And I talked about how Dad was still with us; in his books, his jokes, his family members.”
Dea commented, “When I lost my grandma last year, the most healing experience was talking with other people about their memories of her and especially their feelings about how she impacted the lives of those she loves. Because that is where the dead live on — in our hearts, our memories, and if it was family — our genes. Whenever I see a trait of my grandmother in one of my aunts, or even in myself, I wonder if that was part of the (obviously unconscious, but no less valued) inheritance she left to us. I find comfort in these thoughts.” Steve Bowen said that, when his father died, “the best and [most] memorable comments were from people who had known my father in situations we did not share in common; little anecdotes and insights into his character that made me smile and remember the living, loving, gregarious man he had been and left me feeling that I knew him even better than before.” Kemist said, “I lost my best friend to cancer this summer… For us, the thing that helped most was our being together, and our sharing our memories of my friend. Can you actually believe that we all laughed when her father told us of some silly stunt his daughter did?”
And Julia Burke told a story of keeping memories alive in a very down-to-earth way: “My mom’s beloved brother (“Ben”) died at 21 after a car accident; she was 17 and devastated. Among all the kind words, memorials, and events, one gift stood out. Ben’s girlfriend compiled a journal of his favorite book quotes, poems, passages, and stories, as well as material of his own; Ben was a gifted writer with a passionate love of language and literature, and the journal was packed with words that had touched him and words of his that had touched her over the years. Today, over forty years later, my mom can pick up the journal and enjoy her brother’s wit, intelligence, and sensitivity. And though her children never knew their would-be Uncle Ben, we can pick up the book and spend a little time with his memory — we even share many of the same favorite writers. I can’t imagine a better gift for a grieving person, atheist or otherwise. In the throes of a gut-wrenching loss, knowing that a loved one will always be remembered and that his or her passions, talents, and quirks touched many lives can be a powerful comfort — one rooted in this world and this life.”
“What can I do to help?” Grief can be exhausting. It can make it difficult to manage everyday tasks, such as cooking and cleaning. So make an offer of practical help: one that’s appropriate for your relationship. Nothing says “I care about you and am sincerely sorry for your loss” like vacuuming, babysitting, or making a pot of homemade soup and freezing it into a dozen Tupperwares.
When he spoke about his father’s death, BT Murtagh had nothing but praise for his father’s friends who would “cut my Mum’s grass, clean the rain gutters, all manner of small practicalities.” Sambarge said, “For a closer/good friend, I’d add meals delivered to the house, visits where I vacuum the floor and wash dishes and time spent just talking about the person or the weather or whatever the grieving person wants, basically.” Denise agreed: “If I know the person/family more closely, I’m inclined to lean more toward action anyway. What do they need? Are small children involved who could be babysat while attending to post-funeral stuff? Would a house cleaning service be helpful for a couple of months? How is the person/family faring with food, since cooking is not often on people’s minds at time of loss…?” And Don F said, “There were three things people said that I found the most useful when I was grieving my fiance’s death: ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ ‘I know there’s nothing I can say that will make you feel better.’ ‘Let me help by [doing something useful].’ Those useful things included taking care of my house and my children while I couldn’t, making sure I was eating well, and listening to me talk about what happened and what Bonnie had meant to me.”
Now, it’s important to be aware that not everyone will want this help. Some people find routine chores to be comforting during grief, giving both distraction and a sense of normality and continuity. But many others will want it, and need it. And it’s a good idea to make the offer of help as concrete and specific as possible. As Grief Beyond Belief founder Rebecca Hensler pointed out, “Sometimes, particularly in the first days of grief, answering the question, ‘What can I do to help?’ can itself be a burden. Offering to do a particular task, for example, ‘Can I come by and pick up your laundry?’ avoids the moment of panic when the grieving person realizes that she can’t even remember what needs to be done, much less do it. Keep in mind as well that a person grieving a spouse is often forced to take on that spouse’s responsibilities in the midst of grief. For example, if your grieving friend’s wife was the one who always dealt with automobile maintenance, temporarily taking over car-related tasks may be most helpful.”
“This sucks.” All too often, people who are trying to console the bereaved go overboard trying to offer consolation, perspective, philosophies and insights that might somehow magically make the grief disappear. It’s an understandable impulse: someone you care about is in pain, you want to take that pain away.
But when someone is grieving, and the people they care about keep framing the death as not such a terrible thing after all? That really doesn’t help. It can make it seem as if you’re trivializing the death, and the depths of their grief. It can wind up making you the center of attention instead of them, prioritizing your desire to be the bringer of solace over their need to just go through their grief. And it can make it seem as if you don’t want to deal with it: like you’re trying to make their pain go away, so you don’t have to look at it. As katiehartman said, “Don’t recite platitudes that are meant to minimize or ‘give meaning’ to the death. Just don’t. Philosophizing can feel shallow, distant, or like an attempt to move on to another topic.”
So let them grieve already. Let them know that you know how bad they feel. Let them know that feeling bad is entirely normal and reasonable, and that you have compassion and understanding for just how lousy they feel. As Saro Jane said, “For me, the most comforting was simple and along the lines of ‘I’m so sorry, that really sucks. I’m thinking about you.’ Acknowledge that the loss is sad and shitty, let me know you care and are thinking of me. Done.” And w_nightshade concurred: “My best friend (also a non-believer) lost his father last year. He said afterwards that what he wanted to hear more than anything was ‘That fucking sucks.’ An acknowledgement that he was hurting, and that was his right.
Just listen. Jonathan said this perfectly on my blog, so I’m just going to quote him: “I think people obsess about the proper thing to say, when the real issue is figuring out the proper way to listen. The reality is that if someone is grieving, you don’t have to say anything. In fact, there’s nothing you can say that will make things better. If some one is grieving, all they need to know is that you understand their grief, that you empathize with what their going through, and that you’re willing to shut the hell up long enough to let them express their grief.”
Again: If you go too far trying to offer comforts and consolations, it can start to seem like you’re making it all about you. This can especially be true when religious believers offer religious comforts to atheists. It becomes less about the atheist’s grief and the ways they’re struggling to manage it within their own world view, and more about the believer being wrapped up in their own beliefs… or worse, using the vulnerability of grief as an opportunity to proselytize. What’s more, too much consolation can start to seem like you’re trying to shut the grieving person up.
So listen. Let them talk. Ask questions about how they’re doing… and listen to the answers, really listen, for as long as they want to talk. As anteprepro said, “There may not be a need to shove platitudes down their throats at all, you may just need to let them get things off their chest without reflexively trying to get them to minimize their sadness in the name of comforting them.” And as Axxyaan said, “They have a right to feel as awful as they do and if that makes you feel uncomfortable, bear it or leave. Don’t give in to the urge to fill up the silence. Just being there for the other in silence is often more comforting than whatever you say.”
Offer company. Grief can be very isolating. Especially when the person who died was a spouse, child, or someone else very close to the bereaved person, who they saw every day or were in regular contact with. So offers of company — a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on, meaningful activities, silly distractions, depending on the person and your relationship with them — can make a huge difference. Helen said it very well on my blog: “After 1-2 weeks, start actively inviting the mourning person over for a glass of wine and a chat, or for going together for a swim, or whatever quiet activity you used to do once in a while together (especially if they lost their spouse or someone they were sharing their life with on a daily basis). Don’t be offended if they say no because it’s too early, and don’t insist by saying ‘But you have to get back to normal’, but keep calling once in a while.”
Keep offers of assistance going, even after the initial shock of the death has worn off. There’s an all-too-common pattern that many bereaved people report. There’s a huge outpouring of help and support in the first days and weeks after a loved one dies, sometimes even more than they can manage… and then, as the weeks wear on, the help dwindles. But people’s grief, and their difficulty managing their lives as a result of it, can last long after the initial loss and shock. Sierra said this very well: “Everyone asked how I was holding up the first week, the first month. A couple of years later, only a few, select people ask me that, and it means a hell of a lot more now than it did then, because it’s an acknowledgment that losing my family still sucks.” And Alice agreed: “Call or check in on people after the memorial service, and keep doing it over the course of the first year, when all of the ‘first snowfall without ___’ moments will hit.”
So remember to stay in touch, and to keep offering help, even after the first few weeks. A dozen Tupperwares of frozen homemade soup the week after someone dies: that’s very good indeed. A dozen Tupperwares of frozen homemade soup three months after someone dies — that’s beyond awesome.
And very importantly:
Let the grieving person grieve in their own way. There isn’t one right way to grieve. Different people do it differently. Some people take some time to intensely experience and process their grief; others quickly plunge into work and other distractions. Some people are somber; others handle their emotions with morbid humor. Some people get overwhelmed by their emotions; others distance themselves from them. Some people feel especially sad at anniversaries or birthdays; others barely notice these landmarks, but get upset when some small thing happens to remind them of the person who died, or when some momentous new occasion happens that they wish they could share. (I’m not sure I even remember my mom’s birthday anymore… but when Ingrid and I got married, it made me intensely sad that Mom couldn’t be there, and that the two of them would never get to meet.) If the relationship with the dead person was complicated, some people will focus on remembering the good things, while others will get angry over past hurts, or be filled with disappointment over lost opportunities. Etc.
None of these is wrong. So take your cues from the grieving person themselves. If they’re crying, hold their hand and let them cry. If they seem exhausted and overwhelmed, offer practical help. If they’re railing against the injustice of the universe, rail with them. If they’re making sick jokes, laugh. And if you’re having a hard time reading their cues, just ask them flat-out, “What do you need?” Offer multiple options: “Do you need a shoulder to cry on? Do you need help around the house? Do you need someone to take you out to a dumb movie to get your mind off things? Let me know.” As Sylvia Sybil said, “I’ve found ‘How have you been doing?’ to be a good question… It allows the mourner to either segue into discussion of the death and their feelings, or to talk about the less personal activities of their daily lives, as they please.”
What’s more, some people will go through some or all of these experiences at different times in their grieving process. And different people go through grief at different paces. Most grieving people say that grief never goes away entirely — my own mother died over thirty years ago, and I still have moments when her absence from my life hurts like major surgery. But some people manage the worst of it quickly, and are functioning in their everyday lives fairly soon after the death. Other people need more time to return to their routine. And again, none of these is wrong.
If you’re concerned that someone’s grief is triggering serious clinical depression — if exhaustion is shading into paralysis and torpor, if someone’s life is seriously disintegrating and they aren’t managing it at all — that’s different. That may well call for some sort of intervention, depending on your relationship. But don’t go the “Sheesh, it’s been three months/ six months/ a year, and you still haven’t gotten over it, what’s wrong with you?” route. There’s no reason that your timetable should be their timetable. And again, it can read as if you’re uncomfortable with their grief, and are trying to make it go away so you don’t have to deal with it.
So does it seem as if this advice doesn’t just apply to atheists? Does it seem as if most, if not all, of these guidelines would be just as useful when dealing with religious believers who are grieving? Does all this seem like just ordinary human compassion, with some common sense and understanding of human nature applied?
If so — yes. You’re absolutely right. Human beings are human, and while atheists and believers do commonly have very different approaches and philosophies about life and death, we’re still the same species, with the same basic set of emotions. And in fact, many grief counselors advise that, even if a bereaved person has religious beliefs, it’s not always a good idea to bring them up when they’re in the depths of their grief. Even for someone who does believe in Heaven or a divine plan, it can seem trivializing and dismissive to hear “You’ll see them again soon enough” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
So if you’re wondering what to say to grieving non-believers? Say exactly what you’d say to grieving believers. Just leave out anything you might say about God, or souls, or an afterlife… and let us know that you want to help us, and that you’re sorry for our loss, and that we’re not alone.