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What to Say When Someone Dies?

My grandmother died today – she was 97 years old and had been on the decline for some time. She had also endured a very low quality of life for years (once saying, “How long is this going to go on?”), not being able to move or read or feed or bathe herself – so her death comes more as a relief than as a shock. At work today when I told a colleague about this, they said “May her soul rest in peace”.

Awkward silence followed.

I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who’s faced this problem, so I thought I’d pen down my thoughts on what to say – for believers talking to atheists, as well as atheists talking to believers.

First, do say something – don’t remain silent. Any awkwardness you feel is irrelevant. This is not about your feelings – it’s about the feelings of the person who’s lost a loved one. Even a heartfelt oh fuck – i.e. expressing shock – is better than saying nothing.

My mother died several years ago. That death was particularly raw and painful for me, as (a) she was my mother, and (b) she died of cancer and this involved suffering. I still have the emails my friends and relatives sent me back then. Here are some snippets from the emails I appreciated:

Sunil – Extremely saddened to hear about this. Both __ & I express our condolences and hope you and your dad are ok (or as ok one can get given the circumstance). Let me know when I should call you; I’m tempted to right now, but I won’t. (I had asked people not to call.)

 

Sunil you have been so much in our thoughts these last few weeks, knowing that the news you sent this morning would finally arrive, but that death, however long expected, still comes as a terrible and painful shock. We are so very sorry.

 

I am just not sure what should I write to you. I am just thinking aloud with you and just trying to feel your feeling. This is what our life is, ups and downs, birth and death. Though we tell each other “we have to face it”, but I can feel few things are so so very much hard to face. (This person also wrote “may her soul” etc., but there was enough substance in the email for it not to matter.)

 

Hi Sunil, really sorry to hear about your mom, didn’t know what to write all these days. I hope you, your dad and sister are ok.

 

Sunil, we are very sorry.  I don’t have any words of condolence, I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now. You have ALL our support.

 

And here are 2 emails which I did NOT appreciate. Both these friends were Christians, and subsequently, I mentally “downgraded” our friendship:

Dear sunil, I know you claim to be not much of a believer in God but at this moment I don’t know what else to say – may the comfort and peace of God be with you and your family during this really difficult time. Take care.

 

I have no idea what to say except that I would like to share with you a piece that I read out at my Nana’s memorial service. Its a beautiful piece and somehow it does bring one immense solace. (The rest of the email comprised of the poem Death is Nothing at All, which offers solace by saying that there is an afterlife, and ends with the line: “How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”.)

 

So basically I think the thing to do is, express empathy and acknowledge the person’s loss – that this is a horrible thing that’s happened to them. That’s pretty much it. What you should NOT do when giving condolences to an atheist is bring gods into it. Gods don’t exist, so you’re not helping us at all with that.

What about the reverse – what should an atheist say to a grieving believer? Once a colleague of mine lost their father, also to cancer. I sent them a message saying something like My condolences __, I lost my mom to cancer so I have some idea of what you’re going through. They messaged back saying Thanks Sunil, let us pray for his soul. I didn’t reply any further, which I think was all right – you don’t need to lie about your beliefs, but you don’t need to bring them up either. There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it. I heard another good example recently, from an atheist friend who was speaking to the mother of someone who had died. The mother explicitly asked if my friend was an atheist too and said that there was indeed a supernatural power. My friend didn’t react to that – “I listened quietly to whatever she said”. Again, I think this is the right approach.

If you have any tips on what to say and what not to say, feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. katybe says

    I don’t think I’ve commented on your blog before, although occasionally chip-in elsewhere on FTB, so if you accept virtual hugs from a total stranger, *hugs*, and if not, my condolences on your loss. As an antidote to the poem shared by one of your acquaintances, I spent a lot of time hunting for a poem to read at my grandfather’s funeral which did NOT contain any suggestion of an afterlife. This (available online with both he and she in the words) was what I found – http://en.thinkexist.com/quotation/you-can-shed-tears-that-she-is-gone-or-you-can/763356.html and almost 7 years later, I still find it helps to re-read it periodically, and if it can give you any comfort in the coming weeks and months, I’d like to share it.

  2. says

    I’m sorry for your loss, Sunil, and I’m glad your grandmother’s not hurting and unhappy anymore. I’ll offer the Internet hugs, if wanted, as well.

    I usually just listen to what they have to say, and answer accordingly. If the deceased was suffering and unhappy, then I acknowledge that and express sympathy at their and the bereaved’s understandable mix of grief at a life lost, and relief at suffering ended. If it was sudden or unexpected, then just sympathy. Physical assistance if they need it; if they’re someone who would struggle to do housework, I might go do some dishes while visiting or something, if they’re okay with it.

    And yeah, if they’re religious, then just be gentle and empathetic and smile and nod when they say about the magic woo-woo and how it makes it all better. It’s not my place to rip a crutch out from under someone’s arm when they’re actually using it. I’m happy to have the “why it’s all bunk” chat, but not then. It would be just as inappropriate then as those last two messages you got were.

    I think I might have said “I hope your faith brings you comfort” in response to a bereaved person seeking support about their beliefs.

  3. busterggi says

    I generally stick with, “I’m sorry to hear that” and give a nod & a ‘thank you” to those expressing religious condolences as long as they don’t go overboard (see people, I can too be polite if I have to). I’d take a while for me to respond to those last two emails you quoted, I’d have been pissed but would wait it out even if it took a few decades.

    Lucky most people don’t know much of what to say in those circumstances so its kept brief.

  4. Tecolata says

    Just “I’m sorry for you loss” or “my deepest sympathy on the loss of your ____”. They work for atheists or belivers and express the speaker’s sympathy for the grieving person. No assumptions needed.

  5. prema says

    I am sorry for your loss sunil.. I do not know if I have spoken to you before or not but believe me loss of a loved one is definitely a loss which is irreplacable whether believers or not. I like the thought expressed by you in your blog and this line says it al… //There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it.//

  6. Onamission5 says

    People I have a connection to, I usually tell them I am very sorry and tell them I will be there if they need anything, at any point, even if it’s to talk about anything other than their loved one, or cry, or have someone sit in silence with them on the phone. People with whom I do not have a close connection, it’s a similar thing– I am very sorry for your loss, if it would help to share your stories about your loved one, know you have a caring ear, if not, then know you are in my thoughts.

  7. Anand R says

    Dear Sunil,

    I would like to know what is atheism according to you?
    I have met many people who claim to be atheists, but instead of being independently thoughtful, they cling to the ideas of some others. A theist accepts scriptures and an atheist though rejecting scriptures, accepts some others who are in no way better than scriptures, even empirically. Atheism has/ is becoming a popular religion in itself but just God is missing and we keep ourselves at the center. The disastrous consequence of this religion (the popular culture of atheism) can be discussed at length in some other forum, but if you feel inclined just let me know what according to you, is ATHEISM?
    As a theist, I accept scriptures. I don’t have any objection for your being an atheist, its purely your choice. but since the discussion has come i am writing.
    With best wishes,
    Dr Anand

  8. gwen says

    “would like to know what is atheism according to you?”–It simply means lack of a belief in any gods. Period.
    “I have met many people who claim to be atheists, but instead of being independently thoughtful, they cling to the ideas of some others”—and your point being???
    ” A theist accepts scriptures and an atheist though rejecting scriptures, accepts some others who are in no way better than scriptures, even empirically.” See above. Atheists don’t believe in gods.
    ” Atheism has/ is becoming a popular religion in itself but just God is missing and we keep ourselves at the center.” –Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color, your statement makes no sense.
    “The disastrous consequence of this religion (the popular culture of atheism) can be discussed at length in some other forum, but if you feel inclined just let me know what according to you, is ATHEISM?” I repeat. Lack of belief in gods.
    “As a theist, I accept scriptures. I don’t have any objection for your being an atheist, its purely your choice. but since the discussion has come i am writing.”–who in the heck are you to ‘object’ to someone being an atheist? Most atheist started out as theist, and the difference is usually that we read your damned scripture instead of picking and choosing the touchy feel, feel good parts.
    “With best wishes,
    Dr Anand”—and fuck you too.

  9. says

    I didn’t see this until now. It’s probably better because what’s below might not have been appreciated at the time (or now, if I’m putting my foot in it).

    When people die, the hard part is saying something positive to those grieving without ending up sounding like a jerk, as if one were saying “death is no big deal”. I don’t know what’s worse, saying something unintentionally hurtful, or saying nothing and leaving the person feel like no one cares.

    One thing I tell grieving friends is, “It hurts now, but your pain is a sign of how much you loved the person. Pain can be turned into memories. If it didn’t hurt, it might turn into regret.” That’s something which can apply as much to believers as to atheists. People I’ve said it to usually appreciate it.

    Another one I heard which applies to you is the buddhist “blessing”: ‘father dies, son dies, grandson dies’. It sounds bad at first, but it’s the natural order of life. When old people die, it’s sad but inevitable, a good, long life the best we can hope for. When young people die before their parents, it’s a tragedy, especially when children die.

  10. kothapalli ravibabu says

    As atheists we can send a message expressing sadness to hear the sad news and congratulating the survivors for not following the ageold superstitious rituals for the dead body. We can advise him to hold a commemorative or condolence meeting wherein friends and relatives express their feelings about the deceased.

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