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.