A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what not to say to people after they have suffered a personal loss or a tragedy, and some of you added your own suggestions. But this does raise the difficult question of what we, as nonbelievers, can and should say to such people that might give them some comfort at such a difficult time.
Recently, I met an old acquaintance, not a close friend, after a lapse of over thirty years when she was visiting her son in the US. About a month later, I got an email from a mutual friend saying that my acquaintance’s husband (whom she had told me was terminally ill but I had never met) had died. Here is what I wrote:
I just heard from ___ that your husband had passed away.
I am so sorry to hear the news. I know that it was not unexpected but such losses are never easy to bear and I hope you find comfort and solace from your family and friends.
It seems somehow inadequate. I could have gone on and written more words but it would not have added much, I don’t think.
Atheist Susan Jacoby had an opinion piece on death and atheism in the New York Times that touches on this issue. She talked about the famous nonbeliever Robert Ingersoll who died in 1899:
He also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest … The dead do not suffer.”
Finally, we need to show up at gravesides, as Ingersoll did, to offer whatever consolation we can.
In his speech at an interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, President Obama observed that “the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning?” He could easily have amended that to “the world’s religions and secular philosophies.” He could have said something like, “Whether you are religious or nonreligious, may you find solace in the knowledge that the suffering is ours, but that those we love suffer no more.”
Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but “only perfect rest.”
While we atheists may have come to terms with, and even rejoice in, the fact that there is no afterlife, it is not clear that conveying that intellectual message is the best thing to tell grieving people. So one thing that I do not do is try and disabuse a grieving mother who sobs to me that that she consoles herself with the fact that at least her child is now with Jesus. I just hug her and say nothing.
I am certain that everyone reading that has encountered the same problem that I have on such occasions, of trying to comfort religious people while not uttering falsehoods. What do you tell them?