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Jan 08 2013

What should you say to someone after a tragedy or loss?

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:

Dear ___,

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.

Take care,

Mano

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?

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Geis

    Edith Keeler: Why does Spock call you “Captain”? Were you in the war together?
    Capt. Kirk: We… served together.
    Edith Keeler: And you, um, don’t want to talk about it? Why? Oh. Did you… did you do something wrong? Are you afraid of something? Whatever it is, let me help.
    Capt. Kirk: “Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.”
    - – - “Star Trek” The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)

    And here it is. Here is what we can do. Not just say we love them but actually be there to help them.

  2. 2
    Mara

    I know it seems inadequate, but you did exactly the right thing. There are no words that would make things better, and you’ve avoided saying anything dumb, which is what inevitably happens to all of us when we keep talking.

    My rule is that when someone tells me something bad has happened, I say “I’m so sorry to hear that” (or some variation thereof) and then I shut up and let them talk. I do what I can to help, I try to listen if they need to talk, but I don’t try to come up with words to make things better, because that just leads to foot-in-mouth disease.

    I learned this, by the way, during years of infertility and two terrible pregnancies, when well-meaning people said some of the stupidest things you can imagine to me, all in the name of trying to help. If they’d just said, “Wow, I’m so sorry to hear you’re having trouble getting pregnant” then all would have been well.

  3. 3
    Thorne

    If they’d just said, “Wow, I’m so sorry to hear you’re having trouble getting pregnant” then all would have been well.

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure that, “Anything I can do to help?” would have worked in that case, would it?

  4. 4
    Blueaussi

    I’ll second what Mara said…shut up and let the other person talk. If you have a positive memory to share, that’s great, otherwise, be a good listener. Let the other person guide the conversation where they need it to go.

  5. 5
    axxyaan

    I am thirding Mara. Too often people want to say something to take the pain away and end up saying something that implies the loss isn’t that serious somehow.

    People who suffered a loss don’t need someone to take away their pain. They need someone that acknowledges the validy of their suffering. So unless you share the pain, your priority is to listen and to show you understand why they are griefing.

  6. 6
    richardrobinson

    When a close christian friend of mine lost her little brother tragically, I told her a story about how he and I got to the church on her wedding day. Just a happy little story about her brother that she hadn’t heard before.

  7. 7
    Joanna

    I usually remind them of the comfort that memories bring, and acknowledge something about THEM that is better for having had the person in their lives, even if it’s just the way the deceased made them smile. I acknowledge with them the pain they are feeling and the grief ahead, and then remind them that the love they feel and the impact the person had on their lives is what life is all about. That person’s life had meaning and purpose in all the lives s/he touched, all the laughter s/he caused, all the hugs s/he shared.

  8. 8
    Dunc

    Mara has it exactly right. In the face of death, words are always inadequate.

    Joanna’s suggestions are very good too.

  9. 9
    Mara

    Yup, exactly. And all those well-meaning people wanted to help, so they said things like “I’m sure if you just relax, it’ll happen”.

    Which, by the way, happens to be the #1 worst thing to say to someone dealing with infertility. Well, okay, I suppose it’s #2 after “It’ll happen when God wills it.”

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