Dealing with religious grief

I recently heard that an old college friend of mine’s husband had died in Sri Lanka so I called her twice, once just after the funeral and then again a few weeks later. My friend is a lovely, gentle, generous person who is also a very religious evangelical Christian. When I reached her soon after the funeral, I learned that her husband had been in excellent health and had gone in for routine bypass surgery and, from what she described to me, seemed to have been the victim of a surgical misadventure.

Clearly the death had come as a huge shock to her. One does not know what to say on such occasions because how can you console someone who has suffered such a sudden and tragic loss? I mumbled the usual platitudes but I really did not have to say much because my friend spoke almost the entire time and almost all of it was about how god had some mysterious plan for them that required him to suddenly take the life of her husband and that she was thankful to god for her husband having had so many years of life and that she was confident that god would give her and her children the strength to overcome their sorrow. She was sure that there was some benevolent plan in operation even if she could not understand why god would take her husband’s life away so suddenly. I have learned on such occasions to simply listen and murmur occasional words of consolation and that seems sufficient.

This whole business of everything being part of god’s plan can be a dangerous idea in some hands. It is used by some people as an excuse to not do anything they do not want to do because they can say that if god wanted something different, he would do it. For example, it is used by some politicians to argue that we need not to do anything to combat global warming since god would not let the Earth be destroyed. It is also used by some to draw hateful conclusions from random events, such as arguing that some weather calamity is god’s punishment for the occurrence of some particular sin. The idea of everything being part of god’s plan can also cause some people to rage against god when a senseless tragedy happens and lose their faith.

But there is no doubt that some religious people feel greatly reassured by the idea that their lives are controlled by something other than themselves. This is the great appeal of religion that enables it to keep its grip on people’s imagination.

This poses a problem for atheists. Should one try and disabuse people of such beliefs? I think it depends on the time and place. I would not dream of having such a discussion when people are going through a crisis such as my friend. But when I met her and another evangelical friend a few years ago in happier times, we did discuss religion because they were surprised and saddened by the fact that I, the close religious friend they had known in college, had become an atheist. We discussed religion quite openly and parted amicably without having changed any minds. So when my friend spoke to me about her husband’s death as being part of god’s plan, she knew I did not believe any such thing. But it did not matter. At such times, people want an outlet for their emotions and a chance to express their grief and just need someone who will listen to them, not discuss deep theological questions.


  1. says

    My reaction to someone grieving is to put the focus of the conversation on them and ignore the religious bunk. “I’m calling because I care/am concerned about you.” It generally goes over well except with those who see grief as a chance to proselytize or -- strangely -- those who actually want the attention that grief brings.

    Others reading may think of better ways to handle such situations. But it is hardly the worst thing to do to make it clear one is concerned about the grieving person’s well being and comforting them.

  2. doublereed says

    When tragic things happen, it’s all the more important that we bond together as humans in times of grief. Speaking of politics or religion in disagreement isn’t really appropriate.

    The whole idea of God’s plan is blatant Just-World Hypothesis. How one could take that as any consolation confuses me, but whatever. People grieve differently.

  3. Matt G says

    Apparently the Planned Parenthood shooter had a “I’m a believer so God will forgive anything I do” view.

    I met a woman while out rowing this summer. She is intelligent and well educated (and a retired educator). He brother-in-law died toward the end of the summer, and she just went on and on about him being in heaven, etc. it really threw me because I didn’t expect it from someone like her.

  4. cweigold says

    I’m still waiting for god to smite the US with a natural disaster for legalizing same-sex marriage. At first I thought it might take the form of a hurricane, but we just closed out a very mild season. I figure we’re due for a doozy of a smiting though, so localized disasters won’t cut it. Do you think we’ll have to wait until next hurricane season? By then the whole thing will be old news and it seems like any smiting would be a little too late to be effective.

  5. says

    I’ve had several friends bereaved in the last 6 months; it’s been educational to say the least. One of the things I’ve realized is that loss is fractally detailed -- the bereaved has not simply lost a husband, they’ve lost their breakfast companion, their conversation in the bathroom, their dinner at the favorite italian place every friday night… It’s not even a good idea to say “I sympathize for your loss” because, literally, it is impossible for any of us to even understand a grieving person’s loss. Every one appears different because they are -- endlessly so.

    So I’ve switched to doing service, almost penitentially. Your ex-husband used to be responsible for cleaning up the dog poo? I’ll take dog poo duty for a year. You can’t fill in the hole another person leaves but you can fill in one of the little holes and that’s a way to try to understand, to help them suddenly not have the 10,000 things of loss plus the dog poo to worry about. I don’t say, “I sympathize” anymore, I ask “is there some collection of tasks I can offload for you for a while?” Keep it practical; keep moving forward.

    One other thing I learned is not to read facebook pages about anyone’s loss. There’s where the religious predators and posturers pose their plumage and prance proprietarily. “I’ll pray for you” and “god in his infinite wisdom…” etc. I had to bite back my natural urge to point out that god’s plan is pretty fucking goofy if pancreatic cancer is an integral dependency for its fulfillment. Don’t comment back, “Prayer? That’s great. You’ve managed to figure out something you can ‘do’ that takes no effort, makes you feel good about yourself, and doesn’t comfort the bereaved in the slightest. Go you!”

  6. Numenaster says

    A friend of mine is a practicing clinical psychologist, and I raised this question to her once. She said that criticizing something that brings people comfort is dicey, and that it should be avoided at times of particular stress. So even though I personally found my atheism helped me cope with the loss of my spouse, when I’m talking with a bereaved person I focus on our common experience and not the coping mechanism (unless it’s one we share).

    I say “my atheism helped me” because it kept me from wasting any time trying to figure out how god’s plan for my life could encompass being a full-time caregiver and then having my care-recipient up and die on me. I didn’t have to try to rationalize it, and I truly believe that helped me just get on with the feeling-like-crap part of grieving.

  7. hexidecima says

    IMO, one should always disabuse theists of this nonsense. They excuse their god just like any other good terrified sycophant would a despot. This leads to the other action noted, because they convince themselves that this god has some plan and anything they do is going to further it.

  8. John Morales says


    IMO, one should always disabuse theists of this nonsense.

    I share your general sentiment, but I entirely endorse what Mano wrote: “I think it depends on the time and place.”, with the addendum that the methodology also matters.

    Inappropriate counter-proselytising is counter-productive, since it triggers psychological reactance and thus hardens their stance.

    And, though I’ll never be considered particularly kind or empathetic, I’m sufficiently so that I think the most important thing one can do for someone in traumatised by bereavement is to offer what comfort one can, even if it means appeasing their religious conviction.

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