In September, my grandmother passed away. Although I lost a grandfather when I was very young, this is the closest relative I’ve lost in my adult life. Although I’ve thought, read, and even taught about death, this was a stark refresher course on what it’s like to experience the grieving process a little more closely, and it was definitely a different experience as an adult than it was as a child.
Although I don’t remember my grandfather’s wake very well, I do remember the car ride home and a huge faux pax on my part. I was sitting in the back seat and told my parents that it had been a fun party we had been at with all of the relatives. I still remember the shock I saw on my mom’s face as she explained that it wasn’t exactly a party.
This time around, I had a much firmer grasp on what had happened, and as I told people in my life about her passing, I realized that some people didn’t know quite what to say to me. The sentiment I kept hearing most was:
“She’s in a better place now.”
“It’s part of God’s plan.”
Those who know I am an atheist tried to express express a different sentiment, but some were clearly having trouble relating to me and understanding what it is they could possibly say to me to make me feel better. I can also attest that hearing these religious sentiments not only wasn’t comforting, but just made me feel further apart from those expressing them. I’m here to share a few suggestions in case there’s an atheist in your life that you might need to know how to comfort one day. Bonus: These work for everyone, not just atheists!
1. I’m Sorry For Your Loss
Simple and obvious, but this can be overlooked. Telling someone you’re sorry for their loss can be powerful. It acknowledges that you see their pain and can sympathize with what they’re going through. It’s simple and straight-forward, but meaningful.
2. Open Communication
It’s ok to be honest and to ask questions. You can ask if there’s anything you can do for the person. Ask that person how they feel. We all deal with grief differently, and rather than trying to explain how you think they feel or ought to feel, just allow them the opportunity to share for themselves how they’re feeling. Being able to express one’s grief is an important part of dealing with it. Don’t be fake. If you’re uncomfortable, tell them you’re uncomfortable. I would rather someone tell me that they’re not sure what to tell me than to avoid me or just feed me cliches.
3. Just Be There
Just having other people around is comforting. Knowing that others care about you enough to be there is helpful. Silence is ok during grief.
4. Share (Good) Memories of the Deceased
Usually sharing good memories should be obvious, but if the deceased went through a long drawn out death, others that dealt with it may feel the need to share some of the experiences of the death in order to process their own grief. If they need to do that, let them. But do your best to offer up positive memories of the deceased. Do you have funny stories about them? Did they impact your life somehow? Share those. It’s important to really remember the person and getting to hear the impact that they’ve had on others can be extremely uplifting.
5. The Deceased Can Live On…
This likely sounds contradictory, but I simply mean that they person can live on through the impact they’ve made on the world and those who were a part of their life. A person doesn’t have to literally live on forever in order to live on through the actions they’ve taken while they were alive. My grandmother raised three children who all went on to have their own children, and we have all been impacted in many ways by the way she lived her life. Help an atheist reflect on the ways that their loved one will continue to impact the world even though they’re no longer a part of it.
I think the most beautiful passage I’ve ever read relating to atheism and death was by Carl Sagan’s wife:
“Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
The way we treat others while we live is so much more important than the idea we will see each other again someday…
I think that’s a thought we could all benefit from by meditating on it daily.
If you’d like more information, the Facebook group Grief Beyond Belief has developed into a strong support group for atheists dealing with grief.