Handling Someone’s Death with Dignity

Reddit user hecatin heard that a friend’s mom passed away. In the midst of people saying (on Facebook) that they’d pray for the friend’s family, hecatin offered something different and poignant:

Beautiful.

To paraphrase some commenters on Reddit, I’m going to remember that line… but I hope I never have to use it.

(Thanks to Eli for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://atheistreadsbible.blogspot.com/ Jude

    A few days ago I became so SICK of the term “passed away” that I told myself, “I’m going to unsubscribe from any blog that uses that term.”  Since then you’ve used it twice, darn it all, so I had to back away from my pledge.  What is wrong with the word “died”?  Not all euphemisms offend me.  When I die you can say she “kicked the bucket” if you can’t stand to use the term “died.”  But I refuse to pass away or pass on to another fictional world. 

    • Rachelannmiller

      My husband feels the same way about “lost”, as in “She lost her sister/mother/husband.”

      He always asks if they looked under the bed.

      • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

        I save that one for the “Have you found Jesus” types.

        “Lost” is actually kind of a good descriptor, and doesn’t seem supernaturally charged to me.

      • rhodent

        Reminds me of one exchange in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”:

        Lady Bracknell.  Are your parents
        living?

        Jack.  I have lost both my parents.

        Lady Bracknell.  To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing,
        may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like
        carelessness.

    • Vanessa

      Agree. Also in response to “I hope I’ll never have to use it” are you hoping to die before anyone else does?

      • Anonymous

        Given that the one fact of life is that everybody dies, saying “I hope I never have to use it” does sound like another retreat into unreality.  How about “I hope I don’t have to use it anytime soon.”

    • Anonymous

      “Passed away”  implies there is somewhere “away” to pass to.  So probably this is an inappropriate phrase to express what an atheist believes happened to the deceased.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      I don’t care for “passed away,” but it doesn’t bother me too much. People can  “pass away” into nothingness. I absolutely loathe “passed on” or “passed,” though. Those both reek of supernaturalism to me.

    • Anonymous

      Personally, though I have the same distaste for it, I also find myself occasionally slipping and using it. It’s as ingrained into the language as Christian expletives are lol.

      It’s better to avoid, I think, but not to be too angry when you hear it.

    • Matthew Taylor

      I used to feel the same way. Then my mother died; my brother rang me at two in the morning to tell me and used the phrase ‘mum has passed on’.

      In that moment, I was glad not to hear the word died. It was too final, too raw and too soon.

      Sometimes, a softer way to convey a harsh truth is very appropriate.

      • Bill

        For a time after my brother died, I found it much easier to say “he passed away” rather than “he died”. When I said passed away, I could be relatively certain I wouldn’t break out in tears. The expression was remote enough. Now that several years have passed, I can tell people he died.

    • ACN

      I hate euphemisms for death. It smacks of a bizarre superstition that saying “to die” or its conjugations etc somehow brings on death.

  • http://littlelioness.net Fiona

    I like it. Thank you. 

  • http://thephantomexpresscard.blogspot.com Tressa

    I usually say “I am sorry for your loss and happy for your memories”.

  • http://twitter.com/meyekael Meyekael

    hecatin’s response is warm and sincere whereas the other has all the warmth of a store-bought sympathy card.

  • Anonymous

    It kind of ties into a quote attributed (though unconfirmed) to the Roman warrior philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will
    not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the
    virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you
    should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be
    gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories
    of your loved ones.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=645690699 Rachel Holierhoek

    I say that I am sorry for their loss and may their cherished memories be a comfort now and always.   

  • mike

    FTW!!!  I recently lost a step mother, and I said something nice and comforting and secular but nowhere near that.  I got to call my dad now.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I have never understood how offering prayer in response to
    death can be comforting. The offering is a sterilized mechanical response, in
    my opinion equally as empty, meaningless, and involuntary as blessings
    given following a sneeze. Hecaten’s reply felt sincere and poignantly
    acknowledges the worth of the person who died, the warmth of its sentiments provide more comfort than all prayer combined.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I usually ask the bereaved person if there are things I can do for them during the often chaotic time immediately following their loved one’s death.  Simple favors like running  an errand, making phone calls, fixing a meal, or taking the kids off their hands for a few hours can be an enormous relief when there are so many things to do.  Having so many  scattered emotions coming up all at once that can make simple tasks seem too much to handle.  Atheists focus on life in the real world, so we can be quite good at
    anticipating and handling real world problems.

    • Anonymous

      I second this; I offer similar advice myself. I remember when my grandfather was gone, my parents needed all the help they could get just for everyday things like cooking or cleaning… the best thing you can do for a friend is to be there, and help take care of the little necessities, so that your friend will have the time they need.

    • ACN

      I usually ask the bereaved person if there are things I can do for them during the often chaotic time immediately following their loved one’s death.

      This. A thousand times this.
      I studied some death/dying stuff in undergrad, and this is overwhelmingly what friends/relatives of the bereaved want and need. Tangible expressions of your love and support for them, not hollow platitudes and words.

    • http://disienai.tumblr.com/ Semipermeable

      This exactly, and like I have said before, it is important to continue to do these things and be supportive even after the funeral. Every holiday and important event without that person can be a new source of grief, and a real friend remembers that and is there with a phone call, cards, an open ear and helpful deeds.

  • Phil Bellerive

    As someone who’s been through this drill several times over the past few y

    • Anonymous

      Really, you don’t.  If someone you were close to dies there is really no reason to put up with the empty comments of those who insist on thrusting their deity in your face when you are grieving.  Also you are more likely to be forgiven if you have a good reason to be upset.

    • http://twitter.com/gordongoblin Gordon

      where they are coming from might be well intentioned, but it might also be a “ah ha, you’ll turn to god now” – especially if the person knows you are an atheist.

    • Anonymous

      Everyone that knows me knows that I’m an Atheist. Saying they’ll remember me in their prayers would feel like a slap in the face and I would tell as much.

    • Anonymous

      Everyone that knows me knows that I’m an Atheist. Saying they’ll remember me in their prayers would feel like a slap in the face and I would tell as much.

  • Anonymous

    Personally I am disgusted by offers of prayers.  They are vacuous statements that offer no comfort whatsoever and they impose their deity into your grief.  I’d much rather than a “thinking of you” or “I’m sorry for your loss”.  Better yet an “is there anything I can do?” is actually helpful even if there isn’t anything that they can do beyond putting the kettle on or sparing five minutes for a chat.

  • Carlie

    Actually, asking if there is anything you can do for them or saying “if you need anything, call me”  is almost as useless as offering to pray – most everyone will say no, that’s ok, we’re doing fine. No one wants to actually ask someone to do something for them. Better to offer a specific thing. For example, “I’m going to drop off some dinners you can freeze later this week if that’s ok”, or “I’d like to take the kids over to my house for the afternoon” etc. Everyone has the same basic needs, so it shouldn’t take too much thought to come up with something that is normal everyday activity that becomes taxing when under grief.  

    • http://disienai.tumblr.com/ Semipermeable

      What is even more important is to be there after the large influx of supporters has died down. For the months afterward, to give them a call for the first mother’s day, Christmas, birthday and so on without that person. To be supportive and listen to that person even after they have been grieving for a long time. Anyone can offer sympathy at the funeral, but a real friend sticks around as a support system for long after that.

    • ACN

      Yes! Specifics >>>>>>> General.

    • Annekiley

      Also stopping by with a vacuum cleaner and a dust rag, and cleaning the house, is something no one ever things of…

  • arcanewinter

    I appreciate the sentiment here, but I feel like it may be too soon to be leaving a “look on the bright side” condolence response, as true a thought as it is.  I definitely would have stopped after the first two sentences.  Not comfortable at all with the third.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1699129934 Justice Lovelace Mansour

    Liked this post – I usually have a harder time finding something to say when someone is suffering in some way like an illness or hardship.  Sometimes friends even ask others to pray for them, and I say that my thoughts are with them, but I haven’t come up with a great line that doesn’t seem trite.  I hope they come through this time of difficulty a stronger person than before?  I do love the Native American Proverb that says,”The soul would have no rainbow had the eyes no tears.”  Booker T Washington also said, “I have learned that
    success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has
    reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while
    trying to succeed.”  But throwing out a quotation like that seems inappropriate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tomlnunn Tom FortheCure Nunn

    My son was “Murdered” by a disease that could be cured with proper funding. I do not want to hear that my seven year old buddy for life “passed on” or we “lost him” cancer is killing our children at the rate of seven per school day and 46 more are getting diagnosed. I never get to see Max’s smile or hug him again and there are no memories that I have of him the dull that pain.


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