Ask Richard: Grieving Atheist Responds to “He’s in Heaven Now.”

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,
Almost a year ago, my cousin killed himself. We were very close and I am still grieving for him.

At the time, almost everyone in the family talked about how he was up in heaven with our (mutual) grandmother. This was particularly poignant, as our grandmother died at 49, and my cousin had met her but was too young to remember her.

As an atheist who values truth, the only response I could come up with at the time was “that’s a lovely thought, isn’t it?”. This seemed to be a good compromise, it validated the family’s desire that he was in a better place, but did not require that I believed in their god or their heaven.

I worry now that I was perhaps a little patronizing as I am known to be a skeptic and a “non-believer”. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to hurt anyone.

Richard, is there any other way I could respond? I know that these ideas will be expressed to me again as we reach the anniversary of his death. I obviously do not believe that he is anywhere. But I have no desire to increase anyone’s pain – there is enough pain in my wonderful family as it is.

Thanks,
Suzanne

Dear Suzanne,

A good response does not have to be a direct reply.

In human communications there are always two aspects, the content and the process. The content is the topic being discussed, and the process is the underlying emotions and the relationship between the people being played out.

Some conversations are almost entirely about content, such as asking how to get to Maple Street, and the process is barely there and would be a distraction. But often the content is the least important part of the interaction, yet it distracts us from the process, which is often the most important part. We have all experienced this when we have had a long and detailed conversation, but we walked away with a vague sense of emotional disappointment or incompleteness. We did not get our process needs fulfilled. We only exchanged information, and that wasn’t really what we needed.

In a situation such as you have described, use your empathy and ask yourself, “What does this person need or want emotionally?” How can I can respond to their feelings within the bounds of our present relationship?

When a family member says, “He is in heaven with Grandma,” the underlying process is, “I miss him. I’m hurting. I want solace and consolation. Believing this helps me.”

You don’t need to reply directly to the content topic of an afterlife. Just respond to the emotional process as if the person expressed it openly. Say something like, “I miss him too. It still hurts.” Here your own process is, “Neither of us are alone in our sadness.” Sharing your mutual sadness helps to soothe it, takes away the loneliness of it, keeps it on a human-to-human level.

Then if you were to say something like, “I liked how he so often…” your process would be, “Remembering this about him makes me feel better.” Sharing how he made you happy can increase your happiness and possibly the other person’s as well.

You might add, “There’s much I wish I could say to him,” then go ahead and say some of that. By telling each other what you would want to say to him, you provide each other a substitute audience, a stand-in for the one who can’t be there to hear you. Whether or not one believes the deceased can hear it, getting it said aloud can still be releasing and healing.

Religious people comfort themselves with the belief that their loved ones live on in heaven. Nonbelievers can comfort themselves by realizing that their loved ones’ positive effect on others continues on after their death. We can remember and share the good things they did, and especially the ways their influence continues to live on in our own behavior. We are what we do. What makes us real in the world is how we interact with the world. The deceased continues to “be” in the world in a way if what he did is reflected by the things that we are doing now because of him.

So when you say something like, “He encouraged me to…” or “He helped me realize…” or “It’s because of him that I decided…” your process is ”Knowing that this part of him lives on in me is very comforting.” Sharing with others how his actions live on in your actions can increase his continuing “presence” in the world.

In cases of suicide, the emotions of friends and family members are often much more conflicted, because people feel grief for the deceased, but they also often feel anger at the “killer” of their loved one all mixed together. Sometimes they think that they should have known he was in danger, and that they somehow failed to protect him. So inappropriate guilt about failing him and guilt about feeling angry might keep them from expressing it. If one of the feelings is assumed to be taboo, it can bottle up all the other feelings. There is also the implication that life might become too difficult for any of us, so the threat of the possibility of our own suicide can sometimes hover in our minds.

Because of all these things, in conversations with family and friends, the content about suicide might be just barely mentioned if at all, but the process can be an enormous unspoken tangle of pain, guilt, anger, confusion and fear.

Often people do want to talk about it, but it takes one person to break that tacitly assumed rule of silence, to give “permission” to let it out. Talk openly about what you know about your cousin’s difficulties in particular and what you understand about depression in general, which is most often the main cause of suicides. Be just as frank about what you don’t know or understand. Your perplexity is part of what you all share, and just as with sharing sadness, sharing your bewilderment and your anger reduces the discomfort.

Suzanne, although you are known by your family to be a skeptic and a non-believer, your sensitivity and your desire to relieve their pain even as you deal with your own pain shows that you are a very valuable member. You call them a “wonderful family.” That appraisal fully includes you.

Richard

Related posts that might help:
Ask Richard: Relating to Religious People at Times of Grief
Ask Richard: Perplexed by Irrational Religious Explanations for a Suicide

Ask Richard: Atheist Dealing With Aftermath of His Father’s Suicide
Ask Richard: My Mom is Dying. Should I Lie to My Kids About Death?

Ask Richard: Telling My Daughters Their Father Committed Suicide

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • GeraardSpergen

    Richard, I always try to guess what excellent advice you’ll give when I read one of these columns… and you always outshine my best attempt. Chappeau… and warm regards to Suzanne.

  • b33bl3br0x

    Alternatively you could go with.

    Well as a suicide, according to your church he’s burning in hell. I’m comforted by the fact that your entire religion is horse s**t and that he’s passed into non-existence rather than being tortured for all of eternity.

    That doesn’t go over nearly so well with people however.

    • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

      A part of me thinks this should be okay. If they introduce elements of their religion to the discussion, it might be fair game to mention other relevant religious details. But, as you said, it likely won’t be well received.

  • RoverSerton

    Great message. I think her first attempt was as good as I could give but your reply was great food for thought.

    B33bl3br0x. I hope that is tongue in cheek. It is best IMO to be human and humane when possible.

  • Drew M.

    Great advice as always, Richard.

    I’m sorry for your loss, Suzanne.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    so sorry for your loss, Suzanne. my cousin took his own life last year as well; i am fortunate in that my whole family are non-believers and none of us had to negotiate any uncomfortable compromising language. i find Richard’s advice sound and i hope it helps you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sara.greenwood3 Sara Greenwood

    Working out the process is a good answer for discussing it in a conversation you actually care about. “That’s a lovely thought” will do if someone is just making a polite platitude. If someone is getting pushy and intruding on your grief you might want to take a page from the Tillman family’s book, “He’s just fuckin’ dead.” It’s all about context.

  • Jett Perrobone

    I’d probably phrase it hypothetically, like:

    “[A] He was a nice person, and if [B] all nice people go to heaven when they die then [C] he’d surely be there.”

    This would be a truthful statement: if [B] were true, (which it isn’t, because heaven doesn’t exist anyway) then [C] would be true. You’d be able to tell them this while still keeping the Atheist of Spades card close to your chest.

  • ejoty

    Surely Christians believe that no deceased people will go to Heaven until they have been subjected to the last judgement?

    • Barefoot Bree

      No, “Christians” don’t – as in, all of them everywhere.

      SOME Christians do. Some don’t. Christianity is not monolithic – not in ANY given single belief. [/pedant]

  • Gus Snarp

    Richard’s advice is good, as always, but I think the initial response was great, as long as it was said with sincerity.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EYZCDG3OAPGD3PDG7XD7SM7OAM ElizabethS

    I’m bookmarking this page. thank you, this is something everyone deals with.

  • Gerry

    Richard, your response as always is intuitive and on the mark.

    I find that my automatic response to the grief of losing a loved one is to say, “They’re not so far away, just close your eyes and look, they’re right there at your shoulder and they always will be.”

    I say it because I believe it. It’s always appreciated, and any acknowledgement of religious belief becomes irrelevant.


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