Ask Richard: Speaking Truth to Grief: An Atheist Responds to His Bereaved Girlfriend

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

Dear Richard
My background: My name is Elliot and I am a 28 year-old guy living in London, UK. I am a teacher and have considered myself an atheist for the last 8 or so years. I am open but not preachy about my beliefs and encourage my pupils to make up their own minds. However I recently ran into a crisis of “faith”.
Last weekend my girlfriend’s 21 year-old brother committed suicide. It was not without warning as he had had over 10 years of mental health issues including chronic depression and had made 4 failed attempts in the past. Despite this it was sudden, and she was understandably devastated. They are not a religious family, however in her grief she asked me: “where do you think he is now?” I was at a loss for words as I have never really had to combine comforting someone with an expression of my views. To tell her that he is nowhere anymore, that he simply has stopped being, seemed callous and uncaring. I went with “he is in a better place” (kind of an an opt out) as I figured that not existing anymore must be better than 10 years of depression.
My question is this: How do you convey to someone, about whom you care deeply, that the person they have lost is simply dead? Nothing more? How do you make this sound okay? Religion, despite its delusions, does give people who choose it much peace-of-mind (assuming they are not considering the  hell option) and I was wondering how I could convey this through atheism.
Any advice would be very welcome.
Thanks in advance,

Dear Elliot,

Firstly, please accept my caring wishes for you, your girlfriend, and for the rest of the people who are affected by this young man’s death to find the various things that each of you need to heal in your individual experiences of grief. All of you will most likely find what you need in each other.

Bereaved people are often overwhelmed with emotions, and these are often conflicting emotions. Sometimes when they ask questions, they are more expressing feelings or needs rather than asking for information. Anyone, atheist or believer, who is in a position of comforting them needs to be aware of this possibility. Sometimes it is better to consider all that we know about the person and the situation, and respond to what we think they might be expressing, rather than to specifically answer what may be a rhetorical question. If we’re mistaken, and they really are asking an information-seeking question, they will simply repeat it.

Presumably your girlfriend knows of your atheism, and if so, there’s a good possibility that she wasn’t really asking for your opinion about an afterlife. One early aspect of intense grief is bewilderment and confusion, so she might have been expressing her bewilderment at what has happened. Although the intellectual understanding of the fact is immediately grasped, it takes some time to emotionally absorb the reality and finality of his death. Where’s my brother? Where is he? is about the incompleteness of her emotional comprehension, the helplessness she feels, and the emptiness of his absence. She might have a vague sense that she should be doing something for him, but she has no direction to go for him, no task to perform for him, no way to act on that desire to help him.

For a put-on-the-spot reply to your girlfriend’s question, “Where do you think he is now?” I thought you did quite well. In future similar situations, depending on your relationship with the bereaved, your relationship with the deceased, and the circumstances, you might answer more directly from your atheist viewpoint with, “He’s in our memories of him and whatever good lessons we learned from him. Tell me what about him will live on in your memories? What I want to keep of him is…”

For any theists who might be reading this, it is important to point out that Elliot’s response came from his very human, very tender caring for the feelings and well being of a grieving person. Not all, but too many theists who only theorize about atheists but who don’t actually know any will assume that atheism can only produce moral nihilism, abject cynicism, and emotional debasement. They say idiotic things like, “Well you’re an atheist, so to you he’s just worm food. You don’t care about him or anybody else.” This is the single most destructive lie that is spread about atheists, and it demonstrates the heartlessness and the brainlessness of the people who spread it. To posture that they possess the only font of human compassion is an insufferable vanity. They reflect nothing but ugliness upon their purported religion, and they don’t serve it well.

Atheists don’t have the soothing myth of a happy afterlife to offer grieving people. So we tend to focus on life, both preserving the life of the deceased in how we remember and emulate them, and more importantly, the life of the grieving person right in front of us. That person needs our sensitive attention, not the one who is gone. I wrote about this four years ago in another column, and I have copied part of it below:

Atheists and humanists tend to be very here-and-now oriented, and often have a strong trait as problem solvers. The deceased will most likely have surviving family members, and in the here-and-now they will be facing problems that need solving. Express your concern about them and ask if they need any assistance.

When the more religious people talk about their grief, ask them if there is anything you can do to help, to take care of some ordinary task while they deal with the emotions, the upheaval and the fatigue. In the throes of grief, a simple errand can seem overwhelming. An offer to do a few of these can be not only helpful in mundane terms but also deeply healing and soothing because it is a humble gesture of caring. If they say you can pray for the deceased or whomever, say that how you express your caring is by helping in some way, that you want to honor the person’s memory through something tangible. If they say thank you, but there’s nothing you can do, then just nod and accept the helplessness. Often for those on the periphery of grief, those who only slightly knew the deceased, the awful thing they have to endure is helplessness. Even if there is nothing you can do, or nothing you are allowed to do, the caring still helps to soothe those who grieve.

Or if it’s there for you, just grieve with them.

Elliot, your dilemma was about having to choose between two important ethical principles, honesty and compassion. You found a way to satisfy both as best you could in the circumstances. We have to do this in life again and again and again, using our judgment to favor truthfulness one time, or favor kindness another time, or find a way to balance the two at another time. It’s seldom easy and never perfect. After thousands of tries, we just get a little better at it.

When I am with those who mourn and are deeply hurting, I tend to find balances that are heavy on the compassion and light on the honesty. Let the bereaved believe whatever they need to believe. We can be more frank when people are not so vulnerable to pain.

Near the beginning, I mentioned that the bereaved can have conflicting emotions. In the case of suicide, there is often a conflict between the sadness for the loss of the loved one, and anger at the person who killed him, because they are both the same person. A long history of depression and suicidal attempts can add to that emotional mix other conflicts like self recrimination, “I should have seen the signs and intervened.” Feeling relief that it’s finally over is a very understandable reaction after ten years, but a person might feel guilt about feeling relief instead of feeling only grief. What an awful soup of painful feelings.

The point is that all the feelings people feel are the feelings they must feel. None of them are “bad,” they just are. Talking about them openly with trusted, non-judgmental listeners helps those feelings have their say, and then they can pass away. You or a counselor can do this for your girlfriend if she has any of these conflicting emotions.

It all passes in waves that gradually get smaller and less frequent. Your girlfriend is fortunate to have in you a caring, sensitive and intelligent supporter, and she will benefit by your simply being there for her as honestly-and-kindly as you can as the waves come by.


Other related posts:
(quoted above) 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: Telling My Daughters Their Father Committed Suicide

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About Richard Wade

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