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

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.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Q: Where do you think he is now?
    A: In our memories, loved and cherished, leaving a mark on our lives.

  • Glasofruix

    In my opinion, “he/she is in a better place” can work pretty well for atheists, sometimes it’s better to be dead….

  • cryofly

    While a living thing is mortal, the deeds are immortal… especially the good ones. Although I have never been asked the question of where the person is after death, I remember reading somewhere a few years back, that the knack to living forever is to be good at something.

  • Artor

    Things would have to be pretty bad for that to be the case. I was suicidal for most of my teen years, but I finally reached the conclusion that if I ended things, then nothing would ever get better. I’m glad I made the decision to stick around. Life is still tough, but there’s so much awesome I would have missed out on. I like Monika’s response below.

  • jeannieinpa

    I have always said those people who have died … my mother, father, friend … those people continue to live inside me. I have all those memories. Seeing Oreo cookies reminds me of my mother. I think about her working in the garden when I am in the garden, or doing arty things with me when I muck around with paint. And my friend is always in there ready to share a glass of wine, to laugh with me, to enjoy some wonderful artwork or a noisy Pennsylvania summer night. He’s there in my memories.

  • Susan_G1

    here is a theist who feels “He is here in our memories and in our hearts,” is a beautiful and honest answer.

  • Highlander

    “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer, especially if you follow it up with, “But I’ll always remember his smile and his warmth.”

  • R Bonwell parker

    My grandfather, a college professor, was a hardline atheist. My grandmother (his wife) was Methodist. After he died, we all sat with him in his hospital room as we waited for them to come take the body.

    My mother asked her mother, “how are you doing right now?” She looked up and said, “I’m thinking about how he must have had a thousand students over all his years of teaching. And even the ones who never thought of him personally after they graduated still remember what he taught them. I’ve met a lot of their children, and they’re teaching their children what Don [my grandfather] taught them. That’s a thousand times closer to immortality than anything I’ve ever been taught about the afterlife.”

    It was probably one of the most real moments of my life… my grandmother’s still a Methodist, but I still think about that day, when she found more comfort in his humanist beliefs than she could find in her own.

  • Glasofruix

    Well, not in any case obviously. But when there’s genuine suffering like in case of a terminal illness.

  • Shadist

    I lost someone I love to a murder suicide 4 years ago and having always been an atheist I’ve never had any self deception when it comes to what happens when a life ends…

    But I’ve found some solace in a quote from Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett.

    “In the Ramtop village where they dance the real Morris dance, for example, they believe that no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”

  • Lee Miller

    When my father died a year ago, one of the most bizarre moments was when his pastor (Presbyterian) prayed “Lord, we know that he is whole and well and in your presence” when all I could think was “that’s exactly the opposite of what we know–that he was sick and unwell and now he’s gone.” What would have been wrong with saying “We’re sad, we really miss him, but we’re glad he’s not suffering any more.”?

  • sailor

    “better off dead” is philosophically difficult. When you are dead you are no longer, so you cannot possiblybe better off, there is no one and nothing to be better off. I know what you mean though.

  • Loic

    At the funeral of my atheist brother, my parents requested the minister from their church to do the service. He spoke very little about my brother, having never met him…instead, the service was a Jesus pitch. He found some tenuous factoids about my brother to use to claim he was in the presence of the lord (laughable–for example, my brother was into paleontology so therefore this proved he was concerned with eternity!!). Once that little homage was done with, he launched into a fire and brimstone harangue. I don’t know how I got through it in silence. It did make me wish for an afterlife so my brother and I would get a chance to roll our eyes.

  • Carmen

    When grieving the loss of a loved one, it doesn’t matter so much what someone says to you but more whether it is sincere and heartfelt. I’ve lost both parents over the past five years and had to plan both funerals, had to manage their estates, etc. It is overwhelming when you are in that situation. A good friend will be there to listen, help with the details, and give you space when you need it.

    I had a lot of people say the standard religious types of things, but for the most part, they were just trying to show that they cared and were there for me.

    One thing I enjoyed doing (and still do) was sharing fond memories with others. It helps you get through the grief and keeps them close to your heart.

    When I lost my last dog, my vet sent me the “rainbow bridge” poem. It is silly and not true but it is a nice thought.

  • Mitch

    To me, the idea of death feels a lot like pre-birth. I don’t remember having any awareness of anything before I was born, and I assume the same will be true when I die. Since that may not be the best answer to give someone still in the grieving process, I like the idea of saying the deceased is “at peace” and then transition into the memories of them (like plenty of others have suggested).

  • Anna

    I’ve gone with “at least he/she is no longer suffering,” which (I hope) might be a small comfort. You might also talk about how the deceased will always live on in their hearts.

    My impression of those who believe in the supernatural is that they seem obsessed with questions of “why,” ie: “Why did this happen?” “Why him?” “Why now?” I’ve always thought one of the main benefits of atheism is not being tortured by “why” questions. We don’t have an afterlife, but we also don’t have to reconcile tragedy with the concept of a loving deity or pretend that the loss happened for some sort of cosmic reason.

  • Anna

    You’re more tolerant than I am! In that situation, I’d have little patience for religious platitudes. Fortunately, my vet sends out secular cards, but if he didn’t, I think I would mention it to the staff. To me, it seems very presumptuous to assume a client’s beliefs and to promote an afterlife to grieving people when you have no idea if they share that belief.

  • bizeditor84

    Richard wrote about the dilemma of choosing between “important ethical principles, honesty and compassion.” Richard counsels atheists that they must use “judgment to favor truthfulness one time, or favor kindness another time, or find a way to balance the two at another time.” Richard notes: “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.”
    As a former atheist, I’m aware that atheists believe human life is the product of undirected material forces without purpose. Atheists jeer theists who believe there is a purpose to human life and an afterlife. (I used to do that myself.) Thus, it seems an exercise in deception or hypocrisy for atheists to extend compassion to a mourning person — would it not actually be more helpful to everyone if we all realized our lives were meaningless blips? It might be possible to teach people from birth that loss of a parent, child, friend, etc., is utterly meaningless. If that could be accomplished, then there would be no mourning, no depression, no sadness. It would seem atheists should affirmatively seek a world like that. Such a world would have much less pain. Humans who expended less energy and time on sadness and mourning could be more productive and thus more likely to survive and reproduce — which are evolutionary benefits.
    If Richard’s “honesty” is “your friend’s life was as meaningless as yours,” then it would seem a good thing to share with people. Why would Richard think it “compassionate” to leave ultimate questions unanswered, or to let people believe a lie?
    A reader might think I’m being sarcastic — I am not at all. I’m quite serious — and it was as I confronted this very line of reasoning years ago that I realized what theism offers. Atheists dismiss theism as a “myth” — okay — then atheists should not consider it compassionate to let people believe a lie. Atheists should help people realize, early and often, that death is meaningless and could profitably be just ignored.

  • HA2

    People aren’t vulcans. Human emotions are real things – you can’t argue them away!

  • Alan Bloor

    A similar quote appears in Going Postal.”Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name’s still spoken”

  • Alan Bloor

    Our lives have no inherent purpose but that doesn’t make them ‘meaningless blips’. We get to choose what we want our lives to mean. I’ve decided that I’d like to try to spend my life protecting others and as such I’m planning to join the military after university. I know many atheists who choose to try to reduce people’s suffering as their meaning. Deciding to be an asshole to someone who’s lost a friend or family member won’t convert anyone to atheism and even if it did I wouldn’t do it. When someone’s lost someone they need help in the form of people to comfort them and be there for them.

  • Agrajag

    I don’t think that’s so difficult. Being dead is neutral, since you aren’t. Thus you are better of dead if life is so bad that it’s a negative. I can well imagine that, for a terminally ill person who is in a lot of pain, for example. I’m in favor of the right to end ones own life under such circumstances, and that only makes sense if we acknowledge that certain situations are so bad that you’re better of not going trough them — even if the only alternative is death.

  • Susan_G1

    That’s harsh! I can follow your logic, but I disagree with your conclusion. People’s lives have meaning, to themselves and especially to those who love them. That’s not a lie. Humans have emotions, and grief is a painful one. What you’re proposing is a deep, true unkindness.

  • Beth

    I use the phrase: S/he is no longer suffering…no more pain.

  • Libby

    Pratchett for the win. Although I think he’s a theist these days, isn’t he?

  • David Fleming

    As an atheist, what do I say to a friend who is dying of cancer?

  • Schneeble

    Perhaps, but if so it might have been dishonest to accept an award from the British Humanist Association:

  • Ewan

    “Cancel everything, I’m taking you to Vegas!”

  • eric

    Thus, it seems an exercise in deception or hypocrisy for atheists to extend compassion to a mourning person

    You’re completely wrong. Its ethical and human to extend compassion for a mourning person. They are in emotional pain; wanting to help them alleviate it is no different than helping someone get up from a bad fall or doing CPR. How you help them is a reasonable question. Personally, I go with big hugs and “i’m sorry they are gone.” Also with the above mentioned “they’re in our hearts and minds, and I’ll always remember them.” All of that is true, and comforting.

    It might be possible to teach people from birth that loss of a parent, child, friend, etc., is utterly meaningless.

    Its not meaningless to the bereaved. They loved this person, spent a lot of time with them, cared about them, etc.. and they feel loss.
    You seem to be confusing individual humans with ‘the universe.’ We individual humans care about human lives, even if the universe doesn’t. The act of mourning is an attempt to comfort individual humans, not anything else. All of that is perfectly reasonalble and normal human behavior, in which atheists participate. Whether the universe cares about our loss or our lives is irrelevant to the act and importance of mourning.

  • eric

    What do they say to you? If they want to talk about your atheism, be open and honest. Tell them they’ll remain in the hearts and minds of those around them, and in the impact they’ve made on the world.
    If they don’t want to talk about your atheism, why bring it up? Let them spend their days talking with you about the subjects they want to talk to you about. If they want to talk sports, talk sports. If politics, talk politics. If religion, yes go ahead and talk religion. But if it’s not religion…then don’t.
    IMO saying something like “you know I don’t believe in an afterlife” completely out of the blue, with no prompting or request by them, is just as rude as a preacher coming in uninvited and telling them they’re going to hell if they don’t repent. He may sincerely believe it, but pushing that conversation on someone who didn’t ask for it is socially rude. Just because your friend is dying does not automatically mean they will want to discuss heavy philosophy or theology with you. Let them lead the conversation where they want it to go – and if it doesn’t go towards theology, don’t force it there.

  • eric

    I tend to view funerals to be about comforting the living rather than doing anything for the dead. As such, I hope your parents gained comfort from their choice. It was admittedly somewhat self-centered of them to pick a speaker who would not bring comfort to you, nor probably any of your brother’s friends. But given that they were grieving parents at the time, I have to give them something of a bye.
    It is the sort of bad experience that to make a mental note about, though. When picking funeral speakers for a loved one, we nonbelievers should seek to do better than that; try and pick people that will bring comfort to all of the living (religious and ir-), not just me me me.

  • Carmen

    I don’t think anyone really believes in the Rainbow Bridge poem. I wouldn’t call it a religious sentiment. It made me smile a little when I received it, and helped to release some of the grief of losing a pet.

    Again with regard to the sentiment expressed, I think actions speak much more loudly than words. It is hard to know what to say in these situations. When the person is really trying to comfort you, the words are less important in my view.

  • Carmen

    You don’t have to believe in the supernatural to be obsessed with the “why” questions. When tragedy occurs, it is very easy to say “why me” or why him” or “why now” regardless of a belief system. This is especially true with unexpected deaths.

    In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion does an excellent job of showing what someone goes through in periods of extreme grief. In short, you lose your mind a little.

  • Anna

    But we doesn’t believe there is a “why,” so how could an atheist be tortured by those questions? I don’t get that. I’ve experienced grief myself, but I’ve never wondered those things. It never occurred to me that my fellow atheists could have those kinds of feelings, at least not lifelong atheists who have never believed in anything supernatural. I’ve always thought it’s one of the benefits of being an atheist, not to have to worry about all that.

  • Anna

    I don’t doubt their good intentions, but I do find it irritating when people assume (or outright disregard) a grief-stricken person’s belief system. We saw a lot of it when the Newtown massacre happened, people saying that all the murdered children were with Jesus, despite the fact that at least some of the children were Jewish and who knows how many had parents who don’t believe in an afterlife.

    Such sentiments can be incredibly hurtful. To me, saying that my deceased pets are romping in some wonderful paradise is not comforting because I know it’s false. And most supernaturally-inclined people don’t take things like the Rainbow Bridge poem (or the pet angel meme) as a metaphor. They seriously believe their pets are in some sort of happy afterlife, looking down on them and enjoying themselves.

    I guess I just see all these things as a depressing reminder of how much supernaturalism pervades American society. It bothers me to see death minimized, or tragedy “softened” by proclamations that the dead person isn’t really gone. The last thing I want when dealing with a loss is to have other people’s religious beliefs pushed on me like that.

  • Major Nav

    I think religion loses on the compassion front for this issue.
    Almost all religions or sects believe suicide is a one-way ticket to eternal damnation or at least a lengthy stay in some sort of purgatory (stay on earth as a restless soul or ghost). Most denominations will not allow the remains to be buried in “sacred” ground. Or even shunning surviving family members.

    That being said, when dealing with grief or devastating events, just listen. You can’t fix it (men always want to do this), you can’t kiss the boo-boos away, there are no magic words (e.g. “God’s plan” or “in a better place”). Grief and suffering are only healed by time. Just be there for them.
    A good friend of mine committed suicide. She was a senior in high school, on the swim team and a life guard. She worked at a summer church camp and one night walked into the water and drowned herself. Imagine the amount of pain necessary to make yourself drown.
    Her Dad was a Lutheran minister and when I met her Mom at the funeral, her Mom uttered those words that she must have said thousands of times over the years to other parishioners when they lost a loved one: “It must have been God’s plan”. But I could see it in her eyes that she felt how empty that phrase had just become to her.

  • phantomreader42
  • onamission5

    For me, the why question is not about the supernatural, but a display of complex emotions surrounding grief. Is there something I could have done to prevent this tragedy, is there something anyone could have done? What caused the accident, were there warning signs that this person was suicidal, how could another human being be so callous or negligent as to take my loved one’s life? Seeking a cause, an explanation, is very human, and doesn’t have to contain supernatural components.

  • Carmen

    I understand and it is important that nontheists and theists be understanding when dealing with each other in periods of grief. I think the words can matter very much…but for me, I didn’t have that reaction when dealing with grief except for those few people who were not very sincere.

    I guess I never thought that anyone actually believed in the Rainbow Poem.

  • Carmen

    Agreed. When I’ve gone through grief, I may ask “why” but I was not looking for a supernatural or spiritual answer. When someone close to you dies, it is hard to be logical at all.

  • Carmen

    What can I do to help?

  • Carmen

    “That being said, when dealing with grief or devastating events, just listen. You can’t fix it (men always want to do this), you can’t kiss the boo-boos away, there are no magic words (e.g. “God’s plan” or “in a better place”). Grief and suffering are only healed by time. Just be there for them.”


  • Without Malice

    The best thing you can do for the bereaved is to express your sorrow over their loss and be there for them if they need to talk. All the pointless blather about the dead being in a better place is just that, pointless.

  • Major Nav

    Assure them it is not a divine retribution for sins.
    Most importantly, always stay positive.

  • Alan Bloor

    I don’t know for sure about that but here’s another quote from him, “There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist”

  • guy who read the article

    from the article “To posture that [your religious belief] possess[es] the only font of human compassion is an insufferable vanity. [you] reflect nothing but ugliness upon [your] purported religion, and [you] don’t serve it well.” That you are no longer an atheist is obvious.

  • Mira

    When I lost my darling dog and, a year later, my cat, I really enjoyed the Rainbow Bridge. I know it’s not true, and I know it’s silly, but I do often like to sit in the sun and picture that they are there with me or are waiting for me somewhere. It lessens the pain of no longer having them with me.
    I suppose it’s because when I meditate, my “happy place” is generally a field of flowers with mild sunshine and my pets, both passed away and alive, with me.