Don’t Inject Your Religious Beliefs Into My Grief

This is a guest post by Julie Stahl. She is a writer who lives on the central coast of California. This piece originally appeared in the September, 2016 issue of Freethought Today and is reprinted here with permission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Julie Stahl and her son Jackson
Julie Stahl and her son Jackson

Two years ago, my 18-year-old son was killed about a mile from our house while driving home. A man high on drugs (meth and heroin) drove across the center line at 70 miles an hour and slammed his car head-on into my son’s.

Jackson was my only child and I a single mother. Since then, I’ve heard countless “pearls of wisdom,” usually in the form of religious platitudes from well-meaning people, some of them complete strangers, when they hear about what happened and feel compelled to say something. I say “well-meaning” because I think for the most part they are. They see I am broken, and they want to fix me. It’s human nature. They don’t consciously think, “Here is someone who is clearly in a vulnerable and compromised state of mind. I can exploit that to further my religious agenda.” They believe they are offering comfort.

Here are some of the things I have been told:

1. God has a plan for us all (otherwise known as, “There’s a reason for everything”).

2. God must have had a reason for taking your son so young (a personalized version of No. 1).

3. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

4. Your son will be waiting for you in heaven.

5. He’s looking down on you and keeping you safe.

6. God called him home.

7. It was just his time.

8. He was too good for this world.

9. God must have needed another angel.

10. God never gives us more than we can handle.

To an atheist like me, these aphorisms are loaded with offense. They feel presumptuous, taking for granted a shared belief in a higher power and an afterlife. They are also condescending. After all, if I believed in a god and/or a heaven, wouldn’t it have already occurred to me to take comfort from my faith in these? They insult my intelligence, all of them being childishly simplistic and illogical. No. 5, for example, would have me believe my son has become an angel who will watch over me. I guess I’m not supposed to wonder where his angel was (my mother, for instance, who adored him and died 10 years ago), when he needed one. Why would I get one, but he would not? As for him waiting for me in heaven, if I thought that were the case, do you think I’d still be here? I would have committed suicide days, perhaps even hours, after he was killed.

Worst of all, however, these comments are naïvely menacing, implying beneath the mantle of wisdom and mystery a god who is pretty damned heartless, to put it mildly. Try as I might, I can’t come up with any possible reason that a beneficent, not to mention omnipotent, being would have for allowing children to be killed, among other things.

Right now, in the time it’s taking me to compose this, a little girl somewhere in the world is being gang raped. When the perpetrators are done, they’ll slit her throat, hopefully quickly, but maybe not. Somewhere else a man is being beheaded; a woman is being stoned (almost certainly “in the name of God”); a child is wasting away from leukemia, while another is being sold into slavery.

You can rely on as many myths about original sin and free will as you like, but none of these illustrates anything but an arrogant, conceited and self-righteous creator. Or to put it another way, what kind of sick, twisted bastard would allow these atrocious things to happen on his watch? And who, in any of the above scenarios and countless others, is “handling” what God has “given” them?

All of these beg the question: What does it say about you, that you would choose not only to believe in the existence of a heartless, perhaps even vicious deity, but to adore it, to idolize it, to worship it?

Then there are the so-called spiritual people, who offer almost identical consolation, merely substituting the word “universe” for “god,” or “presence” for “ghost” and implying notions like reincarnation.

A woman whom I consider to be my friend, who broke ranks with any form of organized religion years ago and now identifies with the moniker “spiritual,” told me shortly after Jackson died that she felt peaceful when she thought about Jackson as he moved through the universe, sensing his presence wasn’t lingering, trapped and waiting to be released into a new form. “If that helps you to feel better,” she added. It didn’t. Her boyfriend conveyed the message that Jackson had done here (meaning on Earth) “all that he needed to do.” Hmmm. So, two weeks out of high school, he was done with this world and had nothing left to contribute? Presumably “the universe” knew this and snapped him up. Never mind his plans for college, for the Peace Corps, or his enthusiasm for life.

These kinds of remarks feel just as offensive to me and for all the same reasons as their religious counterparts. Ultimately, the message is the same: Some force “up there” consciously decided my son should die. Again, what sense does this make?

To all the well-meaning people of any religious or spiritual faith, organized or not, who feel the need to dab your ridiculous convictions like salve on the wound of a broken heart belonging to someone you know shares your convictions, have at it. But if that broken heart belongs to someone you don’t know or who hasn’t invited your beliefs, please don’t. And if that broken heart belongs to the parent of a child who has died, bite your tongue not once but twice. People die. Nobody can live forever, and the planet certainly couldn’t accommodate us all if we did. If we had to bury only our grandparents when we were young and our parents when we were middle aged, hearing some religious panacea, even in the face of our sorrow at losing someone we love, might be tolerable. But in the face of the death of our child, when we have become something that there is not even a word for in the English language because it is so unspeakable, when we are absolutely shattered beyond repair, it is intolerable.

Here are some things that you might say to someone of any or no religious convictions who is grieving:

1. I’m so sorry.

2. I wish I could change what happened.

3. I remember when [insert a happy memory here that you have of the one who died].

4. Is there something I can do for you?

5. I’ve been thinking about you a lot.

6. Please call me if you need anything, like groceries, or your house cleaned, or you just want to talk.

If you can’t say any of these things, it’s OK to say nothing. You can even say, “I realize there is nothing I can say.” That is profoundly more helpful, honest and comforting than the empty, “God has a reason for everything.” Life is random. Death is random. And unless you die painlessly in your sleep at a ripe old age, it rarely makes sense. Nothing you can say to me in the wake of my child’s death is going to have it make sense.

The bottom line is you can’t fix me, no matter what you say or do. There are no magic words that will ease my sorrow. If I’m lucky, the passage of time and the loving, happy memories I have of my son will rise to the surface of my heart and crowd out the anger at the man who killed him, the guilt for not being able to protect my child from harm, the remorse for not doing something I might have done that could have changed the course of events that day. If you really want to help, then offer to help, or say something that draws on your humanity, my humanity, and the fact that we are all in this thing called “life” together.

And one last thing. If you want to pray for me, go right ahead. Pray to your heart’s content. But don’t tell me about it and expect me to be grateful.

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