Day of Email: Death, Family, and Friends

Again, via facebook.

I’m writing a little something about when atheists grieve after a tragedy or loss and they’re inundated with religious comments. A friend of mine is going through this right now, and I was wondering if you had any advice for how to deal with religious comments like “She’s in a better place,” “It’s part of God’s plan,” or “I’m praying for you/her.” Some people who are saying these things are close to her and her grandmother (who’s dying), but others are just some religious friends of hers. She’s really having a hard time with her grandma, and these comments are really making it much harder for her. Right now she’s ignoring them, but eventually she’ll have to face some of them and they’ll say the same things. What should she do/say about this?

Also, in a similar vein, when other people are suffering/grieving from the same tragedy that you are and they use their religion and their comments to help them feel better about the issue of mortality, would you leave them to their religious comments or say something to them about it?

If you have already addressed some of these questions in a post (or if Greta Christina has), could you direct me toward it?

First, Greta has written on this. I will not repeat what she said since trying to be as eloquent as Greta Christina is generally as fruitful as trying to be ten feet tall.

I cannot answer the question of how to react to those phrases when spoken by people close to your friend, such as their family who are also grieving. I lack the necessary knowledge of your friend’s desires and their circumstances to do so. I will do what I can though.

I will say the same thing I said in my post earlier today: come out of the closet. Once someone’s family knows they’re an atheist, the family may elect to alter their behavior.

But perhaps your friend’s family already knows and is still dropping the “I’ll pray for you/her” line. Perhaps they mean well, perhaps they’re capitalizing on your friend’s misery to try and save her from the lashes of hell. Both are plausible. But if your friend’s family is aware of your friend’s atheism then I have one piece of universal advice: find like-minded people who will give you a shoulder to cry on. If nothing else, you can find this through Grief Beyond Belief.

Now for friends and acquaintances…

Generally, in these situations, “I’ll pray for you” is meant sincerely (not as the snide grasp for superiority it is often intended when uttered in debates). So it should not be taken as an affront, but at the same time it is an opportunity to educate people. Your friend may not be in the proper mindset to do so and, if that is the case, that’s perfectly alright.

But if she is…

“She’s in a better place”

My response would be, “Even if heaven were real, what would you tell me if she weren’t a Christian? That sucks, now she’s roasting in hell? Comfort is not bound to your beliefs about the afterlife, and for all the non-Christians in the world (which is most of the world), you and I should both hope your beliefs are not true. My grandmother will soon no longer be suffering, and that is enough for me. It has to be.”

“It’s part of God’s plan”

My response would be, “I know you mean well, but think about what you’re saying. If god’s plan is for such a wonderful woman to die slowly, rather than quickly; if god’s plan is for children to be born mentally handicapped to caring parents; if his plan is for teens to die on account of drunk drivers; if his plan is any of the countless examples of death and pointless pain without mercy that happen every day here on Earth, then that is not comforting. It means the wrong person is making the judgments on death.”

“I’m praying for you/her”

My response in this case, and only in this case, would be “Thanks.” They’re not making a claim about the universe or treating you like you are so bereft of personal strength that you must lean on fantasy in order to endure as they were in earlier examples. They’re making a well-intentioned, albeit empty attempt to express concern. Take it for what it is. There are worse things in the world than people expressing sympathy, even if they’re not thinking it through.

However, if your friend feels a person is using their grandmother’s death to proselytize through promises of prayer, I would encourage your friend to reflect on whether or not this is how friends behave. My response would be “For lack of availability of any good reason to believe, you’ve just tried to prey on my emotional agony while wearing a mask of sympathy – and you have expected me to be foolish enough to fall for it. Keep your prayers and your faith: I have no desire to be like you.”

But that is only me. I cannot speak for your friend as I do not know how severely they feel about religion. The best I can say is that there are atheists out there who, though having never met your friend, care about them and will listen. You may give your friend my email address if you feel so led and I will listen and send long-distance hugs. Your friend should abide by their own conscience and realize that this will not be easy no matter how they behave. I wish I could say otherwise and would change the way of the world if I had the means.

As I once wrote

There is an oft-asked question by the theist: how do atheists deal with death? The answer is that we bravely acknowledge that death is just as much a part of life as living. We gratefully remember our loved ones and work to be the type of person they would be proud of in life, and even prouder of in the fullness of our lives. We hug our loved ones that remain and let those who have passed live on in our actions and conscience, so that their lasting influence can continue to improve us.

And we cry.

Tell your friend I love them and that I’m sorry they’re going through this.

As for how I react to people leaning on religion to grieve, I let them go. We criticize to change. We do it because we see religion as a detriment to the world that we cannot let slide without violating our compassionate nature. Criticizing somebody in the grips of mourning will not change them. It won’t change the world. And, frankly, it’s not very compassionate.

An Agnostic And Atheist Argue About Atheism And Agnosticism
PERSONAL: Cancer sucks.
CHARITY: Humanist family’s 10 year old daughter has a brain tumor. Let’s help with expenses.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • neatospiderplant

    Well said.

    If the facebooker is reading this, I would definitely recommend the greif beyond belief group. It really helps to have that kind of support. My grandmother died a few months ago. It was the first close death I had to deal with as an atheist. Even though I don’t remember religious comments directed at me, there were plenty of things the believers did or said to each other that made grieving harder.

    I was put in a difficult position. Some of my cousins were planning to sing a song at the funeral and thought it would be nice if all the cousins participated. When they got a copy of the song to me, I realized it was a religious song. That in itself didn’t bother me. I like a lot of religious songs. But the lyrics were talking about how after we die we get to be with Jesus. I couldn’t handle signing it knowing it was meant to be talking about how my grandmother was in heaven. I couldn’t sing about their lies when I was trying to deal in reality. I knew if I refused to sing, people would say I was being selfish and shoving my atheism down other their throats. But I knew to sing it would have hurt me when I was already hurting. I’m really not sure what I would have done if compromise hadn’t presented itself. I found out that one of my cousins was going to play the song on her flute. I also play the flute and asked if I could join her since I would feel far more comfortable playing it than singing it. She didn’t even realize that I played and was glad that she wouldn’t be doing that part on her own.

    • Marsea

      Dear neatospiderplant,
      Perhaps compromise did not present itself. You were part of a family group comforting each other after the loss of your beloved grandmother. To participate in the song was part of a greater healing process for everyone. Your compassion won out over self concerns and that is very positive in this self-absorbed world we live in. I am sorry about the loss of your grandmother. As a very young person I lost my entire family, parents and siblings. I am a Christian, but my Hindu and Jewish as well as non-believing friends supported me and I am eternally grateful for them. Despite our differences, we love and care for each other and isn’t that really what matters most between people ?

  • Holly

    I’m actually in the middle of an inverse situation. My friend’s dad was diagnosed with cancer this week and whenever we talk about it she always reverts to saying things like “It’s in gods hands” or that prayers are what they need. Of course I don’t say anything out of sensitivity for her and the situation but it it’s still sometimes awkward and I don’t know how to respond. And she does know I’m an atheist. It just makes it hard for me to come up with the right thing to say to her.

  • carolw

    When I have friends who ask for prayers for loved ones, I tell them I’m thinking about them and send my love. And ask if there’s anything you can do for them – pick up groceries, babysit, anything to take some of the burden off when they’re dealing with a serious illness in the family.

    • Holly

      Great advice, thanks. It’s just sometimes hard to know what do say but I suppose sometimes it’s not what you say, but what you do.

  • Joy R. Lynskey

    Great post JT, and equally great suggestions!