Belief

12 Things Not to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers

Some of these are offensive even to those with religious belief.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

When you talk with people who are grieving, you want to make them feel better. At the very least, you don't want to make them feel worse. This isn't always true (as you'll find out in some of these stories). But in general, in the face of grief, the point of comfort and consolation is to relieve some small part of the grieving person's pain. And I'll assume that the last thing you want to do is add to that pain.

The bad news is that, if you're a religious believer, the chances are excellent you've done exactly that.

You almost certainly have non-believers in your life. While many of them aren't public about it, around five to 10 percent of adults in the United States are non-religious. When they're grieving -- whether it's a personal death or a public tragedy—they want and need comfort. But the standard ways of dealing with death are often religious. When these are offered to nonbelievers, they typically don't help, and they often make things worse.

I've written before with advice about what nonbelievers what they want to hear when they're grieving. This is the flip side of that coin. I reached out to members of Grief Beyond Belief (the online support group for grieving nonbelievers), as well as nonbelieving readers of my blog and Facebook page, and asked them to share the things they heard from believers that they wish had never been said.

1. "She's in a better place," or "She's watching over you." I understand this is often well-meant. The person in front of you is suffering: you want to help make that go away. But even many believers don't want to hear this. It minimizes their grief. You may be trying to say, "Here's a way to see this that might make it less painful," but what people often hear is, "Geez, this really isn't that bad, what are you complaining about?"

For atheists, this can be even more upsetting. River says that at the service for their atheist brother, "One of my brother’s neighbors kept going on about how he was 'in a better place,' and that obviously 'God had other plans for him.' My brother’s (nearly adult, and also atheist) children were appalled at that... What better place could he be than mowing the lawn or getting the stuff off of the high shelf for them?"

And Veronica says that when she heard people say, "You have a beautiful guardian angel watching over you now," her thoughts were, "In what world does that make any sense at all? She wasn't even a year old. Is heaven some place where you are suddenly full grown and all knowing and are tasked with protecting your family?"

This can be especially painful if the person who died was a non-believer, or if his life (or death) would have been considered sinful. When a trans/queer friend of Nala committed suicide, her mother tried to comfort her by saying "something along the lines of 'May Allah keep him in his mercy.' It set me off and I told her that he was exactly the type of person her religion and her god would condemn. She thought she was comforting me but really, she was just reminding me that my friend belonged in hell according to her beliefs."

When you offer a false consolation that we don't accept, it can actually underscore the harsh reality of our loss. When you tell us that death isn't real or permanent, and therefore isn't really so bad, it denies the depth of our pain. It makes it seem as if your main concern isn't our grief, but your discomfort in dealing with it or your wish to be right about your religion. And it emphasizes the differences between us, at the very time we most need to feel connection and continuity. 

2. "God has a plan," or "Everything happens for a reason." Even many believers don't like hearing that death really isn't that bad, or that the death of their loved one was deliberately engineered by a god who supposedly cares for them. And this can be even harder on nonbelievers. Kallie has had multiple pregnancy losses: she says, "Talking about it as though there was some sort of destiny or master plan just reminded me that there isn't a plan. I might have more losses, or no more pregnancies, or never be a mother. It just felt like a hollow, bitter jab." Gary adds, "I especially can't stand to hear that things happen for a reason or that it was just her time, as if my closest friend was meant to be killed that night."

These platitudes are especially painful when a death is unusually distressing. When people are struggling to cope with a violent, painful, slow, or premature death, we generally don't want to hear other people's rationalizations for why it was really okay. Travis spoke of prayers said by other family members when he and his wife were coping with a shocking murder within the family: "The gist of it was that while we don't understand your reasons, oh Lord, we're sure you had a good reason to do this. P.S. We still love you. I kept my mouth shut, but I wanted to scream." And Veronica says, "I'm sorry, but what kind of sadistic bastard includes a plan that kills a 22-month-old without warning in front of her mother and aunt? Even if there is a god with a plan, he can keep it next time. I want no part of this messed-up plan."

3. "Come to God now." Any sort of religious proselytizing is right out. It's emotional manipulation at its worst. It says to people who are grieving, Hey, you're feeling frightened, lost, and in shock? Here's a sales pitch. Maybe in your vulnerable state, you'll be more likely to buy what I'm selling." Again, it emphasizes one of the main differences between us, at a time when people most need connection.

But this is one of the most common forms of religious aggression that grieving nonbelievers deal with. As Wolfe puts it, "Fundamentalist Christians swoop in like vultures, trying to rack up notches on their godliness belt." James says that after his father's funeral, "A religious cousin told me my dad would wish I'd get right with god rather than be subject to eternal damnation. I don't believe any of that BS, but in the aftermath of burying the old man and early stage of handling the estate, it was painful."

Tommy says, "When my late wife had gone into the hospital (she would be dead a week later) her mom wanted to pray... in that prayer, I had suddenly become the lost sheep who had lost my way." And when Terry's grandmother died, "I was very angry when the person leading the funeral ceremony addressed my family specifically during the service to say that our grief stemmed from our own lack of faith and that we shouldn’t cry or express sadness at the loss because it would hinder my grandmother’s experience of this new type of existence... Even my Christian parents, aunts and uncles were angry."

It's especially creepy when people put their proselytizing words into the dead person's mouth. It's an attempt to manipulate people's grief and loss into guilt, often at the expense of an honest remembrance. When Sabine's deeply loved grandmother died, she was told, "She'll be in heaven, hoping against hope you change your ways so you can be reunited'... My grandmother went to church on special occasions, but was not particularly religious, it was a socially mandated event for her. I was so incensed at this woman's rewriting of my grandmother's religiosity, when she was barely cold, and her barely concealed glee at trying to make me feel guilty." And when Brianna's grandmother died, a cousin said she'd spoken to her in heaven: "[Grandmother] told me that her greatest wish is for you is to get right with God." Brianna now says, "It’s been almost 10 years and I still remember vividly the guilt trip that my cousin tried to lay on me."

3a: "This happened to bring you to God," or, "If you really loved the person who died, you'd come to God." This is a special version of proselytizing. It combines the message that the loss of someone we love is okay because it's part of God's plan, with the message that we're broken or evil if we don't believe. And it adds victim-blaming to the mix. If you tell us there's a God who deliberately kills people to persuade survivors that he exists, we obviously won't agree, but it's upsetting to hear that you think that. It's painful to hear you say this is our fault, and our grief is part of a lesson you think we need and deserve.

Niki tells the story of a colleague who died at the hands of her abusive ex. She stayed respectful of her office mates' need to pray -- but when a co-worker discovered that Niki was a non-believer, "she told me that our manager's death was God's way of trying to 'wake me up' to get right with him. The saddest part was just how heartless and cruel she made God out to be, taking away a young mother of three just to get me on his side."

4. "How can you stand not believing in an afterlife?" S.L. says that when her granny died, her mom told her "she didn't understand how I could deal with knowing I'll never see her again. Because of course the two of them are totally gonna meet up in heaven and pray for my poor burning soul someday." And Regina tells of a religious cousin who talked to her at length about "how hopeless it must be to not have that belief, and where can you get your strength from, and how would you deal with that... I'm struggling to not let that grief swallow me, and here she is pushing my face right into it."

When someone you care about is grieving, do you really want to bait them into a philosophical debate? Do you really want to make them explain their humanist philosophies of life and death? And do you really want them to tell you why they think your religion is unsubstantiated, illogical, self-contradictory, and ridiculous? It's hard to discuss atheism with believers without doing that -- but people who are grieving probably don't want to get into arguments, and aren't in a state to control their emotions when they do.

If you're close to a grieving nonbeliever, and you genuinely want to understand how they cope with death and grief, there are non-douchey ways to ask. "I know we differ about this, but I want to understand you better so I can support you..." "If you don't feel like discussing this, that's fine, but if you'd like to discuss it I'd like to know..."  But don't ask it with incredulity, as if not believing in an afterlife makes someone a freak. And don't do it in an oppositional way, as if atheism is absurd. Don't make the grieving people in your life choose between getting in a fight or biting their tongue.

5: "There's something wrong with you if you don't believe." I wish I didn't have to spell this out. It seems like Grief Etiquette 101: Don't Tell Grieving People They're Evil or Broken. But it happens more than you'd think. When Mickey's Catholic grandmother died, her sister said after the funeral service, "How anyone could listen to that and not believe… you’d have to be heartless." Mickey says, "It still upsets me, a lot, that my sister basically considers me a heartless monster." If you want to console the people you care about, don't call them heartless monsters.

6: "He converted on his deathbed."Another piece of Grief Etiquette 101: Don't gaslight people who are grieving. Don't treat them like fools. And don't disrespect the memory of people who died by lying about them. "When we took my mother off life support,"  says Eric, "I stayed in the hospital room for about half an hour. I finally couldn't stand to see her like that anymore and left. Later a relative who stayed in the room longer told me that my mother opened her eyes and smiled at her and accepted Jesus into her heart. My mother; who was vocal her whole life that she was agnostic and despised organized religion. This relative was also grieving and I know she was dealing with my mother's loss as well. But she still tells that story. She told it at my mother's funeral... It is an insult to her memory."

People even tell deathbed conversion stories based on supposed visions or dreams. When Jeff's father died, he was told, "I had a dream your father was being welcomed into heaven, so he must have begged for forgiveness right before he died." "I was so angry at that," Jeff says, "because all my childhood the fear of my father going to hell when he died was lorded over me as a way to coerce me into believing, and then when he did die, they changed their minds about his outcome?! And of course you can't have any logical reply to comments like that because you're being 'insensitive.'"

If you want to believe that dead atheists converted so you can believe they're in Heaven -- fine. Lie to yourself all you want. But don't lie to other people. And if you want to comfort the grieving atheists in your life, don't tell us lies about deathbed conversions. Even if they were true, we wouldn't find them comforting.

7: "The person you loved is in hell."  Seriously. People say this. When Mar's father died, one of his co-workers said that "since my father was in hell now she hoped the rest of us might be reconsidering our spurning of Jesus." When an atheist friend of D.N. died, a religious friend asked if he'd been a Christian. "I told her no, he was an atheist, and she (knowing I'm an atheist) tried to say that I was actually mourning the fact that he might be in hell." And when D.C.'s best friend died, they were told, "I know you're sad, but it's not good to cry over someone who is in hell."

Do I really need to explain why this is messed up? I guess I do.  When someone is grieving, it is cruel beyond measure to tell them that the person they're grieving for was evil and deserves to suffer excruciating, unending pain. Even if you're talking to an atheist who doesn't believe in Hell, it's cruel to tell them that you not only believe in the torture of the person they love, but approve of it.

8: "There are no atheists in foxholes." No. No, no, no. This is a flat-out lie, and it's a vile one. The assumption behind it is that of the hundreds of millions of nonbelievers, none have ever experienced great suffering or loss. That would be laughable if it weren't so patently offensive, so blithely willing to deny our humanity and erase the reality of our lives. As Rebecca Hensler says, founder and co-moderator of the Grief Beyond Belief online support group, "Excuse me!? My baby died and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and you are telling me that I would accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior if only something terrible enough happened to me?"

9: "I don't care that she was a nonbeliever; she's getting a religious funeral."  If you're a believer, and you have requests about your funeral, I assume you'd want them respected. It's a final commitment in the social contract: requests about funerals and memorials are a dying person's last chance to be heard, to make a mark on the world, and to be remembered the way they'd want to be. When people ignore these requests, it says, "This ceremony has nothing to do with the person who died. We're not interested in remembering who they really were, and we don't respect them."

Unfortunately, it's distressingly common for nonbelievers' last wishes about funerals and memorials to be ignored -- especially when it comes to religion. Mary Ellen has attended several religious funerals for nonbelievers, and says there's a depressingly common pattern: "The memorial is used as a venue for believers to validate their own beliefs at the deceased's expense. At one service (set up as a secular one, in a funeral home without clergy), a speaker from the individual's former (Mormon) congregation pointed out that the deceased was now finding out just how wrong he'd been about God and Jesus. The son was well aware of his father's atheism... it can't have been consoling for him to hear his dad ridiculed in this way." Kyle confirms this: when his non-believing brother was dying of leukemia, he says, "My mother mentioned to him that she was thinking of organizing a memorial service at her church. My brother was somewhat angry and specifically asked my mother not to do such a thing. After he died, she arranged the service anyway."

Even explicitly secular services will sometimes be disrupted by religion. Donna tells of a friend who held a nonreligious memorial for her teenaged son: even though she requested that there be no discussion of religion, people still sent cards with religious content, several people expressed religious sentiments (and loudly complained about the request not to express them), and one person sent a cross made of flowers. As Donna puts it, "The service shifted from a remembrance of her son’s life to a group of Christians complaining vehemently that they were being harmed because they could not comfortably express their faith in the home of an atheist woman who had just watched her 16-year-old son die."

Yes, funerals and memorials are for the living. And that includes the living who want to remember the deceased as they were, and who want their last wishes respected. Xavier describes the funeral of an atheist friend, where a pastor spoke about how life is useless without God. "It felt (like) a public betrayal of his friendship with her," he says. "It felt like he wanted to have the last word."

10: "I'm praying for you." I know this is often well-meaning. And I know that for many believers, saying this in difficult times is almost automatic. But if you say "I'm praying for you" to a grieving person who you know is a nonbeliever, they may not hear, "I'm thinking of you and care about you." What they will very likely hear is, "I don't really know you very well, or care about the things that are important to you." And it's likely that they'll hear, "At a time when you most need connection, I'm going to emphasize one of the big differences between us."

When grieving nonbelievers speak about religious stuff they wish people hadn't said, this one comes up again and again. Charlotte: “I’m praying for you both.” Donna: “You are in our prayers." Bill: "I'll pray for you." Judy: "Tell us how to pray for you." (Judy adds, " I know what I wish I'd said: 'silently.'") If what you mean is, "I'm thinking of you and I care about you" -- say that. You don't have to add that you're thinking about your god.

11: "You're not part of this." I haven't heard many stories of believers saying this directly. But when groups of grievers -- families, co-workers, circles of friends -- focus every piece of their outward grieving on religion, it can make the nonbelievers in their midst feel like outsiders. Sam lost several close colleagues in the attack on the World Trade Center. When he was repeatedly told "they're in a better place," he says it was "like eating a cold ball of lead. It doesn't sit well and you're forced to just bear it because it's not the time to argue about whether an afterlife exists... The worst part of any of this was the feeling of isolation during a time that was very difficult." And when Sabrina's friend died, the other mourners around her spoke incessantly of religion, even saying her death was a good thing because she was in Heaven. "I was also grieving," she says, "except I was all alone in that crowded house."

I'm not asking believers to shut up entirely about their religion. I'm asking them to remember the nonbelievers in their lives. What grieving people mostly need is connection, a reminder that they're not alone. So think of ways to include them. Don't shut them out.

And finally:

12. "Why should any of this bother you?" When nonbelievers talk about how troubling they find this religious "comfort," we're often chided for being ungrateful. "People mean well," we're told. "Can't you focus on what they meant, and not on what they said or did?" It isn't just believers who chide us: some atheists do it, too. They themselves don't find religious language upsetting when they're grieving: they see it as well-intentioned, and they're willing to accept the intention and ignore the religious stuff they don't believe in. And they don't see why everyone else can't deal with it the way they do.

But not everyone grieves in the same way. And not everyone feels the same way about religion. If you don't understand why many grieving atheists find this language upsetting -- go back and re-read the rest of this piece. It spells it out pretty clearly. The point of consolation in the face of grief is to, you know, console the grieving person, and make them feel slightly less awful. Well-intentioned pain is still pain. If you can avoid causing more pain to people who are grieving, shouldn't you work to do that? If your attempts to console the grieving do cause pain, and your response is to get defensive and hostile, guilt-tripping the grieving person and making it all about you -- what does that say about your intentions?

And if you don't know whether the person you're talking to is religious -- bear that in mind. You don't know. The number of nonbelievers is significant and growing, and many are in the closet. As Dennis says, "My advice to Christians (this is America-centric) is not to assume that the grieving parties are receptive to your religious expressions and rituals. If you haven’t seen them at your church on a regular basis, then inserting your own religion during a time of grieving is inconsiderate."

There are plenty of things you can say or do to help people who are grieving: "I'm so sorry," "This sucks," "They were a wonderful person," "Here are some good memories I have of them," and "What can I do to help?" You can say these things to people of any religion, or people with no religion. If you're sincere about wanting to help, these are a good place to start.

Greta Christina's most recent book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. She blogs at The Orbit.

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