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When It's Not God's Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers

Believers or nonbelievers alike may need a refresher on these important points.

Photo Credit: Lisa S./ Shutterstock


If you know someone who's grieving a death, and they don't believe in a God or in any sort of afterlife, what do you say?

A lot of religious and spiritual believers find themselves stymied, at a loss for words, when the atheists and other non-believers in their lives are grieving. The comforts and consolations they're used to offering, and that they rely on themselves, don't do much good with atheists and other non-believers. "It's all part of a plan." "I'm sure they're smiling down on you now." "You'll see them in the afterlife." Etc. At best, these notions are useless for atheists: at worst, they're actually upsetting.

Some believers behave very badly at these times. It's all too common for religious believers to use death and grief, and the heightened vulnerability that comes with it, as an opportunity for proselytizing. And when confronted with the reality that non-believers usually aren't comforted by religious sentiments, believers often get churlish and defensive: insisting that grieving non-believers should be comforted when believers offer religious platitudes, and getting irritated or even outright hostile when we don't.

But many believers are entirely sincere in their desire to console the non-believers in their life. They care, they sympathize, they mean well. They genuinely want to help. They just don't know how.

Which is understandable. Even some non-believers have a hard time knowing what to say to the grieving non-believers in their life. Many atheists were brought up in religion: they've been brought up framing death and grief in religious terms, and dealing with it with religious customs. And in American culture particularly, our social customs around death are very much rooted in religion. So when atheists reject those customs, they often don't know what to replace them with.

So what, specifically, can people say -- or do -- to comfort and console the non-believers in their lives who are grieving?

There is no one right answer to this question, no answer that's going to be good for all people and in all situations. What you say or do with people who are grieving can, and should, vary tremendously depending on the situation: how close you are to the person who's grieving, how soon it is after the death that they're grieving, their unique personality, your unique personality, the nature of your relationship with them. And, of course, the unique nature of the person who has died, and the nature of their death, and the bereaved person's relationship to them, is going to affect what you say and do with someone who's grieving.

But I recently took a survey of readers of my blog, and of members of the Grief Beyond Belief online support group on Facebook, asking this question, and asking people what they'd found helpful in their grief. And a number of common themes cropped up quickly. If there's a non-believer in your life who's grieving a death, and you're at a loss about what to say or do, here are some good places to start.

1. "I'm so sorry."

This is the core of it. Express empathy. Your friend/family member/colleague is grieving, and you feel bad about it. Say so.

You don't have to be creative about the wording. When people are stymied in the face of grief, often they say that they don't just want to spout stock phrases. But some experiences are so common as to be near-universal, and it's okay if the words you choose are common as well. At times in my life when I've been grieving, I heard versions of "I'm so sorry for your loss" probably hundreds of times... and every single one of them meant something to me.

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