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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.

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2. "I remember when... /My life is so much better because of..."

In the face of death and grief, we often have a reflex to shy away from discussing the person who died. We think it'll be too painful, that it will make the loss too fresh or immediate.

But many grieving people say exactly the opposite. They want to hear stories about the person who died. They want to know that the person they love will be remembered, and missed. This is true for anyone -- but it may be even more true for atheists. Atheists don't generally believe in an afterlife: for us, the only thing we have that approaches immortality is the work we've done, the memories people have of us, the ways the world is different because we were here.

So tell stories. Talk about how the person who has died touched you. Talk about something sweet they did, something brave, something generous, something funny. Talk about how your life is better because they were here. Say how much you admired them. Say that you'll miss them. (Assuming it's true, of course.)

In the conversation on my blog, a commenter with the handle Grim described the humanist funeral of her grandmother in a very positive way: "We were there to remember her as she was. We shared stories and anecdotes, acknowledged the role she'd played in our lives and we remembered her and that's the best thing, I think. To be positive, to remember the good (and bad) and to know that the person had an influence on our lives." Others shared their experiences. Tamsin had a very specifically atheist and humanist take on this as well: "I was also very moved when one of Mum's friends from her childhood told me that he didn't feel that Mum was entirely gone -- not in the sense of her spirit watching over us or whatever -- but because he kept noticing bits of her -- a turn of phrase, a facial expression, an aptitude, a firmly-held belief -- in me and my sister."

When RedSonja spoke at her father's funeral, "I shared something a friend had told me when I mentioned that I felt I could talk for hours, but we didn't have that kind of time; she said 'You were lucky to have had a father that you can speak of for hours with love. Not everyone does.' And I talked about how Dad was still with us; in his books, his jokes, his family members." Dea commented, "When I lost my grandma last year, the most healing experience was talking with other people about their memories of her and especially their feelings about how she impacted the lives of those she loves. Because that is where the dead live on -- in our hearts, our memories, and if it was family -- our genes. Whenever I see a trait of my grandmother in one of my aunts, or even in myself, I wonder if that was part of the (obviously unconscious, but no less valued) inheritance she left to us. I find comfort in these thoughts."

Steve Bowen said that, when his father died, "the best and [most] memorable comments were from people who had known my father in situations we did not share in common; little anecdotes and insights into his character that made me smile and remember the living, loving, gregarious man he had been and left me feeling that I knew him even better than before." Kemist said, "I lost my best friend to cancer this summer... For us, the thing that helped most was our being together, and our sharing our memories of my friend. Can you actually believe that we all laughed when her father told us of some silly stunt his daughter did?"

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