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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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And Julia Burke told a story of keeping memories alive in a very down-to-earth way: "My mom's beloved brother ("Ben") died at 21 after a car accident; she was 17 and devastated. Among all the kind words, memorials, and events, one gift stood out. Ben's girlfriend compiled a journal of his favorite book quotes, poems, passages, and stories, as well as material of his own; Ben was a gifted writer with a passionate love of language and literature, and the journal was packed with words that had touched him and words of his that had touched her over the years. Today, over forty years later, my mom can pick up the journal and enjoy her brother's wit, intelligence, and sensitivity. And though her children never knew their would-be Uncle Ben, we can pick up the book and spend a little time with his memory -- we even share many of the same favorite writers. I can't imagine a better gift for a grieving person, atheist or otherwise. In the throes of a gut-wrenching loss, knowing that a loved one will always be remembered and that his or her passions, talents, and quirks touched many lives can be a powerful comfort -- one rooted in this world and this life."

3. "What can I do to help?"

Grief can be exhausting. It can make it difficult to manage everyday tasks, such as cooking and cleaning. So make an offer of practical help: one that's appropriate for your relationship. Nothing says "I care about you and am sincerely sorry for your loss" like vacuuming, babysitting, or making a pot of homemade soup and freezing it into a dozen Tupperwares.

When he spoke about his father's death, BT Murtagh had nothing but praise for his father's friends who would "cut my Mum's grass, clean the rain gutters, all manner of small practicalities." Sambarge said, "For a closer/good friend, I'd add meals delivered to the house, visits where I vacuum the floor and wash dishes and time spent just talking about the person or the weather or whatever the grieving person wants, basically." Denise agreed: "If I know the person/family more closely, I'm inclined to lean more toward action anyway. What do they need? Are small children involved who could be babysat while attending to post-funeral stuff? Would a house cleaning service be helpful for a couple of months? How is the person/family faring with food, since cooking is not often on people's minds at time of loss...?"

And Don F said, "There were three things people said that I found the most useful when I was grieving my fiance's death: 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' 'I know there's nothing I can say that will make you feel better.' 'Let me help by [doing something useful].' Those useful things included taking care of my house and my children while I couldn't, making sure I was eating well, and listening to me talk about what happened and what Bonnie had meant to me."

Now, it's important to be aware that not everyone will want this help. Some people find routine chores to be comforting during grief, giving both distraction and a sense of normality and continuity. But many others will want, and need it. It's a good idea to make the offer of help as concrete and specific as possible.

As Grief Beyond Belief founder Rebecca Hensler pointed out, "Sometimes, particularly in the first days of grief, answering the question, 'What can I do to help?' can itself be a burden. Offering to do a particular task, for example, 'Can I come by and pick up your laundry?' avoids the moment of panic when the grieving person realizes that she can't even remember what needs to be done, much less do it. Keep in mind as well that a person grieving a spouse is often forced to take on that spouse's responsibilities in the midst of grief. For example, if your grieving friend's wife was the one who always dealt with automobile maintenance, temporarily taking over car-related tasks may be most helpful."

 
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