When It's Not God's Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers
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4. "This sucks."
All too often, people who are trying to console the bereaved go overboard trying to offer consolation, perspective, philosophies and insights that might somehow magically make the grief disappear. It's an understandable impulse: someone you care about is in pain, you want to take that pain away.
But when someone is grieving, and the people they care about keep framing the death as not such a terrible thing after all? That really doesn't help. It can make it seem as if you're trivializing the death, and the depths of their grief. It can wind up making you the center of attention instead of them, prioritizing your desire to be the bringer of solace over their need to just go through their grief. And it can make it seem as if you don't want to deal with it: like you're trying to make their pain go away, so you don't have to look at it. As katiehartman said, "Don't recite platitudes that are meant to minimize or 'give meaning' to the death. Just don't. Philosophizing can feel shallow, distant, or like an attempt to move on to another topic."
So let them grieve already. Let them know that you know how bad they feel. Let them know that feeling bad is entirely normal and reasonable, and that you have compassion and understanding for just how lousy they feel. As Saro Jane said, "For me, the most comforting was simple and along the lines of 'I'm so sorry, that really sucks. I'm thinking about you.' Acknowledge that the loss is sad and shitty, let me know you care and are thinking of me. Done." And w_nightshade concurred: "My best friend (also a non-believer) lost his father last year. He said afterwards that what he wanted to hear more than anything was 'That fucking sucks.' An acknowledgement that he was hurting, and that was his right.
5. Just listen.
Jonathan said this perfectly on my blog, so I'm just going to quote him: "I think people obsess about the proper thing to say, when the real issue is figuring out the proper way to listen. The reality is that if someone is grieving, you don't have to say anything. In fact, there's nothing you can say that will make things better. If some one is grieving, all they need to know is that you understand their grief, that you empathize with what their going through, and that you're willing to shut the hell up long enough to let them express their grief."
Again: If you go too far trying to offer comforts and consolations, it can start to seem like you're making it all about you. This can especially be true when religious believers offer religious comforts to atheists. It becomes less about the atheist's grief and the ways they're struggling to manage it within their own world view, and more about the believer being wrapped up in their own beliefs... or worse, using the vulnerability of grief as an opportunity to proselytize. What's more, too much consolation can start to seem like you're trying to shut the grieving person up.
So listen. Let them talk. Ask questions about how they're doing... and listen to the answers, really listen, for as long as they want to talk. As anteprepro said, "There may not be a need to shove platitudes down their throats at all, you may just need to let them get things off their chest without reflexively trying to get them to minimize their sadness in the name of comforting them." And as Axxyaan said, "They have a right to feel as awful as they do and if that makes you feel uncomfortable, bear it or leave. Don't give in to the urge to fill up the silence. Just being there for the other in silence is often more comforting than whatever you say."