When It's Not God's Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers
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What's more, some people will go through some or all of these experiences at different times in their grieving process. And different people go through grief at different paces. Most grieving people say that grief never goes away entirely -- my own mother died over 30 years ago, and I still have moments when her absence from my life hurts like major surgery. But some people manage the worst of it quickly, and are functioning in their everyday lives fairly soon after the death. Other people need more time to return to their routine. And again, none of these is wrong.
If you're concerned that someone's grief is triggering serious clinical depression -- if exhaustion is shading into paralysis and torpor, if someone's life is seriously disintegrating and they aren't managing it at all -- that's different. That may well call for some sort of intervention, depending on your relationship. But don't go the "Sheesh, it's been three months/ six months/ a year, and you still haven't gotten over it, what's wrong with you?" route. There's no reason that your timetable should be their timetable. And again, it can read as if you're uncomfortable with their grief, and are trying to make it go away so you don't have to deal with it.
So does it seem as if this advice doesn't just apply to atheists? Does it seem as if most, if not all, of these guidelines would be just as useful when dealing with religious believers who are grieving? Does all this seem like just ordinary human compassion, with some common sense and understanding of human nature applied?
If so -- yes. You're absolutely right. Human beings are human, and while atheists and believers do commonly have very different approaches and philosophies about life and death, we're still the same species, with the same basic set of emotions. And in fact, many grief counselors advise that, even if a bereaved person has religious beliefs, it's not always a good idea to bring them up when they're in the depths of their grief. Even for someone who does believe in Heaven or a divine plan, it can seem trivializing and dismissive to hear "You'll see them again soon enough" or "Everything happens for a reason."
So if you're wondering what to say to grieving non-believers? Say exactly what you'd say to grieving believers. Just leave out anything you might say about God, or souls, or an afterlife... and let us know that you want to help us, and that you're sorry for our loss, and that we're not alone.