Many readers are responding to this quote from Tiffany White:
Expressing concern and condolence over death and illness has always been a confusing linguistic contortion for me, a life-long atheist living in the Deep South. I’ve since settled for variations on “You’re in my thoughts”. Though I myself am at-peace with the concept of the end of life being the end of existence, so many people believe otherwise. “They’re at peace now” works well for condolences; it lets me be comforting without having to be disingenuous.
I faced this recently when a friend of mind suddenly lost her husband. Instead of “I’ll pray for you” there’s “I’m thinking of you” – logically they are the same thing and yet they feel different. On the other hand I feel that the loss of “I’ll pray for you” is as a whole a positive thing. Atheists know that prayer doesn’t help the recipient and yet makes the person praying feel like they’d done something to help the grieved. The atheist is forced, if they do care for the person, to do something that actually does help the grieving person – bring them food, help them give stuff to Goodwill, some actual thing to help. So in the end the loss of “I’ll pray for you” forces us to do more, and give more and be of personal help to the grieving person, and that is a good thing.
Oy vey. Tiffany White needs to get over herself. First, she’s not talking about grieving godlessly; she’s talking about being supportive of a friend (whose religious views she doesn’t disclose) who is grieving. Second, she’s assuming her lack of theism somehow limits her expression of consolation far more than it must.
I have been an agnostic for about 40 years, which – for the purposes she’s describing – is not that different from being an atheist. But more important, for about 20 years, I have been a Unitarian-Universalist – that is, I choose to belong to a religious community that works with its members to support them (and others) through life’s joys and sorrows, even though it eschews creedalism. A lot of UUs serve as chaplains. (Try listening to this podcast about Kate Baestrup, a UU chaplain with the Maine Warden service. )
When you are with someone who is grieving, it is your job to be present – physically, emotionally, and intellectually – and to focus on that person and her pain. It is not your job to worry about the finer points of your theology and what your theology says. Suppose you believed in the god of the Catholics. Could you say nothing comforting to a Baptist? To a Jew? To a Hindu? What happens to people when grief washes over them? Do they sit around like theology professors gauging the doctrinal nuances of what people say? C’mon.
Here’s what you can say: “I hear you.” “I brought you some supper.” “I’ll put it in the refrigerator.” “I’ll help you with the acknowledgement notes” “Yes.” “You’re right.” “Let me give you a hug.” “I know she loved you.” “I know she knew you loved her.” What the bereaved says and the bereaved needs determine what you say, not your religious beliefs.
Whenever I comfort anyone who’s lost a loved one, family member, or friend, I say the same thing, which I believe to be true for atheists like me or for believers: “I am so sorry. I know, though, that the depths of your grief equal the heights of your love.”
When my first husband died, just about everything other than “I am sorry for your loss” – in its many forms – set my teeth on edge because no one could really understand just what I was feeling because to do that they needed to be me. People worry too much about this anyway. Just showing up or just acknowledging the loss, in even the smallest way, is better than a mass market sympathy card or straining your creative side trying to find a unique way to acknowledge a pain that never really goes away and is something that we will all know sooner or later and is a human reality that scares most of us witless.
Personally, I am waiting for the day when we can say, “Damn, this fucking sucks.” But that probably won’t happen.