Ask Richard: Relating to Religious People At Times of Grief October 23, 2009

Ask Richard: Relating to Religious People At Times of Grief

Good morning Richard.

In the past week both an employee of the company I work for and the father-in-law of a co-worker died. Non-related. Inevitably situations came up where I was in a conversation with co-workers who were all saying “At least they are in a better place now.” When I didn’t join in with that type of comment I received some disapproving views. Can you suggest a polite way to empathize with people in this situation.

Thank you,

Dear Tony,

You can empathize as a human being to human beings, about the human being you all have lost. Talk about the deceased in terms of what they did in life, especially how they related to others, how they expressed their better qualities. Keep in mind that when religious people say things like “He’s in a better place now,” the purpose is to soothe their own sadness as well as the sadness of someone who might have been closer to the deceased. Sadness needs simply to be acknowledged. “It’s sad.” “I’m sad.”

When the more religious people talk about how the person will “live on” in the afterlife, you can talk about the things that you think will “live on” in the form of good memories or of their continuing positive influence on you or others:

“He always had a constructive thing to say, was always encouraging. I want to remember that and try to do that too.”

“One time Cindy was really down and Nancy (the deceased) went out of her way to cheer her up. And you know, a couple of days after that, I saw Cindy doing the same thing for another person. It was like she was passing Nancy’s gift along.”

“I had an argument with him once, and we didn’t get along for a while. He didn’t have to, but he made it clear to me that he wanted to be friendly again. That made it easier for me to apologize for my part of it. I’m still grateful to him for that.”

Atheists and humanists tend to be very here-and-now oriented, and often have a strong trait as problem solvers. The deceased will most likely have surviving family members, and in the here-and-now they will be facing problems that need solving. Express your concern about them and ask if they need any assistance.

When the more religious people talk about their grief, ask them if there is anything you can do to help, to take care of some ordinary task while they deal with the emotions, the upheaval and the fatigue. In the throes of grief, a simple errand can seem overwhelming. An offer to do a few of these can be not only helpful in mundane terms but also deeply healing and soothing because it is a humble gesture of caring. If they say you can pray for the deceased or whomever, say that how you express your caring is by helping in some way, that you want to honor the person’s memory through something tangible. If they say thank you, but there’s nothing you can do, then just nod and accept the helplessness. Often for those on the periphery of grief, those who only slightly knew the deceased, the awful thing they have to endure is helplessness. Even if there is nothing you can do, or nothing you are allowed to do, the caring still helps to soothe those who grieve.

Or if it’s there for you, just grieve with them.

In times of emergency or danger, the vast amount of things we have in common with our fellow human beings come to the forefront, and we have no difficulty relating and empathizing with each other. Our differences in religion or politics are so tiny and petty compared with our deeper shared humanity that we completely forget or disregard them until the crisis has passed. Grief for a fallen fellow can sometimes bring us together that way, or sometimes it will happen if we put some effort and willingness into it, but whenever that amazing clarity and cleanness happens, whenever we can just be humans with humans, it can be so joyful, so refreshing that it’s a kind of second sadness when things settle down again and we return through sheer habit to our old positions, our trenches of resentment, suspicion and enmity.

Oh, would that we could remember our brotherhood in between the crises.


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  • keddaw

    Best not to bring this up with the bereaved, but I have always found the phrase, “At least they are in a better place now.” to be crazy. If the person was in pain and death stopped their suffering that’s one thing, but if they really believe heaven is where they went and it’s a great place then ‘at least’ doesn’t make sense. They should celebrate someone’s death, sad only that they didn’t die sooner. Anything else is selfish.

  • Julie Marie

    that’s really nicely put, Richard.

  • After a death is an awkward time and we often are at a loss for what to say. At such times, platitudes, although clunky and trite, are our friends. Both of my parents had dementia, but my dad lingered for many years. I accept things like: “He’s not suffering anymore” and “It’s a release [for both the deceased and the family].” I don’t even mind the religious platitudes because they were kindly meant.

  • Like marf, I accept whatever people say, because they mean it well. And on hearing the “better place” I just try to be as sympathetic as I can, there is no need to argue said “better place”

  • Well said, Richard.

  • there’s the flip side — if you’re an atheist and grieving, how do you handle the religious?

    i lost my mother only a few days ago. i posted an image and some thoughts here:

    although a few religiously-toned comments slipped in, most respected my wishes.

  • good advice

  • Ron in Houston

    To me, empathy is being able to walk in another’s shoes. It is being able to accept their reality while putting aside our judgments.

    So, when someone says, “they are in a better place,” I accept that as a statement of their belief system about the person’s death.

    Besides, life can be a pretty big pile of crap sometimes so maybe there is some truth to the statement.

  • there’s the flip side — if you’re an atheist and grieving, how do you handle the religious?

    I’ve posted this before, but it really resonated with me. It’s from Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am A Strange Loop:

    In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brigher and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.

    The slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being–truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig–is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.

    It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

    I think in some way, it satisfies the yearning for the deceased to live on in some way.

  • N

    Our differences in religion or politics are so tiny and petty compared with our deeper shared humanity that we completely forget or disregard them until the crisis has passed. Grief for a fallen fellow can sometimes bring us together that way, or sometimes it will happen if we put some effort and willingness into it, but whenever that amazing clarity and cleanness happens, whenever we can just be humans with humans, it can be so joyful, so refreshing that it’s a kind of second sadness when things settle down again and we return through sheer habit to our old positions, our trenches of resentment, suspicion and enmity.

    Beautifully put, Richard.

    I recently lost a close family friend. It was the first death of someone close to me that I’ve had to deal with since letting go of religion. Everything Richard said is spot on.

  • JB Tait

    Curl up your fingers and make a fist, or sit down and make a lap. Then open your hand or stand up. Where did the fist go? Where did the lap go? Did you, contrary to the laws of physics, destroy matter? Of course not.
    They are patterns and are more like verbs than nouns. They still exist exclusive of the body on which they were first formed, in your memory, in the concept.
    A person is more than the body that died. There is no reason their pattern can’t persist beyond the physical unit it was bound to when we knew them. There is no way to prove there is an afterlife because we have no way to communicate with the pattern after it is free of the matter that kept it anchored in 3-space and linear time. But there is no way to prove there is not an afterlife.
    So many who have had a near death experience have reported feeling wonderful, serene, and really happy, that the pattern might well go “to a better place” after the body dies.
    And then there are the folks who have the “Life stinks–and then you die” experience. For them, nothingness is a better place.

    With these two ideas in mind, you can agree with the religious person without accepting their idea of Heaven, reward, Hell, or any of the other religion-based concepts.

    If you really want to distract them from their grief, you might ask them if they think Hell is really better than this mortal coil. No one is perfect and if the deceased didn’t confess or atone or perform some other rite just in time (according to whatever religion requires it) then Hell is the destination by their definition.

    Or you could confuse them entirely and be totally cruel and insulting by saying, “I agree–a much better place. I’ll get the Koolade.”

    There is no risk in agreeing there is an afterlife. If you die and there is not, there will be no accounting. If there is, you can say, “I told you so.”

    The strongly held belief that we will be reunited with our loved ones seems to ease the pain of loss. A kind person will nod, sympathize with their pain, and let the whole thing go.

    To a person whose guiding precept is to do what is right, it is insensitive and inappropriate to try to turn their time of mourning into a teaching moment.

  • As an example of what NOT to do, I once saw a video by evangelist Bill Hybels (author of Walk across the room) and he argued that it is particularly in times of grief that evangelism is most effective because a person’s defenses are weakened. I thought that was the most disgusting advice I ever heard. I think grief is particularly a time to honor a person’s individual beliefs (or lack there-of) and there should be an overall “time-out” in any evangelism what-so-ever.

    I thought Richard gave some good advice.

  • muggle

    Excellent advice, Richard!

    It’s neither the time or place to preach for or against God. Let it pass.

    I have always found that anyone of any religious or nonreligious mindset takes comfort in my telling them to cherish them in their heart and remember them fondly and their dearly departed will live on in them when they do. It’s certainly the truth and it kind of reminds them that, hey, I was lucky to know them, spend time with them and have all these great (and great means the bad and good, all the time spent in this relationship) memories of them without lecturing them to.

    Jeff, sadly, that’s all too common. They hone in like vultures when someone dies.

  • Tony

    Thank you Richard.

  • Polly

    My wife who is a believer could barely tolerate all the religious bromides she received when her mother died and then, 2 years later, her grandmother died. She didn’t want to hear people telling her that she’s in a better place even though she herself belived that, too.
    It’s just not helpful to the grieving.

    Added to that were some of her incredibly annoying relatives who faced the deaths with outright denial that anything bad really happened. After all, these women were now in heaven. Gag me with a fucking spoon.
    I, myself, was rather annoyed with 2 who could NOT shut up for 2 seconds about Jesus and who were expressing their comfort that, yes, indeed, grandma was “saved” ascertained based on recent conversations.
    WTF? STFU!

  • Alek

    I’m a new reader but I’m already liking Richard’s thoughtful responses. It’s like he’s unencumbered by having to conform his answers to some dogma, or something…

    I go back and forth between being a “soft” atheist (“Live and let live”) and a “hard” atheist, a la Harris or Hitchens. Circumstances play an important role in choosing which to adopt in the moment. Religion largely exists to provide answers to questions like, “Where did Mom go when she died?” — with comforting answers like, “To Heaven, where she’ll be chillin with God and Jesus for eternity, it’ll be awesome and you’ll get to go too.” The religious define themselves by how they answer The Big Questions, and while we could easily mock them for their dopey answers, we need to remember that they’re human beings too, grieving and mourning, and to hit them while they’re most vulnerable would be cruel.

    We should also remember that they’re all atheists-in-waiting, and their times will come…

  • On the question of what you can do…use the person’s name. The worst part of the death of someone close to you is that people stop using the person’s name. It’s like they’re being erased and will soon be forgotten.

    The deceased is referred to as ‘your relation’, ‘your wife’, ‘your husband’, ‘your child’. But seldom as ‘George’, ‘Martha’, ‘David’, ‘Julie’.

    There’s more comfort in knowing the dead person’s name is not forgotten than in the thought that ‘he/she is in a better place’.

  • muggle

    Hmmm, Judith, interesting. Honestly don’t know if I’ve been guilty of that or not. Some strange psychology there.

  • Dave

    After several close relatives died in the past few years, I am reminded by what a friend said: “the real pain begins when the phone calls and consolations end.” People all too often focus on the deceased and not on the people who live on with the intense pain and loss. Sure, they need help and support through the funeral and shortly after, but then when they are most alone and lonely, all the friends and family seem so far away.

  • K

    What’s even more awkward is being a Mormon and bringing your non-Mormon friends to your mother’s Mormon funeral.

    “Why is she dressed up like a bride?”

    Um… how to explain…

    What gets me is when someone asks me to pray for them, whether they’re facing illness, hard times, or a loss. What to say? I have a friend who insists I can pray for her even though I’m an atheist. I’ve had to sit her down and say, “Look, I know you’re going through hard times right now. But it’s frankly insulting to me that you insist I pray for you when you know I’m an atheist. I am here for you and offer my shoulder to cry on and whatever you need, just say it. But I will not promise to pray for you. It is not helpful when I can spend that time doing something for you instead. Even if it’s just sitting here listening to you. That is something I can do for you, and it would be dishonest of me to promise something I cannot keep.”

    I rather like the idea of doing some kind of work in honor of the deceased. In fact, think I’ll put that in my will, to have my family do some kind of service work in my name whenever I die.

  • Anonymouse

    I wanted to extend my condolences to those who have lost loved ones.

    I think it’s really wrong of people to hassle someone if they don’t share the “gone to a better place” view. In ways, it’s really sick that someone would even say that unless the person was in pain/terminally sick.

    In any case, people grieve in their own way and no one should be socially or otherwise punished for not having religious dogma. To us, the person SIMPLY DID NOT go somewhere better.
    Grief doesn’t have one face. Some people cry and cry, some internalize everything, some are numb for a very long time.

    The thing is, you can’t do anything to help the source of the situation. The person is gone. You CAN, however, let them know that you are there to listen. If you live close by, offer to take care of any kids involved for a few hours, cook them a meal they can reheat (like pasta/soup) or even offer to do some laundry for them. You can also respect the memory of the person who has died. Talk about some good things about them.

    Another note-
    One thing people often dismiss is the pain involved with the loss of a pet, or a miscarriage. My friend had a late miscarriage a few years ago and I felt helpless to help her. It was an excruciating part of her life. There was nothing I could do to help. She wanted a child badly and it didn’t work out at that time (she has 2 beautiful children, the second of which was conceived after the miscarriage). What I did do was try to be there for her.
    As far as pets go, most people spend time with their pets more than their parents, siblings, or other family members. The pain felt when a pet dies for some (including myself) is just as bad as a person.

    I guess the point of my post is to reiterate that just as many atheists and agnostics are sensitive and empathetic as their religious counterparts. Actually DOING something for someone, I feel, is better than praying for comfort for them. It’s best to just be there for one another, and you don’t need religion for that.

  • Carlie

    I also struggled with this when I became an atheist, and have finally realized that now I have a more empathetic reaction. Saying they’re in a better place, or in some cases “Maybe they were a Christian and you just didn’t know” to religious zealots who had a nonbelieving relative die, is just pushing the grief away. Better to cry with them, or hold them when they cry, or just quietly do their dishes and put the casserole in the oven.

  • JrzyGirl

    When my infant son died at 4.5 months, the nun at the hospital told me flat out that god felt my pain, but he needed Sutter in heaven more than I needed him on earth, so I should take some comfort in that. It was all I could do to not scream at her that I had never heard anything so stupid in my whole life. And, believe it or not, I actually got some solace from a book written by a rabbi – “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” – not so much the religious parts, but how basically anything can happen to any one at any time, and trying to make sense of tragic accidents is useless and will only make you crazy. Which, I suppose, is a good description for many Xian beliefs…

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