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.
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.
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.