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Sympathy 101 for Atheists with AS

Updated on May 11, 2016
Kylyssa profile image

Kylyssa is an American atheist with high-functioning autism trying to navigate a mostly religious world with no well-beaten path to follow

Two hands holding the hands of another person in comfort
Two hands holding the hands of another person in comfort | Source

Expressing Sympathy to Religious People as an Atheist Can Sometimes Be Tricky

Even during the best of times, some religious people are offended by the fact that atheists don't believe in any gods or goddesses. To avoid upsetting those particular religious folks, atheists must often be very careful in their choice of words. During times of grief, a non-believer must be especially careful navigating the waters of interaction with the religious people who, in most cases in America, make up the vast majority of their friends and relatives. The wrong word or tone of voice can turn grief into anger and hatred, causing the loss of a friendship or a relationship with relatives and causing pain to grieving people.

While some atheists who are not autistic have told me they always instinctively know the right thing to say to grieving religious loved ones, people such as myself must learn or reason out responses in almost all social situations. From what I've observed in my relationships with other atheists online and among the few out atheists I've met in my life some non-autistic atheists also have a hard time knowing what to say when expressing sympathy to people who may be hostile toward them during times of grief.

Some of those non-believers deal with the grief of friends and loved ones by lying; expressing religious sentiments they simply don't believe. Others may still be in the closet and unable to find words that aren't lies, but that won't expose them as nonbelievers to people who might take it poorly. Still others may react by avoiding the situation for fear of causing pain to their religious friend or loved one through their discomfort with lying or an inability to lie convincingly to give comfort. This causes many people to see atheists as cold or uncaring during times of grief.

I wrote this page to help other autistic atheists and other people who do not instinctively know the right things to say to express their sympathy to religious people during times of loss without offending the grieving and without lying to them, either. It is my hope that it will give some atheists the tools they need to maintain their integrity and to express their sympathy honestly.

A heart-shaped leaf among green fern leaves
A heart-shaped leaf among green fern leaves | Source

Express Your Appreciation of the Deceased

If you know the deceased, you can relate positive ways the person affected your life. If you do not personally know the deceased, you can talk about the positive effects you have witnessed him or her to have on your friend or loved one.

Some examples:

"Your uncle Bob once stopped to help me change a tire. He saw I was shivering and let me borrow his coat, too. That's just the kind of guy he was."

"She made the world a better place with all she did."

"Every time your dad called, your face lit up."

Half-open wood grain casket with white satin lining
Half-open wood grain casket with white satin lining | Source

Recognize the Loss

The simplest of non-religious condolences

Express sorrow for your friend or loved one's loss. If the deceased is someone you also knew, express your own sadness about your shared loss. Your sincere condolences are meaningful, atheist or not.

Some examples:

"I'm so sorry for your loss."

"I was sad to hear of his death."

"It seems so unfair."

Three ceramic cherubs on their knees
Three ceramic cherubs on their knees | Source

Why Write this Page? Why Do Some Atheists Have Problems Expressing Sympathy?

It's hard to use a language you've seldom heard when you are autistic or not good at intuiting the right things to say

I wrote this page to address an issue that at least some atheists are very intimidated by. We think death is the end and our loved ones think death is the beginning, but they still need reassurance to comfort them during times of loss. It's a delicate enough thing to deal with when everyone involved shares the same beliefs. I think it is most important in life to do what is kind. That can be hard as heck when you don't know what the kind, yet still honest, thing to do is.

Autistic people usually have no inborn ability to navigate difficult emotional situations. We must, instead, learn how to respond to such situations and use that knowledge to guide what we say. We can learn what to say by carefully reasoning out what seems logical and trying it or we can witness or otherwise learn examples of how other people respond in such situations. When we've never, ever heard a non-religious expression of sympathy, we have to try to reason out the right thing to say. I have failed at this spectacularly a number of times, getting literally spat on in one instance. I'd like to save others from such experiences.

The vast majority of Americans are religious. In fact, most people in the world are religious. This has heavily affected the way people in our culture express sympathy. The expected and frequent things people know to say in the face of grief are nearly all religious. Funerals and memorial services are almost entirely religious ceremonies. It's only logical that most traditional and standard expressions of sympathy are religious in nature.

Some examples:

"She's in a better place."

"You are in my prayers."

"He's looking down from Heaven."

"She's waiting for you in Heaven."

"God called him home."

"Some babies are too good for this earth."

"She's with grandma now."

Atheists and agnostics surely have just as much sympathy for grieving loved ones as anyone else, but since grief is usually set in a religious framework in our culture it can be difficult to communicate sympathy without using the religious words. Autistic people usually learn how to express sympathy and condolences by seeing other people doing so. So few non-religious or secular condolences are offered during typical bereavement situations that the average American has probably witnessed very few to build their own from. About the only commonly said non-religious condolence is "I'm sorry for your loss" or some variation such as, "You have my deepest sympathy" and those only go so far and one can't just keep repeating paraphrases of them.

A Non-Religious Discussion of Grief

Godless Grief: An Atheist Discussion of Death, Grief, and Other Family Loss
Godless Grief: An Atheist Discussion of Death, Grief, and Other Family Loss

This book provides good insight into death and grief from an atheist perspective. I'd recommend it to all adult atheists and those who love them.

 

Recognize How Your Friend or Loved One Made the Deceased Person's Life Better

This can be as simple as expressing your knowledge of the love your friend or family member gave the deceased. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be well-loved.

Some examples:

"You made his life happier."

"You made her proud."

"Every living thing dies but not every thing knows love. You gave him so much love."

Aged scrapbook materials including a blank book, Polaroid photo, tags, and pieces of paper in sepia tones
Aged scrapbook materials including a blank book, Polaroid photo, tags, and pieces of paper in sepia tones | Source

Allow and Help Grieving Friends and Relatives to Communicate about their Losses

You can even facilitate talking about a loss by relating a positive anecdote about the deceased. You could also give the grief-stricken a journal with some mementos of his or her loved one's life already inside it. I think it important to acknowledge that the survivors of loss have lost someone, that there's a void left in their lives. This is true of atheists and believers.

Your happy stories about the deceased can be a comfort to grieving loved ones.

Woman walking a dog
Woman walking a dog | Source

Make a Sincere Offer of Help

Offer to be there if your grieving friend or family member needs you. It's best, however, to be specific because offers of "Call me if you need anything" are seldom taken seriously. You might offer to watch the grieving person's children so she can have some alone time if she needs it or so she can go make funeral arrangements. You could offer to come over and tidy up her house, walk or groom her dog, drive her or her children to places they need to go, or to temporarily take over some obligation she usually fulfills.

photo by Dcubillas
photo by Dcubillas

Don't Make Assumptions

This is very important!

One would logically assume that thinking of a dead loved one as hanging out in paradise would be less painful than thinking of that person as disintegrated and gone forever. But you shouldn't assume that.

If my partner were to die, I think I'd be more upset than if I got a letter from him saying that he was moving to Hawaii and would never contact me again. I would be hurt and sad but I'd know he was somewhere safe and happy if he were simply moving somewhere and leaving me behind. It's only logical that death would hurt more. But grief is emotional, not logical.

It may be that the particular person doesn't believe Heaven is real so they have the exact same pain an atheist feels when someone dies and they grieve the total nonexistence of their loved one. It may be they are afraid their loved on is in Hell being tortured forever. It may be that they feel they are going to Hell and will never see their loved one again, plus they are reminded of their own mortality at the same time. It may be that separation is a more intense pain for religious people than for atheists. Maybe a friend or relative cutting off contact would be just as painful as a death to a religious person. As atheists and individuals, we don't know the exact things going on in other peoples' minds.

We don't know why religious people don't get the amount of comfort from belief in God and Heaven that it logically seems they should. And, when someone we care about is experiencing grief, we ought not to speculate on it. Just accept it. Just accept that, for some reason, death is just as painful when one believes in an afterlife as it is when one does not. It may even be more painful for them if they believe their loved one is spending the rest of eternity in agonizing torment. Delving into the reason will only cause pain. So be kind and accept whatever it is they feel as valid.

You don't need to say, "I believe as you believe" to give comfort.

Two young women sitting close together, one whispering in the other's ear
Two young women sitting close together, one whispering in the other's ear | Source

Keep in Contact

After the funeral passes, many people make the odd assumption that the grieving is done. Usually, it is not. It's important to stay in contact with your friend or family member so that you truly are "being there" for him or her. A card that says, "Thinking of you" certainly wouldn't be out of line.

It's the job of friends and family to make sure the grieving person has the opportunity to get back into life after a loss. If he or she stops doing the things you enjoy together, don't stop inviting him or her. Instead, keep the offer open or even suggest new activities.

A crocodile opening its mouth above the water
A crocodile opening its mouth above the water | Source

Why You Shouldn't Lie

Atheists don't think God is real. It would be lying to say things relating to religion and grief that state the opposite. But, if it is comforting to the person who is grieving, why shouldn't the atheist lie and pretend to believe as the believer does? I think it is a bad idea for multiple reasons.

Dishonesty is never a good basis for a relationship. It is unfair to your friends and relatives and to you to put on a mask when the real you will do just fine. If your friendship or relationship is only held together with lies it is not a strong relationship. Chances are your friend or family member will eventually find out you are an atheist and a liar all in one package if you lie during times of grief and loss. A lie will always come back to bite you.

Stylized drawing of a man with a big empty speech bubble over his head
Stylized drawing of a man with a big empty speech bubble over his head | Source

The Honest Words an Atheist can use to Answer Hard Questions

Having different beliefs about the nature of reality can make communication difficult and perilous especially if you don't have the ability some non-autistics claim to have of always knowing the right thing to say. If someone who is grieving demands an answer to a religious question, such as, "Do you think he's in Heaven?" obviously you don't want to harm his or her beliefs at such a time but you need to respond in some way which is still honest. I've found that it's possible to be supportive of another's comforting beliefs without lying. You don't need to say, "I believe as you believe" to give comfort.

Some examples:

"If anyone is in Heaven, he should be, too."

"He was a good man, if anyone deserves such a reward, he does."

"He was a good person." - This one doesn't exactly answer the question but, instead leaves the answer up to the asker. If the person asking believes good people go to Heaven, it helps him feel more securely that his loved one is in Heaven without the atheist saying "I believe as you believe."

Sometimes words are not even necessary - a hug or soothing touch can speak volumes.

If you are religious, it would be helpful if you shared how you'd prefer people who don't share your religion to express their condolences. Please do not use this guest book as a platform for evangelism. It is intended for comments about the subject matter - how to show sympathy and support to grieving friends and family members when you don't share their beliefs.

© 2011 Kylyssa Shay

In What Non-Religious Ways Do You Express Sympathy? - Family Friendly, G-Rated Guest Book

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    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @fpherj48

      Thank you for your kind words. I figured someone should benefit from my painfully-earned hindsight.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Klylyssa. Very well done. I appreciate your sensitivity in suggesting how some can express condolences truthfully & appropriately, regardless of their own personal beliefs or whether autistic or otherwise.

      This is such a unique informational article, I wouldn't be surprised if it is not one of very few that come up in a search. In fact this qualifies as Page One google material, IMHO.

      I'll just add that there are simply many people who have a difficult time coming up with the right words, said in the proper manner, under just about any situation, funerals aside. On the other hand, those with a particular knack in communicating, seem to always say the perfect thing in the proper way at the right time.

      That's what makes the world go round maybe? All our many differences......Excellent work, Klylyssa. UP++pinned

    • Billie Kelpin profile image

      Billie Kelpin 3 years ago from Newport Beach

      I thought that might be the case...looking forward to it. I imagine you've had this experience. I met a lovely young mother in our complex one day who was out with her children Sarah, Noah, Ruth, and somebody else - adorable children. We were all smiley and I was exited to meet them. Then the young mom looked up at my husband and me and asked if we were Christians! I was so shocked that I didn't handle it well at all. I simply pointed to my husband and said, "He is." I would like to know a respectful way to handle a question like that.

    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      Actually, that flip side hub is already written and waiting for me to get off my butt and find some good photos to put on it!

    • Billie Kelpin profile image

      Billie Kelpin 3 years ago from Newport Beach

      excellent, excellent, excellent! It's the dilemma of being authentic and respectful of others at the same time. Loved how you handled this, Kylyssa. On the flip side of that coin, we have to need to be gracious when people, knowing our non-beliefs, nevertheless tell us they're praying for us. (Oooh, ooh...there's another hub.) Seriously...an important piece of writing here and a very creative and unique topic!

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      RinchenChodron 3 years ago

      Mostly non-verbally by just being there to hold their hand or give a hug.

    • Lynda Makara profile image

      Lynda Makara 3 years ago from California

      These are good suggestions for anyone. I think the most important thing someone who is grieving needs to hear is that you sympathize with their pain.

    • Lynne-Modranski profile image

      Lynne Modranski 3 years ago from Ohio

      I'm actually on "I believe in Heaven and a loving God" side of this view; however, I think in most instances, almost everything you've said works for believers AND non-believers. Even believers (especially those who are new to the faith or infants in their belief) don't always like reminded that their loved one is in heaven. "She's in a better place" and "heaven has another angel" are just a couple of examples of statements that have caused more grief than help (my husband is a pastor - so he hears more than normal the things that comfort people and the things that don't). In fact, as a sold out believer, I don't think everyone goes to heaven, only those who've accepted Christ. So, those statements can be painful if I know that my loved one never took that step. Even as a believer, unless the one grieving expresses comfort in the fact his or her beloved is in heaven, I don't offer that as words of comfort. Offers of prayer, memories and even an offer of a cup of coffee in a few days when the funeral is over are the best words people can hear. Even believers really just need to know they have a friend who will listen, care, cry with them or even just hang out and take their mind off their loss. I think there's only two differences in me and you when it comes to grieving over the death of a loved one. I feel as though I draw strength from Jesus Christ to face difficult situations, and I have hope of a beautiful eternity because I have Him in my life. Other than that, our grief is very similar. I still love and miss those who are no longer with me, and often just need a human being to help me through the grief. I really think any words that would bring you comfort during a time like this will also bring comfort to someone who believes in an afterlife.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      I found this page really helpful, although I'm probably not using it the right way! I am a Christian trying to express genuine condolences to an atheist on the death of a parent. I found your examples useful and a good starting point. Thank you for putting it together. Grief is tough, no matter who you are.

    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 4 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @anonymous: Any way you use it that helps you or someone else is the right way to use it.

    • BrandonCase profile image

      BrandonCase 4 years ago

      @Kylyssa: Thanks for the explanation, I am no long offended :).I think it was just a miscommunication, where at first it seemed to me that you were implying that Atheists in specific don't know how to be sympathetic...But I understand now :),And apologize if I sounded harsh.

    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 4 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @BrandonCase: My intent is not to offend. It is something based on my personal experience and the accusations that I, as an atheist, have nothing to offer grieving loved ones. I have personally been approached and chastised for not believing as others believe at the funerals of my own loved ones. I am autistic so I am an atheist who has difficulty expressing myself to people when I have no menu of acceptable responses ready or no script to work from. I was simply trying to be helpful to other people who find themselves without a "script" to deal with religious people suffering grief. I did not realize it would be offensive to suggest that people don't instinctively know what to say and do to comfort religious grieving loved ones.

    • BrandonCase profile image

      BrandonCase 4 years ago

      Honestly, I found this lens rather offensive.The last thing atheists need is another generalization suggesting we have some sort of limited capacity for caring or communication.I know it wasn't your intent, but simply titling the article "Sympathy 101 for Atheists" supports and inflames the idea that we lack this attribute.As does the header "Why Do Some Atheists Have Problems Expressing Sympathy?"None of the atheists I know have any deficit in communicative ability, nor are they have any less feeling than other humans.In times of sorrow, they express themselves just as effectively.And to suggest that as a community this is a hardship for us, is destructive to our already fragile image.So, please consider the ramifications of this representation.A few simple tweaks could really portray a different image...Like "Religious Sympathy 101 for Atheists" or"Why do some atheists find it difficult to communicate their sympathy to religious loved ones?"Anyway, just food for thought...Being enmeshed in what is often such a combative religious population, it's best to deprive them of fuel whenever possible :).

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      I offer generic condolences because I have no idea what the other person expects. So I send the most lovingly kind words possible. I also want to avoid promoting nonsense clichs. Your examples are right on target.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I enjoyed reading your article and found it very helpful. I thought it might be important to note that many of the trite religious condolences which you talked about at the beginning can be just as offensive to religious believers as they would be to a non believer. They are pretty much overused clichs that don't address the real suffering the person is going through. My experience tells me that fewer words are better and that presence is what is most important. A hug, a hand held speaks more then empty words.

    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 4 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @anonymous: I can't really answer for atheists in general but what I would want would be to have someone there being comforting and making sure my pain was completely controlled. Maybe it would be a good idea to ask them what they want? I've only ever comforted people I loved during their final hours so I was able to tell them how much they've made my life better and to tell them I love them, reassure them I was there, and so on so I'm as at a loss as to how to comfort someone I don't know aside from making sure they are as physically comfortable as I can make them. I think maybe anxiety control medication might be of help, too?

    • profile image

      neoglitch17 5 years ago

      Excellent lens. I absolutely agree: lying about your lack of belief in order to sympathize with believers going through a loss... is just a trap. To be supportive you don't need to believe in anything; all you have to do is to be... human, and be willing to actually help those who need you the most in such situation.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I found this article helpful, but could use further discussion. I am a hospice nurse, and as such deal with people who are religious and those that are not. Some are agnostic, at least until faced with dying, and then are fearful. Many of the patients that I come in contact with are fearful, just because what happens after death is a big "unknown". I try to get people to think of it as an adventure. The thing is, when the person is an atheist and truly believes they will "wink out", I don't know what to say other than to focus on their life and what they have meant to their loved ones. What if they truly don't have anyone? I can talk about what they have meant to me, but that is usually so short. I can hold their hand and let them know that I will do what ever I can to make sure that their death is how they want it to be and that they are not alone if that is how they want it. What else?

    • Kylyssa profile image
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      Kylyssa Shay 5 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @karen-stephens: If one defines religious as thinking God is real and believing that Heaven and Hell are real, well over half of Americans self-identify as religious. If it truly is just tradition to pretend to think God is real I wonder why most people I've met are so offended by the existence of atheists? Is it some kind of secret conformity thing?I'd find it incredibly bizarre if most people who say they are Christians actually don't think God is real. As someone who has had the tar kicked out of her for not being Christian, received death threats for the same, and who has taken in over a dozen gay kids (and one suspected gay kid who actually wasn't) who were thrown out of their homes for sinning and usually knocked around a bit on top of it, it seems awfully far to go for something people are only pretending to believe in. I can easily believe a person could love a God more than their own children but I doubt they would love a masquerade more than their own children. I'll believe people threaten me with all kinds of nasty things because they think I'm offending their God by existing but, again, it seems unlikely to me that they'd go to such extremes for a tradition.

    • karen-stephens profile image

      karen-stephens 5 years ago

      I don't agree that in the US most people are religious. How do you define religion? Just some areas of the US, such as the "bible belt" may truly be in belief-mode, but most religious people elsewhere act with religious traditions, but don't really believe in a deep way. You cannot mildly believe.. If there is a scale to the question of god...most people in north america would be closer to the the no-god end of the scale.

    • Ian Hutson profile image

      Ian Hutson 5 years ago

      I come from England where religion is about 1% as widespread as in other parts of the world such as the USA - here we keep quaint Vicars, nice old churches, pomp & ceremony for State occasions and forget the rest. My Mother was mildly religious, the remainder of my family is not. We approach death by trying to make sure that those involved can talk about the deceased; laugh, joke, cry (very important) and even criticise. We pay our respects by never forgetting loved ones and remembering them every day, even if just in a passing thought. As your lens mentions, it's pretty obvious that religious beliefs offer little or no comfort to the religious folk on bereavement, so I think it's important to offer practical help, physically being around someone and talking openly - clean up the wound by picking over it, to then let it heal. It's not as dangerous a practise as it feels - even just ranting or raving at me about my non-theism can be cathartic (and then we give them tea).

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I believe that all people of faith would appreciate the sensitivity you offer here. The most important thing is just that you take a moment to be thoughtful in work, a card or some other way that would be natural for you. The thing is no matter what differences we may have between us, we are more alike than different and everyone appreciates another person reaching out in whatever way is right for them. I know that you have prepared this teaching to be of help to atheists and agnostics but we can all learn from your Sympathy 101...excellent!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I try to be sensitive to the beliefs of others as a theistic-leaning agnostic. Some people are comforted by an offer to burn a candle for their loved one, some are not, so I always phrase the offer as a question that enables them to express a preference either way, especially if I don't know if they are believers or not or if their belief-system would conflict. I was rather shocked when one person responded rather nastily to my polite inquiry by saying that if it comforted me to mumble some words over a candle (not even what I do but whatever) fine but that they thought a personal god who allowed such awful things to happen was worse than no god at all (I never indicated such a belief). So I guess I want to add that it would be nice when both atheist and theist or agnostic or whatever are both grieving the very same death, try to respond to the kindness intended if they didn't know your status rather than get offended when no offense was intended. I let it go and just replied that since it didn't fit her beliefs I'd rather not. There are atheists who do ritual, by the way, so not all non-believers are exactly the same either. I would have been just fine with a "No I'd prefer it if you didn't since we are atheists." I did post a link for her to Grief Beyond Belief on Facebook.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This is a very well written article. One thing to consider: you seem to deal only with grieving people who had a good relationship with the dead person. People also grieve when the loved one was not a good person or they were not good to the dead person in his/her lifetime. It's a complicated course of grief that needs sympathy as well.

    • fincasquindio lm profile image

      fincasquindio lm 5 years ago

      Compassion doesn't come from a religious belief. It precedes it. Thanks for sharing. Good luck =)

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 5 years ago from GRENADA

      This is a well written and compassionate lens, Kylyssa. I am a Christian but I agree with your stance about not lying if you are an atheist. I think that many of the sympathy tips you expressed here can be used by anyone despite their spiritual belief or non-belief.

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      As a Christian, I found this Lens a reminder that we all go through trials in life and I hope to be as loving to an Atheist as I would a fellow Christian. Thanks for the interesting Lens.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      @AnnMarie7: I'm searching for ways to reach out to my relgious family members since we've lost our Mom and this has been helpful, but know that Christians read this and are open minded about our processes helps me through this. Thank you.

    • AnnMarie7 profile image

      AnnMarie7 5 years ago

      No, I'm not going to evangelize, but I am a Christian and must say that you have really changed my thoughts about atheists. This lens is very well-written, sensitive to the needs of others, and I'm sure it will be a great help to others who don't believe in God. I also appreciate it that you don't have a ton of ads cluttering up your writing. I'm going to ad this as a related lens on my new lens about sudden death. Thanks for sharing :-)

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thank you, I've been struggling finding the right words to say to people I care about without sounding like a phony or being untrue to myself. I've also found that when people are dealing with diseases or loved ones being terminal, I can't seem to find the right words to say either. I usually say, "your family is in my thoughts" or "I'm here for you." This article is very helpful.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      this is a great article! However, i was wondering if there are supportive things to say from one atheist to another, to comfort in the sorrow of their relative's fatal illness...when you both know death is coming, and both of you are atheists, as a friend what should be said to comfort in the waiting period?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I found this when looking for words to write to my sister-in-law who just lost her father after years of Alzheimer's. It was very helpful and kind. My sister-in-law's family are all quite Catholic, but I am not. They know this, and won't expect religious sentiments from me, but we don't all have to have the same cosmic outlook to be kind to each other. I'd like to think that we could all be tolerant, especially if we want tolerance from others and especially in a time of grief, and not use it as a time to grandstand about one's beliefs. It's a time to offer comfort, and as the essay suggests, there are plenty of ways to do it that avoid the entire issue (a particularly good idea if it's a hot button of anyone involved, imo). Thank you for a very useful essay that doesn't enflame but instead calms, and for some very helpful ideas.

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      Edutopia 5 years ago

      Giving advice, condolences, or sympathy as an Atheist is the same as giving good advice as a Theist. Say something honest to yourself and the situation. Fake platitudes are fake and dishonest regardless of the source, it is just more obvious when it comes from an Atheist in these situations.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      > The wrong word or tone of voice can turn grief into anger and hatred, causing the loss of a friendship or a relationship with relatives and causing pain to grieving people.Let's imagine the opposite situation: a religious person says something religious (which is perfectly acceptable to them) to me, and I end up hating them. In this case, would I not be to blame? Definitely!You have to accept that many people bear the seed of their own hate/anger, and that nothing can be done to ease that. The only way not to trigger that feeling would be to lie and say a religious thing, which is unacceptable, since we would never ask them to say something which is not religious. That is the double standard that religion has gotten us used to, and it's not acceptable.Instead of trying not to generate anger/hate (which we don't have much control over), we should instead try to act reasonnably according to our definition of respect, and not give in to their ridiculous definition of respect.People deserve entirely the bad feelings that are caused by their ridiculous ideas.

    • katemiya profile image

      katemiya 6 years ago

      Well written lens on a difficult subject. Much of this advice is also useful for interfaith encounters. Many Eastern religions believe in reincarnation, but that isn't a standard Christian belief, for example.You really hit the nail with empathy. It doesn't matter what your faith is or is not. Feelings are feelings. Grief is grief.

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      CarrieReikiMo 6 years ago

      Though I am not an atheist...I respect everyone's right to their own beliefs...Well organized lens and thoughtful!

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      Kylyssa Shay 6 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      @anonymous: I'm so sorry for your loss. Indeed, losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare. I know my parents were never the same again after the loss of my brother. Recognizing the loss is important in expressing sympathy. Recognizing that the person who is gone was a part of other people's lives who has been painfully amputated is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of expressing sympathy.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      My 28 year old son was just killed by a hit and run driver while riding his bicycle in a bike lane. He was heavily involved in atheist and separation of church and state groups, and was a dedicated activist for equality and justice for all people. Most people who know me don't know this about him and offer their religious expressions of sympathy, which are not comforting to me (though I understand everyone's intent and THAT is comforting). Among all condolences expressed, the one that really meant something to me was this written by a co-worker: "I am sorry you are going through my worst nightmare." This brave person's words touched me like NOTHING else has even come close. ... So I came to this webpage looking for ways that I can better express my own sympathy in the future. Thanks.

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      cmaethom1991 6 years ago

      so thoughtful, this lens will definitely help some people make steps towards unity despite belief or non-belief. very nice.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      A very interesting and an impressive perspective. Expressing sympathy without empathy is surely faking the issue. You have touched the right chords on this lens. Beautifully done. Thanks and good day.

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      lens4Him 6 years ago

      I am a Christian and would like to congratulate you on a very thoughtful and moving lens on a difficult subject. It isn't just atheists who don't know what to say, it can also be a problem for people of faith. When my wife died back in 98 I experienced people from my own church crossing the road to avoid me because they didn't know what to say. Conversely I had a former colleague who I knew was an atheist call me on the phone to say "I don't know what to say, but I wanted to say something". That meant more to me than a few insincere "you're in my prayers" . I wondered who these people were going to pray to.

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      MoonandMagic 6 years ago

      This lens is very interesting, and also quite confusing. I am not religious, I sometimes think of myself as atheist, sometimes agnostic. But to be honest I'd rather not put a label on it. I don't try to imagine what might happen at the end, but I can offer sympathy as well as the next person. Death is a natural part of life, and there is always a bright side, a long happy life, some beautiful grandchildren. Maybe they walk in heaven, maybe they nourish our living planet. I don't even consider sympathy or empathy as a religious thing, if someone you love is grieving, then be honest, as you say reminisce about their life, offer help and comfort. I think I would take offence if someone told me God had chosen them, instead of just offering condolences and comfort...Apparently this is something that I feel quite strongly about. Fantastic, thought provoking lens. Thanks.

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      yourgoldenfuture 6 years ago

      just hold them in the arms...no words needed often...ask them what THEY need...no need to evangelism...just being there...

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      Toothpaste4Cat 6 years ago

      Phenomenal page with very helpful information and suggestions that can actually be implemented in real-life situations that so often, do arise. Thanks for taking the time to tackle a sensitive subject!

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      GoldenChile 6 years ago

      what can i say. i love this page. this is a subject often overlooked by 'pop' atheists and one that constantly arises when i spend time with my family and friends. it happens a lot when you're one of the few atheists in your circle.

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      norma-holt 6 years ago

      A beautifully phrased piece of work on a ticklish subject. I have featured this on Religious Myths - Why Do They Exist.

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      Achim Thiemermann 6 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Most atheists I know behave much more lovingly than most self-proclaimed "Christians". We either follow our inherently "good" core of being...or we don't. In the end, labels such as "God", "Allah", etc. - as well as "No-God" - mean little. Only actions count.This lens is a masterpiece of "Good Will Toward All"! Thank you, Kylyssa! :)

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      KeenanSteel 6 years ago

      Fantastic lens, Kylyssa! What a tactful way to discuss tact. You condemn no one, suggest that people remain true to their beliefs, and offer some excellent tips. Well done, I'm glad I found this one.

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      Diana Grant 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      This is a very thoughtful lens and as you presumably don't believe in angels, I am not sure if Angel Blessings are appropriate, but I'm giving them to you anyway!I think that you can express sorrow for someone's loss and say how the deceased will be missed, without going into any religious aspects. I've attended a few non-religious funerals and the speeches and eulogies have been very moving.

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      MagpieNest 6 years ago

      It's the direct questions about my beliefs that I struggle with at times like this. I'm a humanist. I don't lie, but I very much consider the feelings of others. It's a good idea to think through responses ahead of time rather than being put on the spot.

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      snowcloud 6 years ago

      I believe the sheer fact that you are admitting to being atheist is the same as admitting you believe in any other religion.. you are just choosing not to accept them... If you truly don't believe in God you wouldn't even be worried about something called atheism. I don't believe in any religions I think they are foolish ways of controlling other peoples minds... I do however know (not believe) that something more powerful than you exists and is control and providing and breathing life into you every day **looks at the Sun**

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      stuhaynes lm 6 years ago

      Well written lens, difficult subject

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      ratetea 6 years ago

      This is an interesting and thought-provoking lens. Although I myself am religious, I think that the things that religion and spirituality are about deep down are universal and can be expressed even without referring to God in language. I really like how you get at this in this lens. I also like mypotlpeople's and javrsmith's comments about telling stories, and about giving a hug. I think caring touch like a hug or holding someone's hand can be very comforting when someone is going through a difficult time.

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      hotbrain 6 years ago from Tacoma, WA

      Good advice... Kind and thoughtful :) SquidAngel blessed :)

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      This has always been a problem for me. So frequently, people will ask for prayer for a loved one, assuming that everyone believes as they do. While I certainly hope for the desired result as much as everyone else does, I can't say that I'll pray for them. Still, I don't want to offend anyone, or have them think that I don't care. I usually say something like "I'm sending my best hopes", or "my best thoughts are with you"--but I think that sounds a little lacking--I did like the previous poster's mention of "healing thoughts", though. As an atheist, I found this a thought-provoking lens-- and I plan to come back and read your others, as well.

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      Jen 6 years ago from Canada

      I think a hug goes a long way, and sharing stories of loved ones it also good.

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      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      When people ask for prayers for someone who is having a hard time, I say "I'll be sending warm thoughts your way" or "healing thoughts." They can interpret it any way they want.

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      javr 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I like to share good stories about deceased that only I know. This lens has been recognized by a Squid Specialist.