Sympathy 101 for Atheists with AS
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.
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.
"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."
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.
"I'm so sorry for your loss."
"I was sad to hear of his death."
"It seems so unfair."
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.
"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
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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