This was original writen by Liz Emery, and with her permison I am posting it here. Today one of my friends, a fellow soldier committed suicide. War brings people close, in someways closer than family. I would have happily given my life to save his, and its hard to deal with the fact that I should have seen the signs. Being an atheist its hard for me to be comforted in losing someone so close But life goes on, as I now search for ways to comfort his family and my others brothers and sisters in arms. I can only look to the future and help keep others from making the same mistake.
Dealing with Death for Nonbelievers
By Liz Emery
When I was sixteen, a very good friend’s young mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and died four months later. This was the first time I really had to confront the idea of death—until that point, dying had been something that happened to unlucky pets, great grandparents, and strangers on the news. At the time, my religion was a great source of comfort for me and gave me the answers I needed to justify a tragedy that was otherwise unjustifiable.
Just a few weeks ago, another good friend’s even younger mother was diagnosed with the same disease. This time, neither I nor my friend have a religion to buffer the ugly reality of death. This drove me to ask the question: How do you comfort a nonbeliever who’s grieving?
Although everyone deals with loss in their own way, there are some guidelines to remember and respect when you’re comforting someone you love who does not believe in an afterlife.
The most important is that, even though a religious worldview may bring you consolation, it can come off as arrogant and insulting. This may sound strange, but if you’re religious, imagine a nonbeliever trying to comfort you by saying, “I know you’ll never see them again.” You’d feel awful, right? The same idea works conversely by saying, “I know you’ll see them again,” to a nonbelieving person.
A woman named Torrie shared with me her reaction when her brother committed suicide and a congregation member trying to comfort her told her, “He is not in a happy place right now. He is still suffering.”
“I wanted to slap the woman,” Torrie told me, even though she knew the woman meant well. “But you know what? I didn’t, because I knew my brother was dead. He was gone. And he wasn’t sad; he wasn’t happy. He wasn’t in a better place; he wasn’t in a worse place. The matter that made my brother was no longer functioning in the form that I knew as Dave.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself; and when this is what you believe—that death in its finality is not to be assuaged by ideas of afterlife— there are clearly much better things to say than the woman in Torrie’s example.
A wonderful article on alternet.org called “When it’s not God’s plan: 8 Things to say to Grieving Nonbelievers,” has some great ideas, the most popular simply being, “I am so sorry.” No wordiness, no creativity, just plain and simple human empathy.
Another suggestion is to just say, “This sucks,” because it does suck; no matter how you deal with death, it’s hard to avoid the cold, hard fact that we suffer when someone we love dies. Rather than offering cliché platitudes that really don’t mean much, let them know you’re suffering right along with them.
Share stories of good times about the deceased; ask how you can help, with the sincere intent to do dishes for a week if that’s what it takes. Or better yet, don’t say anything and just listen. Companionship goes a long way when alleviating the stark loneliness of grief.
When it really comes down to it, none of us know what happens when we die. We believe, we hope, we resign ourselves to reality; and in the end, we all deal with it in the way we know best.
Atheists, agnostics, and others who may not believe in the afterlife still get angry about death; but when I asked atheist and agnostic students at Utah State concerning the matter, the overwhelming sentiment was not of sadness but of hope and happiness. Rather than waiting for an afterlife to provide the comforts of paradise, they all focused on creating a piece of heaven on earth and leaving the world a better place.
Ann Druyan, the wife of the late astronomer and agnostic Carl Sagan, said it best after her husband died. “Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again… But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting…the way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”