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What do you say to a grieving atheist?

I went to my first Meetup with the Atheist Community of San Jose last night (what a hip group!). The guest speaker was Rebecca Hensler, founder of a project called Grief Beyond Belief.

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Rebecca has founded a “faith-free” online community for people who are grieving over the deaths of people they love. It seems fairly obvious that ‘reassurances’ about God, angels, and heaven cannot give comfort to people who don’t believe in such things. But as Rebecca shared her experiences and insights, it became clear that such expressions can be worse than unhelpful — they can compound a grieving person’s trauma.

Her talk contained a few examples of things that believers had said to ‘comfort’ her about the loss of her son Jude, who had lived only three months. These utterances ranged from lame apologetics (e.g., Jude’s death was God’s way of prompting Rebecca to start a grief support organization) to absurd speculation (e.g., “[My adult daughter who died] is holding Jude in her arms right now.”)

She also identified some expressions that are hurtful to anyone who is grieving — chief among them, “I understand how you feel” (especially when followed by “because my cat died”!).

It was especially valuable to hear anecdotes from her life and from online conversations she had moderated, illustrating how deep and debilitating grief can be. This made it even clearer why religious or superstitious ‘comfort’ affects nonbelievers the way it does.

During Q&A, I asked Rebecca for her thoughts on “gracious and constructive” ways for a secular person to respond to well-intended faith-based statements, such as “She’s in a better place” or “You’ll see him again in heaven.” Her response was enlightening. I will paraphrase:

  • A person dealing with the death of a loved one may feel little compulsion to be gracious, and this is understandable.
  • An important function of Grief Beyond Belief is to keep its members out of situations where that kind of graciousness is necessary.

As Rebecca’s answer sank in, I realized I had been viewing these hypothetical believer-nonbeliever conversations from the perspective of an activist or evangelist. It’s true that any conversation with a person of faith is an opportunity to help him or her on the path to a more reliable epistemology, but who says we have to leap at every opportunity, regardless of our feelings, needs, abilities, and circumstances? Expecting fellow nonbelievers to be perpetual ambassadors, always on duty, at the expense of their own well-being — well, that’s the kind of irrational values system that drove so many of us out of religion in the first place!

One more take-away: In her talk, Rebecca said that people tend to open up when they are asked to give details about the person they lost. That is not surprising, and it helps illuminate why statements — particularly fantasy-based statements, but really any kind — are so unhelpful for people experiencing grief: They are conversation stoppers. “She’s in a better place [and that’s that].” “You’ll see him again in heaven [so stop being sad].” Giving a bereaved person the floor — to talk, to cry, to be silent — seems much more compassionate than delivering a tired sound bite.

I admire Rebecca for starting and running Grief Beyond Belief, and I’m grateful for what I learned from her talk.

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