My Advice for Accepting Religious Condolences as an Atheist
How to Accept Overtly Religious Condolences as an Atheist
When someone we love dies, the last thing anyone wants or needs are empty and trite religious platitudes. No, that sentence didn't need the word "atheists" in it; grieving people of all sorts don't get any benefit from un-felt mutterings. They aren't helpful. They aren't even kind. They appear to be just some kind of social convention certain people feel obligated to fulfill. Unfortunately, many of us are stuck getting them when we are least emotionally able to handle them.
Minimizing the Stress and Pain Religious Condolences May Cause
Over the years, I've figured out how to make what seem like meaningless, token, trite, or unfeeling supposed condolences from religious people less painful for me to experience. I wish I'd had that information years ago because religious expressions of sympathy have sometimes been unwelcome, grief-magnifying intrusions during my times of loss. They made me feel isolated, disrespected, and unwanted, and they interfered with my mourning process. They made me feel like the people who uttered them didn't give a damn about my dead loved ones—and certainly not about me.
I've also learned how to accept and appreciate the genuine religious offerings of condolences in the spirit of their intent. While the trite condolences might make some non-believers angry, I actually think that heartfelt sympathy expressed through a religious lens can be harder to truly appreciate in the spirit with which they are intended than the meaningless lip-service type of babbling is to ignore or put aside.
I wish I'd known these things and developed these strategies a long, long time ago. It would have saved me a lot of completely unnecessary pain and feelings of alienation. That's why I decided to share them.
I don't know if any of my suggestions will be of any use to you, but I hope they are. I'm not a therapist or grief counselor; I'm just an atheist human being who has repeatedly suffered grief in religion-saturated circumstances.
I believe we should do what we can to limit needless suffering in any way we are able. This page is an amateur, but heartfelt, attempt to reduce the pain of atheist, agnostic, and non-believing grieving people of all sorts.
An Explanation for Why Overtly Religious Condolences Can Be Upsetting or Offensive
Atheists don't believe the same thing you do as a believer. To a nonbeliever, God and Heaven are not real beings or things, so when you say, "He's in a better place" it sounds an awful lot like you are saying the loss didn't happen.
Pretend someone you love has died. Pretend people keep coming up to you and, instead of saying they are saddened by your loss, they keep saying that it's OK, your loved one is waiting for you in a luxury colony on the moon. Or they say you'll join him when you die if you only believe hard enough in the luxury colony on the moon and the immortal person who runs it. Mind you, they know you don't believe in the luxury colony on the moon or the immortal who runs it. Now, imagine they take it further and use the death of your loved one to try to sell timeshares to the luxury colony on the moon. Imagine how those things would make you feel. Replace luxury colony on the moon with Heaven and immortal who runs it with God and that's about how I feel when people start evangelizing to me when I've lost a loved one.
If none of those analogies help you understand, let's try something else. How would you feel if someone came to your loved one's religious funeral and took the opportunity to speak about how they feel God and Heaven are not real and that anyone who doesn't share their belief is a fool?
Death is real to atheists; it is the end, and the dead person is gone. Claiming death isn't real to someone who has suffered the death of someone they love is not kind. It is dismissive and rude, just as rude as telling religious people their beliefs are wrong at the funerals of their loved ones would be.
Sometimes, It's Enough to Make an Angel Do a Facepalm
Assign a Positive Meaning to the Trite Condolences, and Say Thank You
I realize how weird that sounds. Remember that this is part of a strategy to reduce your pain. This is about you getting through the funeral and all the grieving days ahead when people may say completely meaningless and sometimes even un-felt crap to you.
You obviously can't make the words mean anything real to the people who say them. They are sometimes only speaking them because they think it's appropriate to be heard saying them to you even if they don't actually care about you or mean them. Even if religion didn't exist, the people who use trite religious condolences they don't even really mean probably still wouldn't have anything appropriately caring to say.
Also, perfectly lovely people who care about you may get flustered, nervous, or otherwise feel helpless in the face of your grief and one of these damned things might pop right out of their mouths. The words probably don't mean much to them, either, except that they are struggling to find something to say. But it's important to remember that they do care. Death is hard to talk about for everyone and they can't be blamed for falling back on comfortable old sayings when they're groping for words.
So, how can assigning meaning to the meaningless help anyone? I've found I can mitigate the damage by replacing a blank and empty thing that naturally triggers unpleasant feelings toward the person saying it with something that honors my dead loved one.
If someone tells me "(s)he's in a better place" or some other variant suggesting my loved one is better off dead and hanging out in heaven I think of her/him in a better place, not now or in the future, but in the past. I picture my mom dancing or sitting on the steps covered in kittens and giggling, digging up the memories that remind me how lucky I was to have known her. I picture my father sitting in the rocking chair next to mine on the porch and listening to my crazy ideas about anything and everything and telling me his. I think of him with a smudge of dirt on his nose smoothing wet concrete with a trowel to build me my very own life-sized elephant statue.
I take a moment to remember the heaven we sometimes shared right here on earth. It might make me cry, but it's a more healing pain, an actual recognition of what I've lost that is a more natural and healthy part of the grieving process than anger at people acting like thoughtless dingbats.
I use that technique as often as it applies and as long as I can endure it. If the trite condolences are of some other variety and I feel the person is just giving them and me lip service, I just write over their words in my mind and replace them with a funny mental dialog about how eager they are to be seen comforting me. It could probably be anything funny, but that appeals to my rude sense of humor. I think it's okay to silently and secretly poke fun at someone who cares only about appearances and their own social status in the face of someone else's raw grief. Maybe I'm a big meanie, but it seems to help me to not hate them.
I think it's okay to silently and secretly poke fun at someone who cares only about appearances and his or her own social status in the face of someone else's raw grief. Maybe I'm a big meanie, but it seems to help me to not hate them.
There's Something Heartfelt in There Somewhere
What Do They Really Mean If Their Religious Condolences Are Heartfelt?
But what about when people we are certain hold us in esteem use these empty-seeming religious phrases of condolence? If the lame language comes from someone I know cares about me and my loss, I write over the words in my head with the most perfect and profound words which a woman who loves me once said when I suffered a loss. Those perfect words were, "I love you."
So every time someone I care about offers me a religious condolence, I just imagine they are saying "I love you" instead of "she's with Jesus" or "we're praying for you."
Forget the words; remember the love behind them.
Being kind has no denomination. Sincerely wanting to comfort someone when someone he or she cares about dies boils down to caring.
Just say thank you, and take these words to mean your loss is recognized and you are cared for.
Forget the words; remember the love behind them. Just say thank you, and take these words to mean your loss is recognized and you are cared for.
The Kindly Christian-to-Atheist Grief Dictionary
Religion gives a ready-made format for expressing grief and perhaps even for experiencing it that has existed for centuries and has been honed to a point over all that time. Some of it has become so stylized the people using those social conventions sometimes seem like they don't even understand what they are saying on any more than a superficial level. They may have never even thought about it in any depth because that's the way it's always been in their lives.
Religion provides some language for grief that just really doesn't translate into condolences that mean anything whatsoever on a secular level. But some of it does translate fairly well. Unfortunately, there's no Atheist-Christian grief dictionary anywhere I've searched and it looks like we're going to have to make the Rosetta stone ourselves.
Mind you, this will probably be the shortest dictionary you'll ever read. It's also intended to be at least a little bit tongue-in-cheek. If you have a kind addition to it, please share it in the guestbook below. This is only my idea of what religious people mean if we strip off all the religion and get to their intent.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2015 Kylyssa Shay