CS Drexel has personal experience with comforting those who aren't religious.
An Example of People-Centered Support
"It would be nice, wouldn't it?"
I had been spacing out, staring out into the grey Northwestern March.
"What's that?" I asked. My buddy shifted, turned to stare blankly out the same window as me.
"It would be nice," he repeated. "To somehow be able to convince yourself, to really, truly, 100% believe, without any doubt, that he had magically gone to a better place. That he was just in some awesome land where he would be happy forever. Instead of just...gone." I reached over, patted him on the shoulder.
"Yeah, man. That would be great." I patted him again. We both went back to staring out the window.
One of my very best friends had just come from his grandfather's house, where the man who had been a huge part of his life had just died.
His grandfather hadn't been super religious and was perfectly aware that his grandson placed even less stock in religion than he did. In fact, part of the reason my friend had learned that it was okay to believe what made sense to you was because of his grandfather.
His grandmother and mother, however, were very devout, and it had always bothered them that not all of the family saw eye to eye on the matter. Throughout his childhood, my buddy had endured endless comments and attempts to "bring him back."
This conflict had boiled to the surface in the last few days. Visiting relatives insisted that the family pray frequently and together, in spite of his grandfather's objections and insistence that they stop. Shouting matches had broken out about the existence of heaven, God, and the afterlife between family members that should have been comforting and helping each other.
In the end, my buddy and his grandfather had retreated to a quiet bedroom, where they spent his grandfather's last few days quietly playing cards, reminiscing, and sharing each others' company. My friend left the morning after he had passed away, to escape the forced sermons, prayers, and arguments, all of which his grandfather would have hated.
He sat now on the couch with me in our house we shared with a few other college friends. The most common thing his family had told him to comfort him, he said, was that "Grandpa is in a better place now." All that had done was make him feel more distant from his family, more alone. Because in his heart, he could never believe that, no matter how many other people might.
How Can I Comfort Someone Who Isn't Religious?
Here are the dos and don'ts of comforting someone who isn't religious (in this type of scenario).
- Focus on what you have in common as friends or family.
- Respect the way they see the world as you expect them to see yours.
- Spend time together doing non-religious activities that you both enjoy.
- Reminisce, remember, and talk about the experiences you shared that give your lives meaning.
- Keep in mind that values for atheists center around people, loved ones, and relationships.
- Try to comfort them with religious wishes, prayers, and suggestions.
- Use their moment of crisis as an opportunity to "show them why they need God in their life" (this will only generate more hostility and alienate them).
- Incorporate religion into mourning and together time, even if you cope using religion.
- Pressure them into attending church or sacrificing what they believe in order to receive your love and support.
- Treat them as though they don't feel the loss the same as religious people (loss often hits atheists much harder, as their ideals center around people and relationships).
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|Religious Phrase||What You Can Say Instead|
"It's part of God's plan."
"Death is as much a natural part of life as birth."
"They are in a better place now."
"They're not in pain anymore. We're happy they aren't suffering anymore."
"They will always be watching over us from Heaven."
"Their presence will always be felt through all the influence they had on each of us. We've all incorporated parts of who they were as who we are."
"They have so much to look forward to in Paradise."
"They led such a fantastic life with so many great experiences."
"We can always pray to keep them in our hearts and mind."
"They will always be remembered by all of us, every day."
"You'll see them again, someday."
"We were all so lucky to get to spend so much time and be so close with such an amazing person. We got so much more time together than many do."
Mourning Is Not the Time to Fight Over Religious Beliefs
You may be asking yourself, "How can someone not believe in God? How do they explain all the wonder and magic in the world? How do they know what it means to be a good person? Why would you want to live like that?"
No two people believe exactly the same thing—about relationships, about God, about politics, about anything. A viewpoint is built on experiences, influences, personality, and hopefully some strong critical thinking, and therefore is not something that changes quickly or easily.
This is doubly true during a time of crisis when many people retreat into themselves to find a source of strength to deal with the challenges looming ahead. How a person perceives their world is both their grounding and their compass to help them steer through challenging times.
Unfortunately, this centering on core beliefs can polarize a person in the short-term. We tend to cling to our core beliefs much more tightly in the face of huge changes, like clinging to a rock in a flood, and become very defensive about the refuge our values provide. Having retreated to such a fundamentally personal level, anything attacks directed at our beliefs will seem exceedingly personal.
In a more real-world sense, this means that family and friends with religious beliefs tend to rely more heavily on their faith in times of crisis. Similarly, non-religious people will depend much more heavily on their views of the world and their relationships to see them through hard times. Therefore something as simple as a passing, "You're in our prayers," is likely to feel like a personal attack to an atheist, as much as, "There is no Heaven" would inflame a mourning Christian.
Be Mindful of the Words You Use
If you are religious and accustomed to reassuring people with affirmations of God's will and the afterlife, you need to recognize that such comments directed at non-religious loved ones do far more harm than good. Even with the best of intentions, a reassurance that their loved one "...is in a better place/in heaven/with God" will come across as self-righteous at best and a commentary on their belief structure at worst.
Many atheists find comfort and support in their relationships, the bonds and experiences that they share with the people they love, and the unconditional care and support that they provide each other. Rather than being comforted by the belief that they are being cared for by a superior being, they tend to focus on the joys that life provides, and the wonderful people in their life who care for one another.
To avoid endless fights, comforting loved ones who aren't religious should center around affirmations that the family is there for them. They won't be comforted by prayer or being prayed for, but they will find comfort in knowing that you want to spend time with them.
Remember, nobody is saying that faith is a harmful thing. You don't need to feel like you must hide your faith from them. Just avoid directing religion-based comfort at them as a bare minimum. There are plenty of wonderful things to say to and about a person that don't have religious undertones, things that everyone finds comforting. It will surprise you how respectful atheists can be of religion in other people when they understand that their own beliefs are being respected as well.
Ways to Include Them in the Mourning Process
One of the most painful parts of being an atheist in a religious family is the feeling of being completely alone. During crises, that feeling is magnified, particularly if the family is grieving religiously together.
For many atheists, an implicit choice is presented: lie, tolerate it, pretend you believe to receive the love and support of the family, or stay true to what you believe and mourn alone. A religiously-toned offer of support carries an implication—whether intentional or not.
One of the major objections most atheists have with religion is the hypocrisy inherent in many faiths, and being forced to pretend to believe in prayer makes a non-religious person feel like the worst hypocrite imaginable.
To keep a non-religious loved one from feeling increasingly alienated, it is important to have your relationship with them be separate from religion.
Here are some things you can do as a family:
- Help out with chores.
- Go for a walk.
- Go out to brunch on Sunday rather than spend the morning in church.
Don't let your desire to have the family mourn together lead you to employ peer-pressure tactics. It is easy to disregard this one, but it can be the worst way to try to pull the family together.
The Person You Love Is Important, Not Differences
The thing you need to remember in times of crisis is that you love the person. You don't need to love all of their views.
Your non-religious loved ones need you more than ever in trying times, not as someone to pray for them and show them the way to religion, but to provide the human support that they value so much. With respectful support, people with different views can help each other rise above difficult times, and benefit from their difference in perspective.