When It's Not God's Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers

If you know someone who’s grieving a death, and they don’t believe in a God or in any sort of afterlife… what do you say?

A lot of religious and spiritual believers find themselves stymied, at a loss for words, when the atheists and other non-believers in their lives are grieving. The comforts and consolations they’re used to offering, and that they rely on themselves, don’t do much good with atheists and other non-believers. “It’s all part of a plan.” “I’m sure they’re smiling down on you now.” “You’ll see them in the afterlife.” Etc. At best, these notions are useless for atheists: at worst, they’re actually upsetting.

Some believers behave very badly at these times. It’s all too common for religious believers to use death and grief, and the heightened vulnerability that comes with it, as an opportunity for proselytizing. And when confronted with the reality that non-believers usually aren’t comforted by religious sentiments, believers often get churlish and defensive: insisting that grieving non-believers should be comforted when believers offer religious platitudes, and getting irritated or even outright hostile when we don’t.

But many believers are entirely sincere in their desire to console the non-believers in their life. They care, they sympathize, they mean well. They genuinely want to help. They just don’t know how.

Which is understandable. Even some non-believers have a hard time knowing what to say to the grieving non-believers in their life. Many atheists were brought up in religion: they’ve been brought up framing death and grief in religious terms, and dealing with it with religious customs. And in American culture particularly, our social customs around death are very much rooted in religion. So when atheists reject those customs, they often don’t know what to replace them with.

So what, specifically, can people say — or do — to comfort and console the non-believers in their lives who are grieving?


Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet, When It’s Not God’s Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers. To read more, read the rest of the piece.

When It's Not God's Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers
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25 thoughts on “When It's Not God's Plan: 8 Things to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers

  1. 1

    Slightly off topic, has anyone else said to someone going through a bad day or worse “I’m sorry” and confuse your empathy for an attempted apology? Gah that bugs me!

  2. 4

    When my father died, my brother took a month’s vacation and stayed with my mother. He took care of the funeral arrangements, went to the probate hearing, and otherwise dealt with the practical parts of winding up my father’s affairs. He also did the shopping, cooking, laundry and other household chores. He took care of our mother until she was ready to take care of herself.

  3. 5

    Excellent advice, as always!

    A thought on anniversaries. Marking birthdays and wedding anniversaries is good, but little has pissed me off more than when my uncle marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. It pissed me off more than the responses from other family members that “he’s looking down on us” or “we’ll see him again.” I want to remember my father’s life, not his death. Why make note of exactly what day he died? I wouldn’t even remember how long it’s been except I remember how old I was when he died.

    I didn’t respond to my uncle’s Facebook post. I didn’t want to burn even more bridges.

  4. 8

    Wow, that was great and it really resonated with me. In particular I found the one about telling stories of how the loved one had interacted in life with others to be really important to me personally.

    As far as remembering the day someone died… there are some cultures where that is deemed appropriate. In Guam for instance I remember a lot of people putting in ads in the paper about parties to be held on death anniversaries. All the family and friends get together to remember the person who died, and they have a big feast together. It’s not such a bad tradition but I can see how it would seem strange if you’ve never seen it before. However I would assume that someone’s uncle would have the same types of traditions. So that does seem strange that one member of the family does it and not the rest.

  5. 9

    “I’ll pray for you” is particularly egregious, because to an atheist, that’s essentially saying, “I’ll do nothing for you.” Praying for someone isn’t about making the person suffering feel better, it’s about making the person praying feel better.

    Best response I’ve been able to come up with is your number 3 item in the article: “My sympathies and condolences for your loss. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

    One of the reasons we suffer in certain circumstances is we feel a certain measure of powerlessness: cancer kills, auto accidents kill, terrible meteorological or geographic disasters kill, violence kills, and often we can’t prevent any of that. We might lose our money. We might find ourselves homeless. We might lose our jobs. We might just feel terribly alone.

    “Is there anything I can do to help you?” at least puts some tiny measure of power back into the hands of the person suffering. It doesn’t cancel out the death. It doesn’t overturn the foreclosure. It doesn’t undo the earthquake. But it at least makes the focus of the suffering the actual person who is suffering.

    It provides the sufferer an opportunity to say, “Yes, thank you, could you pick up groceries for me as I haven’t had time and I need to feed the family and everything has me at wits end.” The sufferer might have an opportunity to say, “I just need someone to listen,” or even, “No, there isn’t anything, but thank you for the offer and if I think of something I’ll let you know.”

    (Or even, “Would you pray for me?” at which point, in my case at least, I then need to say “no” in as gentle-yet-honest way as possible, and see if we can’t find some actually effective and real thing in the universe to do.)

    As you note, sometimes the situation is overwhelming and an offer to help can seem overwhelming, too. Still, I think it remains an important approach precisely because of the powerless/power dynamic. Maybe one way to temper the offer is, “I’m here to help if you need anything, so if you can think of something right now or later or whenever, and you want help with it, please know that you can contact me and I will make haste to your aid and know it a pleasure to do so.” But then I probably talk too much, anyway.

    “Is there anything I can do to help?” strikes me as one of the most powerful things human beings can say to one another when there is suffering. What is the entire history of human successes as a species if not groups of social animals helping one another?

    Still learning,


  6. 10

    When one of my closest friends, a 42-year-old man with a wife and 4 children, died of cancer last year, we had a memorial at our work. He was originally told he had an excellent chance, and he dealt with the chemo and radiation very well. Unfortunately, so did the cancer.

    And I guess my point is that even though there were several fairly rabid atheists at the memorial, including myself, no one so much as rolled their eyes at the “he’s looking down and smiling at us” speeches that his wife got. No one said, “Yeah, well, according to her religion, Bruce is in hell now because he was an atheist”.

    His friends spoke of the way he made our lives better. We spoke of how much we were going to miss him. We expressed our love of him. We expressed our sorrow that she was left without him and our understanding that that was very difficult for her. Even the old friend who was a Catholic priest did that. To me, whether you are religious or not, those sentiments are what matter. The invocation of heaven or Jesus is inappropriate, because what matters in those situations is not whether or not the deceased is in heaven, hell, or simply no longer exists. What matters is what is happening here, what matters is the grief of those who cared about him or her. What matters is that sharing that grief can help to ease it, just a little.

  7. Moe

    Why console them? Their “grief” is just a biochemical reaction in their meat brain.

    Face up to it. It doesn’t mean squat.

    In 100 years we will all be gone and forgotten. Why waste time on grief over spilt chemicals?

  8. 13

    That was a great article. Bookmarked. My grandfather died recently and I didn’t know him that well because he lived overseas, but my grandmother was completely shattered by it. This has given me food for thought in how to help her.

  9. 14

    I’m about half way through Greta’s book. I just thought of the 100th thing to add to the list…

    100. I’m angry that religious leaders use the deaths of our family and friends as fucking marketing opportunities for their religions. I’m angry about my grandfather’s funeral, where his life story (his marriage, children, profession, interests) were just the hook in a sales pitch for Jesus. I’m angry that religion infects the concluding moment in our relationship with those that went before.

    On the grief issue, I’d say for me it boils down to two things: don’t tell people how to grieve. Some people will want to punch the wall in frustration and rage and anger, some will want to drown their sorrows in drink. Neither of those are necessarily considered very good ways, but people need to be able to have the latitude to express their grief in whatever way they please, even if it doesn’t accord with religious notions of what’s acceptable.

    The other thing matches up with Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: don’t expect me to put a bloody smile up or be positive. Not just for grief but for a lot of things. Perhaps we need to campaign for ’emotional liberty’.

  10. 15

    This is especially poignant, since my stepfather died this evening. I just got the call that he was unresponsive less than 2 hours ago. I’m sitting in my mom’s kitchen while the medical examiner prepares his body for transport. I remembered this post. I told my mom, “this sucks. I’m here for you.”. And it seemed to help. I’m going to stay with Mom tonight.

    Another family member called Mom’s pastor. Which is good for Mom, but he’s pushing all my buttons. He is praying over the body. I can see that it’s a great comfort to Mom. I had to walk away before I was tempted to say anything. I couldn’t stand listening to how their marriage mimicked Jesus’ love for his followers.

  11. 16

    There is a variation to the “Everything happens for a reason” thing, and it does not just come from the religious.

    My wife and I suffered from a number of miscarriages. Luckily(!) they happened early on in the pregnancy. I could not imagine what it would have been like if they had happened later on. Suffice to say, we were both very upset and those around us did not know what to say.

    What was said a lot was: “Never mind, there must have been a reason, it probably would never have survived, etc. etc.” I don’t know if anyone actually said that it was probably deformed, but the impression is cerainly there.

    All of these people were our family and friends. None of them were religious. All of them thought they were saying the right thing. After all, it’s not as if there was a real baby or anything….

    All my wife wanted to hear was: “I’m sorry, it’s not your fault.”

    All of this happened nearly 30 years ago. Even now, thinking about it brings me to tears.

  12. 17

    Why console them? Their “grief” is just a biochemical reaction in their meat brain.

    Face up to it. It doesn’t mean squat.

    In 100 years we will all be gone and forgotten. Why waste time on grief over spilt chemicals?

    Poor godbots. Must be difficult to go through life with a brain that is stuck at the emotional maturity of a 3-year-old. Where everything that doesn’t last “forever” (a concept to which they have clearly never given any serious thought) is worthless.

    Let me explain. We console friends because we happen not to be selfish assholes. It means whatever we make it mean. Meaning is something a person finds for her/himself. We don’t care what it will “mean” in 100 years, because we happen to be alive now, and it’s what’s happening now that matters.

    If you only give value to things that last forever, you’ll waste your life unhappy always reaching for things that don’t exist. Things that you believe will happen when you die. Spending your life waiting for death. That is worthless and pathetic.

  13. 18

    I read the list and it is great. My son died aged 20 and it was people doing a combination of all this that got me through it. A hug and ‘I’m so bloody sorry’ is all that’s needed? Fortunately no god-bothers about other than the ‘my prayers are with you’ type but you just translate that to thoughts and appreciate the thought.

  14. 20

    I think Moe is implying that that’s how he thinks things would be like if people had no souls, and since we don’t act like that – there must be souls, and since most atheists claim there are no souls – that’s how they should be acting if they were right…

    Of course, he’s wrong to begin with if that’s the case. There are most likely no souls and there has never been, and human beings have also never acted the way he described it, so it would appear we don’t need souls to care about others and find our own meaning in our finite lives, and – just as you say, DSimon, understanding the physical processes doesn’t really change this.

  15. 21

    I believe in God and Jesus and pretty much all that the church teaches, however I found your article so compelling and so full of truth. I have to admit when I was going through grief myself when I lost my grandmom, whom I was very close to, I didn’t relay in my beliefs because I just knew it wasn’t that God had better plans for her, it simply was her time. She’d been sick for far too long and her body gave up. I really don’t think words of comfort should have to do with beliefs, but with human nature. We all need to understand that grief belongs to each person in a different manner. Yes, I do believe in God, but I do not make him responsible for everything that has happened to me, including pain. Thank you so much for your wise words. Everything you mentioned is what I like to call “common sense” and has even brought on some light into my own grieving process.

  16. 22

    I read your post with much interest and pleasure (if that’s the right word!). Also the comments.

    Your advice is packed with common sense, and I was glad to reflect that I have adopted many of these strategies in these situations. It ought to be easy to know what to say or do, since all we atheists need only imagine ourselves in the position of the bereaved.

    I had to deal with (possibly) an even more distressing situation. A few years ago, my wonderful PhD supervisor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only a few short weeks to live. He was amazingly brave and continued writing scientific papers right to the end. After my PhD, we continued our friendship, but nonetheless I was very flattered that with all the stuff he had to do in the remaining days, he took the time to phone me. You can imagine what a tough conversation that was, much harder than being face-to-face, and of course the last words were “goodbye”. Still, since we were both atheists, it was a realistic, affectionate and at times even humorous exchange.

    On another point, my husband and I were very nearly killed by the tsunami. Many people around us on the beach perished. It is notable that neither of us suffered from post-traumatic stress or “survivor guilt”. But then of course we did not have to “explain” why the sudden deaths of so many people were part of “god’s plan”. As atheists we knew that it was just a natural phenomenon. We recovered both physically and mentally. And the mental recovery was based on rationalism. A good example of when atheism can be far healthier and more “comforting” if you will, than any religious belief.

  17. 23

    My uncle died recently, and I didn’t really know what to do or say to comfort other members of that side of the family. They’re religious, I’m not. I ended up writing a card to my grandmother (his mother) that sort of danced around the issue in a way I thought would be honest without confronting her beliefs: I simply said that I love and miss him, too, and asked her to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help her through this difficult time.

  18. 25

    Actually I am going through this right now. I am a gay atheist that has moved home with my very religious parents. When I moved here a year ago last month my ma had cancer and now they have discoveried cancer in my dad. He is off really bad. I am afraid I just might snap at some of these crazy f#$kers that will be coming over. My siblings have all gone x-tian but they really confuse me because they say onething on f/b but in person another….hypocrates they are. I refuse to play the game that I believe in a jesus (that acutally did not exist) or a god(s). Is there some suggestions? I really don’t want to snap on my family (which my older sis I did but that was out of being in pain and we talked about it).

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