What Should People *Not* Say to Grieving Nonbelievers?

I’m writing a piece for AlterNet, tentatively titled “Things Not to Say to Grieving Nonbelievers” — and I’m collecting stories.

If you’re an atheist or other nonbeliever, and you have a story (or stories) about things believers said to you when you were grieving that were callous, insensitive, disrespectful, clueless, or otherwise hurtful or upsetting — I want to hear about it. To the best of your recollection, please tell me what the circumstances were, what was said, who said it (i.e., was it a friend, a sibling, etc.), and why it was upsetting. If you only feel comfortable telling part of this, that’s fine.

You can post your story or stories in the comments here — or, if you prefer, you can email them to me at [email protected]. (If you email me, please put “Grieving Nonbeliever” in the subject line.) Please be sure to tell me what name you want to be quoted under (if you don’t, I’ll err on the side of caution and make up a pseudonym for you). Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks.

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

What Should People *Not* Say to Grieving Nonbelievers?

29 thoughts on “What Should People *Not* Say to Grieving Nonbelievers?

  1. 1


    My mother died in October 2012, but since my sister was living abroad on sabbatical, we delayed our remembrance service until the following March.

    Our mother never expressed a belief in any god, nor in any afterlife. She wanted her remembrance to be a celebration of her life, not regret over her death. My sister and I went through a few drafts of the invitation. I can’t find it now, but I recall that we each added a personal note that was distinctly identified as our individual thoughts. Mine went something like:

    Please don’t tell me things like “God has gathered her to Him” or “She’s in a better place”. If thoughts such as this comfort you, then I’m happy for you. We all must take our comforts as we perceive them. If it comforts you to express these thoughts, then feel free to share them with others. Just don’t express those thoughts to me, as they will not comfort me, nor enhance my memories of Mom. Instead, please try to recall something about Mom that I don’t know. If it’s a funny story – even better!

    I said this because I think that post death events (services, wakes, celebrations, remembrances) are for the living, not the dead. And I wanted them to know the sorts of things that would comfort me.

  2. 2

    Not so much something said but something done…

    My mother was a Catholic. My younger brother died in 1974(?) of leukemia. He was 13 and already a non-believer. My brother knew he was dying. My mother mentioned to him that she was thinking of organising a memorial service at her church. My brother was somewhat angry and specifically asked my mother not to do such a thing. After he died, she arranged the service anyway. She didn’t tell me about it because she thought I’d turn up and disrupt the service. She had reason to be worried. I only found out about 3 years later.

  3. 3

    My parents passed away about 10 years apart. Because I no longer lived in the same city, their friends did not know me well enough to know that I’m a non-believer. My parents were not overly religious but did attend church (Mom more so than Dad) so their friends and acquaintances at the funerals had some expectation that religious comments to me would be ok. I knew this going in so just smiled and kept my thoughts to myself. Short of wearing a name tag that said “(my name), grieving son and radical atheist. Please do not mention God or prayer.” there was not much way to avoid it. I guess my advice to Christians (this is America-centric) is not to assume that the grieving parties are receptive to your religious expressions and rituals. If you haven’t seen them at your church on a regular basis, then inserting your own religion during a time of grieving is inconsiderate.

  4. 4

    Strictly speaking OT, but – when my mother died, my siblings and I (all atheists; she was as well) and three of her closest friends all said a few words at the funeral. These friends happened to include one who was a minister of some flavour or other, but who nevertheless had the courtesy and decency to speak as a friend without one single mention of or allusion to any religious nonsense whatsoever.

    On the other hand, someone I met recently was accosted by a presumibly well-meaning “friend” with the everything-happens-for-a-reason/all-for-the-best spiel; she gave the person concerned her full and undivided attention for just as long as it took to say “my sister is dying of cancer” before turning her back on them and walking away.

    No doubt in my mind that the former was a real friend who genuinely loved my mother and cared for our loss, while the latter – though they may not have consciously realised it – was putting their own beliefs and comfort first.

  5. 5

    A friend of mine died. She was atheist, as almost everyone in our circle is. She had a close friend who was a pastor. He spoke at the funeral, telling us how life is useless without God. It wasn’t so much hurtful because we didn’t believe that anyway and our friend was no longer there to get hurt – but it was terribly rude. It felt as a public betrayal of his friendship with her. It felt like he wanted to have the last word.

  6. 6

    Greta, My dad died in 2007 of cancer. He was a veteran of the Canadian army in the Korean War and was proud of his service. He was never particularly religious, if at all. We stopped going to church when I was very young. While he was in the hospital, an army chaplain (I think they knew each other from before) was hovering around him. He ended up cajoling a deathbed conversion from dad. At the funeral, that was pretty much all that asshole talked about during the service. This was a victory, and he seemed to be damned proud of it. I for one really felt left out, and so did my mom. God and Heaven, that’s what life is all about. Damn anything down here on earth, and ignore anyone left behind except as potential targets for God’s forgiving grace.
    If I may, I’d also like to rant about something else not to be said to the grieving, non-believers or otherwise. My dad had a hell of a temper (and probably not just a little PTSD) and would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. I grew up terrified of him, and so did mom and my brothers. One of dad’s buddies giving a eulogy made some remarks about his “colourful” language and everyone laughed, as if it was fun to watch. Mom was really upset; I think she had made her peace with dad, he ended up being really helpful and kind to mom in his last year or two as mom was not healthy either. But this laughing at the cause of so much fear and pain for so many years was really upsetting for her and me. “They laugh, don’t they see what that rage has done to all of us?” she said.
    Advice to take from this: a little humility and humanity is needed when speaking to the grieving and realizing that your way of seeing the world may not be what the grieving need to hear. Talking to the grieving isn’t about you, its about them and the perhaps painful relationship they had with the deceased.
    Thanks for working on that article!
    PS. you can use my real name.

  7. 7

    At the hospital, as my atheist brother lay dying, my Christian sister solemnly intoned “he may not have believed in God, but God believes in him.” My brother’s wife shut that down, so I did not have to.

    At the service, one of my brother’s neighbors kept going on about how he was “in a better place”, and that obviously “God had other plans for him”. My brother’s (nearly adult, and also atheist) children were appalled at that. As I wrote elsewhere, what better place could he be than mowing the lawn or getting the stuff off of the high shelf for them?

  8. 8

    My grandmother was a member of a spiritualist church. They believe that the dead are with us in a very real way, but they have transcended from their physical bodies to something beyond what we can understand. Fine. I’m happy that this belief brought comfort to my grandfather and their friends. However, I was very angry when the person leading the funeral ceremony addressed my family specifically during the service to say that our grief stemmed from our own lack of faith and that we shouldn’t cry or express sadness at the loss because it would hinder my grandmother’s experience of this new type of existence. Not only was I offended as a non-believer, even my Christian parents, aunts and uncles were angry.

  9. 9

    One thing to possibly note: there’s lots of things that shouldn’t be said to non-believers because it’s just asinine, but if a dead person doesn’t want a religious memorial service, too bad. Funerals and memorial services are for the living and grieving, not the dead person. Also they’re dead, so what do they truly care?

  10. 10


    My anecdote of choice is over on ‘Grief Beyond Belief.’ But I did remember something that’s probably worth sharing.

    In 1921, an actual, genuine, tin-pan-alley song was published with the title:
    ‘They Needed a Songbird in Heaven; so God took Caruso Away.’
    I think that should be played whenever anyone tries to revive THAT crap.

  11. 11

    I have thought about this lots, as I did get some comments from a theist family member, who I care greatly for, that I found hurt me more than helped.

    I have had multiple pregnancy losses (never a fun thing to talk about), and after my third loss I remember talking with my sister-in-law about how hard it was to deal with. She knows that I am an athiest, and didn’t mention gods, but did say something to the effect of, “everything works out the way it is supposed to” or “your time will come”.

    To me, talking about it as though there was some sort of destiny or master plan just reminded me that there ISN’T a plan. I might have more losses, or no more pregnancies, or never be a mother. It just felt like a hollow, bitter jab. But I just smiled tightly, and moved on with the conversation.

    On a happy note, I am now 20 weeks pregnant, and everything seems to be going well! But this doesn’t prove her right – it just makes me grateful for the doctors and medical knowledge that made it possible!! Also, nothing makes you value female reproductive rights more than surviving an ectopic pregnancy, let me tell you…

    Feel free to contact me for more, or use my real first name.

  12. 12

    In 2014 one of my dearest and closest lifelong friends died very suddenly. We were all stunned. It was a bit of a shock to hear his nice relative, who had flown in to the Bay Area for the event from the Southeast Coast offer quite a lot of prayer at the end of his (otherwise wonderful) eulogy. My friend was not religious, hardly any of us in attendance were religious, and maybe that’s just how they do it where he’s from, but frankly it was jarring and very off-putting. Had he asked any of us we would have advised him to omit the prayer portion. I would suggest to people that they don’t simply assume someone is religious just because they haven’t been told otherwise, or assume that prayer addressed to an audience will automatically be welcome or appropriate.

  13. 13

    An old friend, from back in my very Christian days, kept e-mailing me through my partner’s last illness; “I’m praying for you both,” or, “May Jesus be with you.” After he died, the message changed to, “I know how you feel. Just lean on Jesus.”

    No, she didn’t know how I feel. And leaning on an imaginary friend tends to leave you flat on your face.

    I was with her after her husband died. She was finding comfort in the thought that he was watching her from heaven. She would talk to him, as if he were just away on a trip, but reachable by phone.

    No, she hasn’t the faintest clue how I feel.

  14. 14

    What should people not say to grieving unbelievers? Heh…

    I think the most important part is to lose the friggin’ god-talk. Anybody who’d say that a dead unbeliever is “in a better place” is a person who’d say that a dead Jew is “safe in the arms of Jesus”. Spitting on the memory of the recently deceased, they are. And since most Xtian sects teach that unbelievers are burning in Hell, someone who says “they’re in a better place” about a dead unbeliever isn’t just spitting on the dead guy’s memory, they’re also spitting on their own belief system!

    There’s other stuff, but it seems to me that “lose the god-talk” covers such a multitude of sins that there’s little need to worry about anything else.

  15. 15

    @Knight in Sour Armor #8 – If a person was non-religious, a religious memorial service dishonors the person being remembered.

    When my grandparents died (grandfather first, followed a year later by my grandmother), my mother and uncle butted heads over how their funerals would be held: he was Catholic, while my mother and grandparents were “non church-going believers.” In the end, the services were fairly religious — minister, Bible readings and hymns — followed by a buffet wake at a hoffbrauhaus they had eaten at for more than 50 years, with sandwiches, potato salad, and beer. All of their friends — and all of the family except my uncle — said afterwards that the wakes were much better memorials than the religious service, much more like what they would have thrown for themselves.

    As far as what not to say to non-believers? How about “If a dead person doesn’t want a religious memorial service, too bad. Funerals and memorial services are for the living and grieving, not the dead person.” A memorial service should memorialize a person, including their being non-religious.

  16. 16

    My grandmother, a devout and lifelong Catholic, died in August of 2013. Her service and burial were all very religious, understandably, and I didn’t say anything because most of her family is also Catholic and I was too busy dealing with my own grief (plus, inappropriate time and place). I was driving my siblings (2 sisters, 1 brother, all younger) from the cemetery to a lunch we were having for close friends and family.

    My one sister, 2 years my junior, was talking to our other sister about how beautiful the service was and how nice the speeches were, etc. All true! Anyway, the following is verbatim.

    Her: “How anyone could listen to that and not believe… you’d have to be heartless.”
    Me: “Hey, come on…”
    Her: “And how’s that working out for you??”

    It still upsets me, a lot, that my sister basically considers me a heartless monster. Sorry if this rambled, thinking about it really rattles me

  17. 17

    When my grandmother died, a cousin (daughter of my great aunt) pulled me aside at the visitation to tell me that she had “spoken to [my grandmother] in prayer from Heaven”, and told me that my grandmother’s greatest fear “after having passed over to the Promised Land” was that I wouldn’t be able to join her there when my time came, and that “[Grandmother] told me that her greatest wish is for you is to get right with God”. No “sorry for your loss” or even “you’re in my prayers”, which I would have been okay with given the situation and knowing that most of my family is religious. It’s been almost 10 years and I still remember vividly the guilt trip that my cousin tried to lay on me.

  18. 18

    I had been agnostic for many years when my boyfriend Rich Guadagno was killed in the 9/11 attacks. He was among those who fought back on United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. That was the day that solidified my atheism. None of my friends are religious (almost all are agnostics or atheists), but I do have religious family members. I think the most bothersome thing any religious person said to me with respect to Rich’s death was that he was “in a better place.” No. No he wasn’t. Rich was also agnostic/atheist. There was no better place for him in the universe than with the people and dogs he loved. Then his parents held a Catholic funeral for him. They didn’t even invite me, and they gave so little notice that even his non-believer sister was unable to attend.

  19. 19

    @15: The dead person cannot and should not attempt to control how their survivors grieve. If a religious service is what helps, then it should be perfectly acceptable to do that. The dead person is way past the point of caring and isn’t the one experiencing the suffering.

    If “nones” are the ones holding a memorial/wake/remembrance/roast then those who are religious have no right to say that their way of grieving is wrong either.

  20. 20

    sez Knight in Sour Armor @ July 22, 2015 at 6:41 pm:

    One thing to possibly note: there’s lots of things that shouldn’t be said to non-believers because it’s just asinine, but if a dead person doesn’t want a religious memorial service, too bad. Funerals and memorial services are for the living and grieving, not the dead person. Also they’re dead, so what do they truly care?

    True: Funerals are for the living. And if the “living” who put on a funeral for an unbeliever are so god-besotted that they just can’t stop themselves from using an unbeliever’s funeral as an excuse to put up a billboard for their imaginary friend, I’d say it’s fair to conclude that those particular “living” never really gave a flying fuck about the dead guy in the first place, or at least they gave far less of a fuck about that dead unbeliever than they did about scoring points with their imaginary friend.

  21. 21

    Knight in Sour Armor @ #9 and #19: Please do not make critical comments here on other people’s stories, and whether they do or don’t meet your criteria. Different nonbelievers have very different feelings about religion, and have different responses to it — and that includes different feelings about religious services for non-religious people. There is not one correct or incorrect way to feel about this — and even if there were, a blog post for people to share their stories about their grief is not an appropriate place for a debate about that. It is highly insensitive and inappropriate. Please stop it, now.

  22. 22

    My experience is so over the top rude and insensitive that I doubt many people would need to be told this, or that those who do need to be told will listen.

    Back in the late 1990s my father died, and most friends and the people he did business with were fine. But one woman he worked with came to talk to us about converting to Christianity and opened by telling us that since my father was in hell now she hoped the rest of us might be reconsidering our spurn ing of Jesus.

    I’m still not sure if she genuinely thought that this was a necessary bit of tough love to save our souls, or if she was just trying to be as mean as possible.

    Either way, I’d advise the religious to remember that the aftermath of a death is not thr right time to proselytize, and telling people that your kind and loving God is now torturing their dead friend or family member is never going to win you friends or converts.

  23. 23


    My oldest son, age 27, died last year, in July. His one-year anniversary has just passed. He was an atheist, as I am.

    A few months after he died, I was walking down the hall at work, and a woman with whom I would share “Hi-how-are-yous” was at the other end of the hall, coming toward me. She asked me how I was, and I told her what happened.

    She hugged me, then said “You *know* he’s in a better place now.”

    Shocked and hurt, I withdrew from her embrace and said “No.”

    Did she stop? Did she apologize? Nope. She kept right on. “Oh, yes! He is. You know he is…” I walked away, my pain flowing over me in waves from her words. “God… Jesus… babble, babble, blather, blather,” a multitude of Christian platitudes dribbled from her mouth as I tried to shut her out. In my effort to retreat, I was nearly running down the hall.

    Her voice faded as I entered the women’s bathroom, but her words echoed in my head. I can still hear her, many months later.

    I don’t tell her anything anymore. I doubt if she would understand why.

  24. 24

    Gonna have to second sotonohito @22.

    One of the worst possible responses to death, in my opinion, is to use tragedy as a chance to pressure and proselytize vulnerable grieving individuals. They did it on a grand scale at my dad’s funeral, which was very inappropriate and disrespectful. The broadcasted message, explicitly, was that death should remind us we could, at any point, all die — and thus burn in hell — so to avoid that fiery fate, we better act quick to become devout followers of the Lord.

    Fundamentalist Christians swoop in like vultures, trying to rack up notches on their godliness belt. I’ve seen it, and even worse, I’ve seen it succeed. When my brother-in-law was killed several years ago, “genuinely” concerned and caring Christians at my mother-in-law’s workplace responded by urging her to begin attending their church, to see her son’s senseless death (under the wheels of drunk driver) as part of god’s grand plan. Comforted by the prospect of seeing her son again, my previously non-religious mother-in-law dove into Christianity headfirst, diverting most her (non-religious) son’s life insurance and assets to the church. She now spends her days praising god and waiting to die and be reunited with her dead son. To be honest, her home reminds me of tomb. It’s not surprising that a grieving parent would never fully recover, but I can’t help but wonder whether proper secular counseling might have helped her.

  25. 25

    This is different, because it’s about a disruption at a religious ceremony, but it’s still about something religious people should avoid saying at a funeral or memorial.
    At my grandmother’s Buddhist memorial ceremony (my grandmother wanted something traditional to her culture), we had an open mic session where anyone could say thoughts about my grandmother. One of my mom’s close childhood friends stood up to claim that she had gotten my grandmother to accept Christ and that my grandmother was actually a Christian. I think my mom and I were more shocked than hurt, mostly because the assertion was so ridiculous. I was very surprised that anyone would even imply that we had either so misunderstood my grandmother or so unfilially disobeyed her as to give her a funeral of the wrong religion. She also struck me as slightly delusional to say something like that when the evidence was literally all around her that she was wrong about my grandmother’s preferences. I wonder how many of the other attendees, most of whom didn’t know this person, also thought that my mom’s friend sounded foolish and selfish.

  26. 26

    I have a slightly different story to tell. When my grandma died, her memorial was hosted by relatives at a conservative Oneness Pentecostal church. My grandma was a liberal Christian, not Pentecostal, so I’m pretty sure many of the people present believed she had gone to hell. They made no references to her “being in a better place.” However, they were also tactful enough not to say or even insinuate that she was in hell. I imagine it was uncomfortable for those Pentecostals to have that on their minds yet still avoid the subject, but it never came up (at least not in my hearing), and I’m grateful to them for that.

    It goes to show that no matter how conservative your religious beliefs are, you CAN avoid being a jerk about it. More conservatives should take note.

    If you mention this in your article you can call me Will.

  27. Nes

    I have the feeling I’ve shared these stories here before, but it’s relevant, so why not share again? Feel free to make up a silly name for me (and the family members), if you want to use these at all.

    Around 8 years ago, my grandma died (she was Christian). At her funeral, there was a section that was supposed to be about sharing memories about her. It even said that in the program. Instead, an uncle (through marriage to an aunt) got up and spent 5-10 minutes with a fire and brimstone speech about “accept Jesus or burn in Hell.” I was furious and it took damn near everything I had to just sit there an not make a scene over it (I wanted to walk out – or tell him to go fuck himself – but I was in the middle of a pew). AFAIK, none of them know what I’m an atheist, though my mom is some sort of weird blend of Wiccan-Pagan-Spiritual-but-still-accepts-Jesus or something, which might not be Christian enough for him. He was looking in our general direction for most of the speech.

    Ironically, it was the pastor who delivered a eulogy that celebrated memories of grandma, with a one line prayer at the end being the only reference to religion.

    More recently, a few years ago a biological uncle died. While he was in the hospital, an aunt (not the one married to the asshole above) and her husband were taking care of things for him. I found out at his funeral that he was a non-believer of some stripe: he apparently referred to the Bible as a book of myths. While he was dying in the hospital, he told his sister that he wanted a secular memorial. Obviously, that wasn’t good enough, so she and her husband hounded him, on his death bed, to convert. Eventually, as the husband told it at the funeral, he asked for a Christian funeral (and I note the wording on this: he asked for a Christian funeral; he did not say that he accepted Christianity). This was praised as a huge win, of course, and it was strongly implied that he converted, and I was furious again.

    Seriously. Hounding a dying man to convert and not respecting his wishes? Complete and utter asshole move, do not do it.

  28. 28

    When my child died and I was discussing it with a distant relation they stopped me mid-sentence to correct my grammar. They told me not to speak of my child in past tense but only in present tense.

    Note to anyone listening: don’t do that.

  29. 29

    My son has a debilitating and, eventually, fatal disease. His muscles are wasting away, and there is no way to slow or stop the process. Eventually, his heart and breathing muscles will become too weak to function. In order to get an aide to give me a break from care-giving, I am enrolled in several layers of state programs, which involves lots of paperwork and interviews. One manager told me that it might seem like a lot to have to go through, but I should be glad because everything happens for a reason; god has a plan for me and my son. I almost bit clear through my lip – what kind of a god would develop a plan that involved making a boy spend his whole childhood disintegrating? And what kind of sicko would praise a god who did that???
    One co-worker told me that he is sure that kids who die young are the most blessed.
    I often hear that my son (who is a gifted student) is “special,” “blessed,” and “one of god’s favorites.” We have to deal with the disease and the disability “because god is challenging us to ensure our faith is strong.” After all, “he never gives us more than we can handle,” you know. People tend to assume that going to church and praying must be the thing that makes me so strong. Fact is, this disease wreaks havoc on both my son and me. He does all that he can to minimize how its effect on him impacts me, and I do all I can to minimize how its effect on me impacts him. It’s the best we can do for each other, given the situation.
    I very rarely tell anyone that I am an atheist, but I think my facial expression gives me away when someone tosses one of these gems onto the table….

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