I’m told that believers often struggle with what to say to a grieving atheist. Expressing sympathy can be difficult for anyone. It’s a delicate time, for sure. But it doesn’t need to be so complicated. Simply consider all the possible things you might say and veto the ones that involve God. That leaves an awful lot. Here are five things you might write to a grieving atheist.
1. Share a quote. Try searching for ones about death, sympathy or inspiration. It can even be a quote from someone religious, so long as the after-life isn’t discussed.
“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.” ~Marcel Proust
“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” ~Joseph Campbell
“For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.” ~William Penn
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” ~Winston Churchill (Yeah, it mentions hell, but it still works)
2. Share a memory. This is a great way to remind the mourner that the deceased mattered, touched people’s lives and will be remembered. There’s a lot of freedom here. Your memory can be either sentimental or funny. You might say something like, “I remember the time your sister brought me a full week of meals when I broke my leg. That meant a lot to me.” Or, “I can’t help thinking about that time your dad and I went fishing. I slipped on a catfish and fell flat on my ass. Your dad must have laughed for 15 minutes. I’ll miss that laugh.”
3. Share song lyrics. Quotes from philosophers and writers are fine, but they can sound outdated and formal. Sometimes music can touch us in less elegant, but more accessible ways. Try sharing a line or two from a song that reminds you of the deceased or one of their favorite songs. Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” has a lot of good stuff to work with because he wrote it after being diagnosed with cancer. If the loved one in question was a Warren Zevon fan who died of cancer, you’ve hit the jackpot. I’m sure there are plenty of Celine Dion and Elton John lyrics that’ll work, but you’ll have to look them up yourself because I’m not a fan.
4. “I would like to __________.” Too often, people say, “If there’s anything I can do…” Well, almost nobody is going to go ahead and give you a list. A person who’s grieving may not know what he/she needs and probably assumes you’re just saying that because it’s what people say. Let’s face it, most of the time the person who says it isn’t actually willing to do anything and is counting on the mourner to disregard the comment. So, if you’re willing to help, offer a service. You can play to your own strengths this way, so it’s good to get in early with an idea before you get stuck with some awful task down the line. Do you want to be the one who takes the mourner out for a cup of coffee or the one left sorting through Aunt Muriel’s panty drawer? You may want to consider what the departed used to do and offer to pick up the slack. This can range from fixing things around the house or helping with a garden to taking someone to the symphony or watching the kids so a parent can have some alone time. No one wants to feel pitied or dependent, but offering to do something straight up will make it more likely that the bereaved will accept.
5. Say you’re sorry and sign your name. What I mean by this is, pick out a card (something with a nature photo on the front and a blank interior will work just fine), write something about being sorry for their loss and sign it. It doesn’t get any easier than this. In lieu of finding the “right” words, stick with a couple. You’ve just expressed sympathy and concern without offending anyone. Well done.
See? It’s not so hard. All you really have to do is NOT say “God has a plan,” “She’s in a better place,” or “I know you don’t believe it, but Uncle Ernie is looking down from heaven and smiling.”