What Not to Say to an Atheist When They’re Grieving

086b16bebf7132e2b4770016186d4b25So I’ve had some time to process this, and I’m ready to talk about it.

When well-meaning people say that “There is no comfort or hope without Jesus” or “You can’t get through loss without faith” when addressing people who may not share those beliefs, what’s essentially happening is that they are putting down other people’s beliefs and methods of dealing with grief in order to promote their own. It’s exactly what a salesman does- they belittle their competition so their own product is more enticing.

You may personally need Jesus for comfort and hope. But I do not. And that’s ok.

As an atheist, I don’t need prayer or faith to get through sadness and loss. I’ve lived in both belief systems, and I can tell you from extensive personal experience as an ex-Christian that neither offers a superior method of comfort. They’re just different, and some people may do better with one method over another. We all grieve and find solace in different ways; what works for you may not work for me and vice versa. I acknowledge this, and I don’t tell religious people that prayer is useless as a comfort method just because I personally find no solace in it. That would be incredibly rude and hurtful, and also untrue since prayer is a great comfort to many. It used to be for me too, after all. But lately I have heard so many well meaning people say or imply that their faith and their beliefs are the only way to get through difficult life circumstances. And given recent events, it’s been incredibly frustrating- especially since these exact things were said at the funeral. I sat there, listening to people blatantly say that their method of hope and comfort is the only one that works. No hope without Jesus. No comfort without their religion. Anyone who isn’t a Christian must have hopeless, meaningless lives and couldn’t possibly get through this grief. But it’s not remotely true.

Not gonna lie, hearing those words in that context was so hurtful that I felt like punching a wall or leaving the room. Having the loss of my loved one be so blatantly used to push someone else’s belief system on me in my time of grief was nearly unbearable. But I don’t like making scenes and the focus of the day was supposed to be about our loved one, so I held my peace. Afterwards I went to the bathroom where I bawled my eyes out in a toilet stall because one again my beliefs had been belittled and put down so others could promote their own- and right when I most needed support and to feel emotionally safe and accepted. Once again it was made very clear to me that some Christians will never see my beliefs as worthy of recognition and respect and validation; I will always be their project in need of fixing, the heathen in need of conversion. The only beliefs that mattered were Christian ones.

It would have been far easier if all the many people who have said these things had bad intentions. I could have just written them off as rude, but they were well-intentioned people just trying to help. They genuinely thought this was the best way to act. I’ve always tried my best to give people the benefit of the doubt; that hasn’t changed.

I’m bringing this up now because the people who say these things usually don’t realize how hurtful it is to those who don’t share their beliefs. If nobody ever makes them aware of it in a way that fosters respectful conversation, how can we ever mend bridges and learn to get along better? How will they ever learn to stop pushing away the very people that they’re trying to win over?

I’m also sharing this because if I say nothing, people will assume that I’m perfectly fine with them assuming that it’s ok to act this way towards me. I’m not. I am just to polite to make a scene in the moment.

I don’t hate anyone for saying these things, and I won’t hold a grudge, but I’m really (really!) not ok with it. I waited so I could express my feelings without allowing too much hurt to affect my ability to address this without lashing out.

There is nothing wrong with finding comfort or hope in prayer or a religion or in spirituality. It really doesn’t bother me when I see people pray for their own comfort or when they pray for others who want to be included in that, or if they give thanks for their food without expecting me to join in. That’s fine! Go for it! However, the superiority and exclusionary ideology that puts certain Christians’ beliefs and methods on a pedestal above everybody else’s does bother me- especially when I’m grieving and would like for my beliefs to ALSO be respected and acknowledged as valid and important, even if it’s just done by keeping things more neutral when in potentially mixed company. I don’t expect religious people to do atheist things to make me feel comfortable. I want to make that very clear. I don’t need others to participate in my personal traditions in order to feel respected and validated. Honestly I’d much rather try to make everybody feel welcome and accepted no matter what their beliefs are, and to focus on the life of the person who has passed, rather than focusing on ideologies and people’s personal beliefs which people are surely going to disagree on. It’s the exclusion and the implication that my beliefs are inferior and useless that makes me angry and hurt, not the fact that others believe in God and pray.

Please, hear me. Do not ever tell a non-believer that they have no hope or comfort just because they don’t believe like you. It’s pretty much the most hurtful thing you could possibly say to an atheist when they are grieving. Your good intentions may help us look past it, but they don’t make the words any less hurtful or exclusionary.

 

Are you a believer who is unsure how to act around non-believers in these situations? Feel free to ask here. I promise I won’t bite. I’ll just be happy that you care enough to try to learn how to interact with us better. 🙂 Are you an atheist or someone of another belief system who has experienced similar things? Share them if you wish. Everyone must be respectful, however. I wrote this to try to build a better understanding between those who so often just do not understand each other, not to facilitate pointless arguments. We can share our frustrations and grievances in a reasonable manner. Anyone who resorts to name calling or attacks other people personally will be banned.

How to Treat People When They’re Grieving

  
So this huge loss has taught me a lot of lessons about grief and how people respond to it (or how they should respond to it). I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who recently lost a close loved one suddenly to illness, but this can also apply to people who have recently experienced other traumatic losses and life changes as well. 
Have realistic expectations. 

The people most affected by the loss are going to be stressed and grieving even if you don’t personally see it outwardly. It may go on for a very long time, depending on the cause and extent of the grief. A few of the many potential symptoms of stress and grief are:
* Loss of appetite

* Sleep disruption 

* Fatigue even after a full night’s sleep

* Mood swings that may be extreme at times 

* Symptoms similar to depression 

* Feeling overwhelmed by large groups of people or specific social situations

* Sensory overload, such as bright lights and loud noises causing distress  

* Memory triggers that can result in waves of emotion at the drop of a hat

* Denial or avoidance of reality 

* Shutting down emotions to protect themselves (this may come in waves) 

* Virtually any emotion you can think of accelerated far above normal levels for that person 

* Memory and focus problems that may affect work, school, conversations, social situations, and so on. 

* Wanting to be alone (or the exact opposite) 

* Orgasms may be difficult or impossible for some people 

* Interest in sex may diminish, increase, or change drastically

* Risky or harmful behavior may occur 
You may be able to recognize some of these symptoms outwardly, but others often hide very well. You may never see the full effects of their grief; they may look like they’re back to normal. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that someone who just suffered a traumatic loss is now fine just because they start doing many of the things they used to do. For many people their old routines and favorite activities feel safe even whether they’re actually enjoying them or not. Or those moments of enjoyment may be merely spacers between periods of depression and emotional chaos. 
Other things to remember:
They’re probably very behind on responding to all the various types of messages they’ve received and they likely have many unusual demands on their attention, time, and energy. Don’t take it personally if it takes them a while to reply to your message or if they miss it in the chaos. 
There are always some people who have no respect for their loss and the trauma it involves. They might be pushy, demanding, belittle or invalidate their suffering, blame the person for not handling things their way or in their time frame, or use the situation to push their opinions or religion onto the grieving person. And there are always people who are trying to tell them how they should grieve and who may even chide them for it. This causes even more stress. 
There are often unexpected costs involved after someone’s death so they might be having financial difficulties. They might also be doing just fine so giving them money may not be necessary or desired. It’s often best to ask them what they actually need. 
Their grief and stress symptoms may be causing difficulties at school, work, in social situations, etc.  
Don’t tell people how to grieve.



We’re all different. Some of us need space, others need people there to comfort them. Some won’t show many signs of grief outwardly and it can be easy to erroneously assume that they’re back to their normal selves. Or maybe they haven’t been able to process the loss yet. It can take time for it to really sink in. Others may cry at the drop of a hat anywhere, anytime, with anyone. Others might not be able to eat or sleep, whether they cry outwardly or not. Some rely on prayer and religion for comfort, others don’t. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Offer advice and help if they’re open to it, but don’t imply that your way is the only way to effectively manage grief. It isn’t.  

The Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are great information tools, but as the original author later clarified, it’s not a series of linear steps for people to try to follow. They’re simply common experiences that might occur for us at any time or in any order, or even several at once. While acceptance is the goal for many, acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re ok with the loss. It might mean that we’ve simply accepted that it happened and we have to live with it now. Pushing people through these stages because you think they ought to be in a different one is not helpful. 
Let people grieve.



It’s normal. And it’s actually very important to go through the grieving process. It may sound weird to some, but experiencing all these awful things is better than holding it in or pretending it doesn’t exist. It’ll just cause more problems in the long run. 
If their more extreme symptoms of grief and stress continue for long periods of time and start to cause health problems or other damaging results such as potential job loss, or if you have concerns about suicidal thoughts or self harm, then it’s ok to get worried and to step in. But until then, let them grieve and don’t make them feel like they’re abnormal for it.  
Accept people are they are. 



This is not the time to try to change people. Accept them as they are, not as you’d like them to be.  

For others who have experienced a traumatic loss or have seen people they know go through it, are there things you’d add to this? And for those who have little or no experience with this, do you have questions about how to support people dealing with grief? Since everyone grieves so differently, it can sometimes be hard to know what to say or what to do. I’ve been on the other end too so I know that feeling.