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Atheists and "comfort"

(56 Posts)
OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 16:55:41

I'm just kind of musing here, so this may not be entirely coherent...

My mum has a Christian faith, and said that she found her beliefs "comforting" when my dad died - the thought that he's in a better place, and all that. To me, a non-believer, that's just about the only positive thing a faith can provide that non-faith can't. How can an atheist offer comfort to a bereaved believer? I suppose you could be glad that the departed was now free of pain (if s/he had suffered in dying) but what do you say when it was a sudden death, an accident, a child?

LadyGlencoraPalliser Mon 17-Aug-09 16:59:49

You can't offer comfort in that sense. But anyone, atheist or believer can offer a listening ear. I actually think that it is more comforting to have someone prepared to listen to you than someone offering 'comfort' by telling you that the person who had died is 'in a better place'. Perhaps it is just my experience of bereavement, but 'comfort' wasn't so much what I was after as a sense that there were people who understood how I was feeling.

Greensleeves Mon 17-Aug-09 17:04:30

I suppose the kind of comfort I would try to offer would be more prosaic - hugs, calm non-pressuring company if they want it, listening whatever time of day or night, taking care of housework/cooking/childcare

I think some kind of intensely personal way of remembering the person and saying goodbye can be good in addition to funeral - so would suggest this and try to help facilitate whatever the person wanted.

and the "free of pain" thing - and the beauty of the way life rises and falls and the planet just goes on nourishing us through the generations.

making a memory book can be helpful, or organising a boozy dinner with mutual friends to share memories and laugh/cry

AMumInScotland Mon 17-Aug-09 17:04:41

I guess all you can do is say the kinds of things that helped you as a non-believer when you were grieving... not that anything really helps, but knowing that other people feel sympathy takes some of the "aloneness" out of grief? A sudden and unexpected loss is going to hurt the same even if you hope/believe with confidence that they are going somewhere better and you'll see them again. It still hurts just the same. And the only thing that helps is knowing that other people care too.

fluffles Mon 17-Aug-09 17:06:16

that the deceased touched your lives so deeply that you will always remember them and they live on in your memories?

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:06:54

Thanks, LadyGlencoraPalliser, I have very limited experience of bereavement - although I have lost family members I haven't really been upset by one since my dad, nearly 30 years ago, so I'm not even sure I could understand how the other person is feeling.

I suppose it would be about being "open" to them, then - watching for cues and taking them, rather than trying to control the conversation in any way?

(Sorry, still musing, I guess.)

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:07:22

X post, goes back to read

AMumInScotland Mon 17-Aug-09 17:11:45

I think taking the cue from them is usually the best bet. Some people want to talk about their loved one, some people want to talk about anything and everything else. Some people will want to say how they miss them, how they feel lonely. Others about what they were like - reminiscing about the good times, looking at photos etc. Just let them grieve in their own way, and let them know you're there for them.

And look out for ways to offer practical assistance - they may not want to ask, but are maybe going to want compant going to make arrangements, or need a lift to the shops, or even help dealing with the bank etc.

porcupine11 Mon 17-Aug-09 17:15:45

I am atheist and when my mum died I found comfort in what I suppose you'd call the 'scientific' view of the world - that the atoms that made her up are now in birds and trees and flowers, and the tree that her ashes are buried under - I think this is something a child can relate to too. Everytime I see a bird, I think of Mum, she loved birds and flowers. And there is a lovely description of it at the end of the Phillip Pullman Dark Materials trilogy. Every atom does live on in a real sense.

As an atheist you can offer real comfort by not bleating on about a fictional 'better place', and as an atheist you don't have the view that the person's death was 'by design' of some higher being, so in my opinion you are in a better place to offer comfort - by listening and not clamming up when the bereaved person wants to talk about the dead person. It will be on their mind all the time, it's not that mentioning the dead person will suddenly bring it all back. They will be glad for an opportunity to talk about them without awkward pauses.

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:16:02

Thanks again, all of you - I'm not thinking about a particular bereaved person, by the way, just generally, kind of rehearsing the necessary actions iykwim. So all of your ideas are helpful.

(I may have too much time on my hands.)

GrimmaTheNome Mon 17-Aug-09 17:18:28

I like this quote:

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Carl Sagan

Now, I certainly don't mean that one should in any way question or belittle a grieving person's comforting beliefs. But if whatever you do and say sticks to reality, then if - as quite often happens - they start questioning their faith, then at least something remains solid.

Not sure I've put that at all well!

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:20:46

And x posted with porcupine11 - I love that idea of the atoms.

Slightly differently - my sister is Born Again, and genuinely suffers when she worries that I'll burn in Hell for all Eternity (a downside to faith that I'd never thought about. My mum is CofS and lets more people into Heaven than my sister.) Obviously, I can't offer comfort to her at my own funeral, but we have an atheist brother too. In the event he goes before me, how would I comfort my sister?

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:23:00

Thanks for the quote, GrimmaTheNome, I think I see what you mean.

GrimmaTheNome Mon 17-Aug-09 17:27:58

Hum Old Lady - tricky one that. (I think my parents were upset when I eventually outed myself as an athiest not because I would go to hell but that I might miss out on heaven.)

Do we think its OK to question beliefs if - as in your sister's case - they aren't comforting? Put it to her that if there is a loving God then your Mum's view might be nearer the truth?

bloss Mon 17-Aug-09 17:32:01

Message withdrawn

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:33:32

I kind of haven't "come out" as a fully-fledged atheist with my family blush, my sister thinks I'm Seeking because I have gently queried her beliefs. She's honestly fundy (a lovely, lovely woman!) to the point she believes the world is 6000 years old, but at least she hasn't stoned me to death for heresy, apostacy or blasphemy! grin

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 17:36:08

Sorry, bloss, I'm not currently trying to comfort (or indeed, annoy) anyone - I'm just wondering "out loud" how I might respond in different situations, so I don't do anything inappropriate.

bloss Mon 17-Aug-09 17:51:44

Message withdrawn

Fennel Mon 17-Aug-09 19:55:01

I find it rather comforting not to believe that we will be judged on our exit from this life. Having grown up in an evangelical CofE household, my parents certainly do believe that I and my sister and our partners will go to hell. I am happy to not be part of that belief system.

That isn't quite what I'd offer as comfort to someone bereaved, I don't think there's anything you can say to comfort someone who's lost a child say, but in general I think there is something comforting in knowing that things grow, they die, they are turned back into compost, and new things grow in their place. In contrast to traditional Christian notions of heaven and hell.

chimchar Mon 17-Aug-09 20:40:30

my mum died very suddenly a few weeks ago. she was not hugely religious, but did believe in god more than she didn't iykwim...

i hated the funeral when it banged on about her being in a wonderful place, with god, etc.. its all pants (imo!) all that mattered to me was that she wasn't with me...i can't believe that she is in heaven as such...i do believe in angels and spirits, but not in one god, or even in a higher being...

tbh, the best comfort has come from those who have not offered words of explanation, but those who offer themselves with a hug and a "i don't know what to say". the very best comfort has come from those who still, 5 weeks on are looking out for me and keep ringing or calling when others have forgotten or moved on. in my limited experience, that is proving to be most hurtful, along with those who say nothing at all....

TheDMOfficeIsFullOfImmigrants Mon 17-Aug-09 20:46:56

OldLady (sorry that this is not quite what you're asking but I feel I have to add this); it's a misnomer which non-believers regularly make that faith is about providing comfort. On the contrary AFAIK most faiths (here I don't include cults), when practised genuinely (i.e. rather than for someone else to gain power, etc) are about challenging us to step way beyond our comfort zones.

My own father died with a lifelong superficial faith, having damaged a great deal of people and never accepted that his actions were so harmful. I share the same faith (not so superficially!) and honestly have no idea what has 'happened next' now that he's passed on. I don't believe he 'deserved' to go to heaven (to put things veeery simplistically) but at the same time my faith teaches me that it's not about 'if you're good you go to heaven'. So I simply don't know.

I don't have the answers to this question and at the same time, as a person of faith I am content to wrestle with the questions - so for me and many others I know, it's not so much about seeking comfort but about being authentic.

TheDMOfficeIsFullOfImmigrants Mon 17-Aug-09 20:49:14

Ahem. 'It's a misapprehension'.

OldLadyKnowsNothing Mon 17-Aug-09 21:39:09

Thanks, TheDMOfficeIsFullOfImmigrants, it's that kind of thing I'd like to discuss with my sister, but when I try it seems to consolidate her feeling that I'm Seeking. I really, truly am not, but I'm quite fascinated by the strength she seems to draw from her faith. I'm not sure I envy her, because I don't want to achieve that the way she has, iyswim, but nonetheless it intrigues me.

porcupine11 Mon 17-Aug-09 21:48:01

I'm not sure if the strength is real - my sister has many Christian friends, some born again, and most if not all of them have questioned their faith as soon as something really bad happens, from bereavement to the end of a relationship, to not liking how their career is turning out or wondering why 'god' hasn't dumped a life-partner in their lap yet. At the back of their mind they must realize that their 'strength' is based on a load of make-believe nonsense and doesn't provide any real support at all. Even the networks of Christian friends they have turn round and offer meaningless faith-based statements when they are questioning their faith... my sister, also atheist, has provided them with much more support in these cases, by actually talking some sense.

bloss Tue 18-Aug-09 06:21:32

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