The tragic and accidental death of a young person is viewed as unnatural, and accordingly the religious need to explain it in supernatural terms. As an atheist you summarized the accident was made probable by an inexperienced driver who was speeding and not wearing a seat belt. Take comfort in the fact that you do not have a puppet master who will just kill you off at his whim. Everyday we take calculated risks. Living is hazardous to your health. Love with all your heart, there is no second chance to make things right. We know all this and can be better and happier while living out our path through each and every probability curve. They are fairly deterministic and you affect them greatly but you have no control over the initial conditions that set your life in motion.
When my girls' father died unexpectedly at age 45, I had no religious platitudes with which to comfort them. I am grateful that I came up with something to say anyway. I told them that he will go on in many forms: their memories, who they are as individuals, their DNA, conservation of energy and matter, the cosmic cycle of star formation, death and rebirth, etc. I don't know how comforting it was but if I had given them religious fluff they would know I was lying.
Ultimately, there is no easy way to go through the change of losing a loved one. It is brutal but the living need to go on living. I'm no expert at this, but I know that kind, patient support saw me through my father's death not too long ago. Being there is everything.
I guess if I felt I couldn't cope, I might be religious.
For the most part I think we as a species view death in the wrong light.
How can something so integral and defining to our existence be a negative thing?
It is what gives our lives value.
I think once we come to understand and accept it we wont be so morbidly obsessed with it.
When it occurs to one so young and under preventable circumstances maybe the best way to cope is to use it as an example of what not to do and put that much more time and energy into enjoying those who matter to you.
My best friend recently lost his father and his mother 2 weeks apart, a week before his birthday. If there is a god he's an asshole.
One thing to do is to see that it is death which gives life meaning. While I'm not religious in any way, the Zen advocate Alan Watts said something profound when he pointed out that a painting isn't defined until it's done, put in a frame, and hung on a wall, so what a person's life ultimately means isn't set until his/her life is over.
Strangely (because he was anything but a Zen master), this is also Jean-Paul Sartre's view of life: a person's essence doesn't exist until the person's existence is over. He distinguished humans from all other things in that (according to his philosophy) everything else has an essence preceding its existence, but with humans our existence preceded their essence.
Expanding on Sartre, in other words, a rock exhibits rockness or rock nature, a dog exhibits dogness or dog nature, but there's no such thing as human nature. How we as humans will be as persons isn't set by our being of the human species.
Ephesians 5:16 says,
making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
My guess: a mistranslation.
The original question wasn't how to comfort others, but how do atheists find comfort (for themselves) in the face of death.
How does an atheist gets comfort where fairytales aren't a part of the game?
Feeling sad isn't an error. Inventing fairy tales is.
I don't particularly believe I am entitled to be comforted at a time of grief. Other species don't expect it. Why should we? I don't.
I coped with death by accepting its inevitability and moving on with what's left of my own life.
That being said, I would not criticize someone else's desire to seek comfort in their religion to assuage the pain of losing a loved one. Their ignorance is a moot point at a time like that.
I have had my share of tragic deaths in my family, and I made a point of NOT seeking solace in religion, which caused all my relatives to thereafter shun me, to my great joy.
Maybe it's just my peculiar, idiosyncratic personality, but I never sought comfort from anybody, and I never felt I had some special entitlement to receive it.
Death is not only part of life, it is indispensable as a spur to evolution.
I think that all you can do is talk about the good times you or his friends and family had with him while he was alive and be thankful for that. It's tragic, and there's nothing you can do to make it better, really. Only time can do that. But just remembering that person, and maybe planting a tree in their name, or going out and doing a good deed that would have meant something to that person may help? I feel that religious people draw out the grief by planning to see that person in heaven. They never get closure. If you picture the deceased person watching you all the time, how creepy is that???