Last week a dear friend had a sudden death in his family. His wife died in her sleep at the age of 45 leaving behind their 5 year old daughter. I want to give him comfort but being an atheist I can't offer the usual platitudes of "She's in a better place". Or worse, the denial that "You'll see her again some day".

What do YOU say when something tragic like this happens? Is there anything deep and meaningful that I can offer my friend?

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A tough one. At first, I felt like all my good consoling lines had been stolen by atheism and I would be forever damned to awkward silence in these situations. While I still don't have "canned" responses, I think this dilemma has proved to be a blessing in disguise (pardon the pun).

Now, instead of offering empty platitudes, I have to think about what I am to say to this person who has lost someone so dear. It forces me to be more empathetic and to consider the weight of their loss more keenly. My words, if I do have any, are that much more genuine. And sometimes I have no words and that is okay, too. A simple embrace can go a long way.

Most often I try to focus on life and the memories we carry of our deceased loved ones. But this can be very dependent on the type of person that is grieving. Ultimately, it is not a matter of what makes me more comfortable, but rather what the needs of the bereaved are.

The only thing I could offer your friend is to gently remind them to be happy for the time they had with someone they loved so much and I would express my sorrow that it was far too short.
Right. Sometimes there are no words, and for a parent to lose a child, that is one of the toughest, I'd imagine. I'd feel like I was insulting them if I even tried.
That's a very good question. Of course verbally, I'm sorry for your loss is about the only neutral thing that you can say. If my friend were close I'd be trying to direct them into figuring out heredity to focus on the daughter.

If it were someone close to me that died and someone said that my friend or family was in a better place, the game is on. I'll flat out ask what religion it is that they are speaking of? Jesus hasn't returned to raise up the dead. If he raised them up all along, what dead will he be raising up during the rapture? ( I did this to my sister when a cousin died. She wasn't close to him. The pastor didn't know him and droned on and on about Heaven and how good it was that his children no longer had a father.)

Friends at this time in life are just looking for comfort and picking the scab while they are healing isn't going to do them any good. Generally whatever gets them through the day, have at it and it's a day where I won't challenge people. Until my parents pass. Good luck on me letting someone try to comfort me then with religion. In general I talk about good memories and how much I loved or enjoyed the person ignoring the better place comments.
If it were someone close to me that died and someone said that my friend or family was in a better place, the game is on.

That seems harsh. Don't get me wrong, if they are being especially assertive or trying to really convince you of this, then by all means. But if someone is sincerely trying to console in the ways that they know how, well, the intention should mean more than the words, IMO.
Let's turn it another way for another view. Farrakhan dies and someone says to his family, "He is with Jesus now." Should his family simply accept this answer in good faith?

If the consoler should know what the other person believes yet disregards that belief in favor of their own, I submit that they are not consoling me, but themselves. In my time of grief it's not fair to suggest that my mechanism of coping is inadequate. I don't walk up and say, "Too bad heaven isn't real because I'd like to think of them there."

I just won't play second fiddle because I'm not religiously popular. I'll go to your church and not say a word. I'll extend my sympathies or empathy graciously. In turn, there may be a day that I expect the same in return. That's what I see as equality.
I don't expect everyone to be as enlightened as you, and at a time when grief makes conversation awkward, I am more forgiving of people who are not aware of my religious non-beliefs. If they slip and say something about heaven, I'd ignore it. If they continued to go on about heaven, I would address it. If I suspected that they said it despite and possibly because of my non-beliefs, then yeah, I'd probably address it then, too.

Now the scenario seems to grow with complications.
Aw come on, even while I was writing it was expecting a beating for a straw man!
Well, now that you mention it....
This is a tricky situation. My pop died when he turned 40. He was a born-again Christian - as was I and the rest of my family. We got a lot of "he is in a better place" stuff - and that was okay with me - but underneath it all I was glad he was dead - as in we were in a better place because of his death. In this case, it wouldn't make sense for an atheist to say - remember him alive - because though your friend's wife is likely very pleasant to remember, this is not always the case. Also - as a Christian, my family picked up on non-believers who pulled the "remember him alive" line - and knew that it was the atheist schtick. It didn't help.

What really shows through in the end is not the things people say - but how they act. Christians are notorious for putting on a show of compassion that often disappears a few weeks or months after the fact. Most mourning doesn't happen right away. There is the initial shock - but the actual mourning is an ongoing process. Be there for him when everyone else has forgotten that it still matters. Say less - Show more - Listen. Wait. Don't forget. In the meantime - I think the best thing to say is a sincere "I'm sorry" and then shut up and see where it goes. Don't ask him what you can do for him - just do it - and keep doing it after others have lost interest. Show him - don't tell him - that you are willing to help. He will remember this when the fog lifts.
That was fantastic advice Christine. Like many of us who love our friend, we're separated by distance. he lives in Virginia and I'm in Florida. But there are still things I can do to help and let him know he and his daughter are loved. And I appreciate you pointing out that I need to KEEP being there for them both not just for a few weeks but for months and months. That's the kind of practical advice I needed.
Also - as a Christian, my family picked up on non-believers who pulled the "remember him alive" line - and knew that it was the atheist schtick. It didn't help.

Precisely why I said it really depends on the person and their needs.

What really shows through in the end is not the things people say - but how they act.

Yes, yes, yes!
when death comes and effects my kids we have always went along the lines of ' you will always have gran/mum/blah blah in your memories, they will always be with you'. when the kids have asked about them going to heaven I have told them no.

A nice big cuddle for the xtain who lost someone with the comment that were thinkng about them.

take care


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