I was on the bus a week ago and a woman about forty or so started talking to me. She said it was the anniversary of her husband's death and she was just started on a drinking spree that would probably last the night and into the next day. Her husband had been shot to death in a meth deal done bad.
She asked me if she was wrong to want him back...to be willing to do anything to get him back. I told her 'No, she wasn't wrong to want him back.'
And I listened to her as she poured her grief out to me. I realized I had no defense against her grief, that I just had to let it pour into me without giving some glib response like 'he's in a better place.'
After she got off the bus, I couldn't just shrug off the encounter. It has stayed with me, and will probably always we with me. I realized how easy it is to Christians to say "he's in a better place" even though they would be lying. They teach and preach that this man, killed in the commission of a drug related crime, would be burning in Hell forever and ever. But they would lie to her and try to get her to come to their church.
What kind of bastard would use this woman's grief to proselytize for their religion?
So often I hear from atheists how religion offers comfort to those who are dying or have lost loved ones.
I don't understand how they can say such a thing.
I have no protection, no easy way of dismissing her demand for something comforting.
It hurts, inside of me.
What can an atheist say to such a demand for comfort when we know there is nothing beyond the physical existence?
Help me. She haunts me like a ghost and I don't believe in them either.
I enjoyed reading your encounter with the lady.
Unfortunately there are no easy answers.
I think you did the right thing to just listen to her as she told her story.
Perhaps she just needed someone there to share with; just someone there to listen.
I think you did help her in listening to her.
People have vulnerabilities, times of loss among them. Theistic memeplexes evolved to exploit us, to inject themselves into us as hosts and take us over whe we are at our most defenseless. That's what mind viruses do. We can only counter the "comfort" of the religious carrier reaching out to her by reaching out ourselves with untainted human comfort.
Whenever i see death of a person i was taught to say "Inna ilahi wa inna ileyhi raajioon" that at first sounded good because its in arabic and i dont know arabic. But when i got to know its meaning which is "Verily we belong to god and to god we shall return" i felt comforting and skeptic at same time. If it was so why is suicide a sin ? Its like "i belong to India and i should return to India but im not supposed to board the plane". Well jokes apart I feel sorry for her and your ghostly condition as well but the best thing to say would be that
"He would like you to be happy" may not be best but appropriate.
Sometimes you've got to be cruel to be kind.
You could use a good news/bad news analogy. Firstly ask her which news she wants first. If she wants the good news first, tell her the deceased is not burning in hell for his misdemeanors. You then tell her the bad news which is he cannot resurrect himself and join her in life again. Therefore, to overdose on alcohol and start thinking irrationally is pointless and stupid.
Awhile ago I heard of the death of someone from a vaccine-preventable illness and my response was to say things about the need for everyone to get the recommended vaccinations even if they don't personally feel they need them - vaccination is for other people as well as for oneself.
So one atheist response to tragedy is to say "how about trying to prevent such a thing happening to others in the future."
With vaccination, the parents of a baby in Australia who died of whooping cough when she was only 4 months old became pro-vaccination activists. They gave interviews on tv, campaigned for free whooping cough boosters for parents of newborns, etc. - so that what happened to them will hopefully not happen to someone else in the future.
With this woman you met, how could the dangerous illegal meth deals be prevented in the future?
The other thing would be to help the person talk it out. If I had met her I might say things about how devastating it sounds - giving her space to talk about her feelings and experiences.
And maybe open up the question of whether she might change something about her life in reaction to this.
Saying nothing, just listening was the best thing you could have done. This is all she really wanted in the first place.
I see empathy as varying along a normal (bell) curve from "None" (the amount sociopaths are alleged to have) to "Too much".
You helped her deal with her grief, a humane act. On that normal curve, you will find a range in which you can function.
"What kind of bastard would use this woman's grief to proselytize for their religion?"
I'd feel like a bastard myself, if I used it as an opportunity to sell atheism. The safest response is to simply listen. I've run into similar situations before and struggled a bit. In the end, it made more sense to offer comfort. There are plenty of things we can say that are religiously/philosophically neutral. I might make comments that help them remember the good in that person. Not every meth dealer behaved abhorently throughout their entire life. They probably had some positive attributes that did not lead to their death, or the death of others. I'm not really good at manipulating people but given the opportunity, I would not hesitate to encourage them to move forward in a positive direction.
I don't think it would promote poor behavior to offer this type of comfort.
I agree with Syed in a way. There isn't much you can say about the afterlife, but you can address the here and now. Ask her what he would have wanted of her - would he want her to be miserable and drink, or to move on and be happy and live her life? Personally, I'm offended when someone implies to me that a dead person is 'in a better place', so I don't think those words are comforting to everybody. I even know some Christians that don't enjoy hearing that.
Even though everyone understands the finality of death, it doesn't strike home until you lose someone close. Religion and popular culture lead us to believe death is not the end, that it is not total oblivion. Even though we know otherwise, the wish to believe something remains after death is strong and occasionally overwhelms common sense.
"Religion and popular culture lead us to believe death is not the end, that it is not total oblivion."
The verb many people use illustrates this. People don't die; they pass.