NOTES FROM THE HENGE
A lovely young widow named Droste
Couldn’t face that her husband was toast
Suitors pursued her
But no man who wooed her
Could get her to give up the ghost
As always, just thinkin’ out loud here, people.
|Comedy is easy. Dying is hard. Wait-|
DEALIN’ WITH A GRIEVIN’ HEATHEN
Years ago I used to get Newsweek delivered. At one point they completely revamped the magazine, adjusting the layout and fonts and column titles and whatnot. Part of that “rebranding” involved changing the obituary page to a page they now called “Transitions.” This confused the hell out of me. Every week it messed with my head. I’d flip through a new issue and see something like “Oscar-winning actor John Smith has transitioned….” And I’d automatically think, “Cool! He’s real old so it’s especially inspiring to hear a guy his age is trying different things. Wonder what he’s up to?” I’d read on excitedly, only to find out they meant he died. Their euphemism fooled me every week. I never learned.
But I supposed to some believers, death is indeed a “transition” (beyond simply being a clear transition from a living thing to a dead one). Which brings me to the subject of this post: My advice to the devout about how to behave when an, um, not-so-devout person has someone close to them, um, “transition.”
Dear Religious Folks Who Believe in Life After Death,
When an atheist or agnostic friend or family member suffers the loss of a loved one, please try to be respectful in how you speak to them. Yes: be supportive, be giving, be loving, and express sincere condolences. Be there for them. Bring multiple-beaned casseroles and mango-filled cakes and sappy Hallmark cards and plenty of frosty adult beverages. (Non-frosty ones will do, too.) Listen to them. Hold them while they cry. Let them talk. Let them babble incoherently, even. Hug them (avoid any untoward groping, though). Offer a monogrammed hanky from the breast pocket of your brass-buttoned blazer, if you’re old-school classy.
But please, if at all possible, take care not to say things like “he’s in a better place,” or “she’s with her maker now,” or “you’ll see him again one day,” or “God has called her to his side,” even if you sincerely, deeply believe those things. I know it’s hard, but keep that stuff to yourself if you possibly can, and – oh, yeah – try not to use expressions like “transitioned,” “went home,” “passed on,” “crossed over,” “entered the great beyond,” or “slipped beyond the veil.”
Just say “died.”
I get why you do all these things. It comes from a good place. I know. To a fellow believer, such sentiments are kind, sweet ways of offering support, comfort, and trying to ease suffering. But to an atheist like myself, in the darkness of that bleak moment it sometimes feels like you’re saying, “Hey, your loved one didn’t really die die, dude, so what’s the big deal?”
|A painting I did of our dear cat, Elric, after he died.|
Note the fabulously furry halo and wings.
Implying that the dead person is still “out there somewhere” may give fellow believers great comfort, but to a non-believer it feels kinda like you’re trying to deny us the honest grief, pain, and devastating loss of death; trying to whitewash the finality of it and the brutal, soul-wrenching sadness we experience in its wake. It feels, in our anguish, like you’re desperately trying to snap us out of our mourning by explaining to us that, hey, the person’s still kinda hanging around somewhere out in the ether. That our Loved One is actually just fine and dandy, playing Parcheesi with Jesus, bowling with that treasured pet gerbil they lost as a kid, or sharing cheese sandwiches with 72 freshly fluffed & folded virgins… or some such thing.
The bottom line is to be respectful of the survivor’s beliefs (or lack thereof) during their bereavement. Yeah I’m an atheist, but I would never go to a funeral and walk up to a grieving friend who sincerely believed in the afterlife and presume to say something like: “Face it, they’re gone, kiddo. They don’t exist anymore. They’re nowhere, dude. But, hey, you’ve got your memories, right? That’s what matters. And I brought a harmonica – would you like to hear my rendition of ‘Dust in the Wind’?”
The point is I happily shut up about my own beliefs and just listen and support and love and hug (sans groping) and bake (okay, maybe not) and fetch them some generic-brand tissues (since I’m not old-school classy enough to have monogrammed booger-collectors). I’m just gently asking you devout ones to please try your level best to be sensitive and show us non-theists the same kind of respect we try to show you nice folks during these tough moments.
A friend’s loss is not the time to display to the world what you believe, it’s a time to put yourself aside and be of service to the person suffering. Follow their lead.
That said, I’m transitioning my butt out of here.