Saturday, May 7, 2011

Comforting Rationally

While researching an idea for a blog post, I came across a story about a little girl named Meredith whose beloved dog Abbey had died. Meredith was so concerned about what would happen to Abbey that she asked her mother if she could write to God and ask him to take special care of the dog. Meredith's mom helped her write the letter, address it to "God/Heaven," and mail it (with multiple stamps, because "it may take lots of stamps to get a letter all the way to heaven"). Some kind person at the US Postal Service read Meredith's letter and sent her a very sweet reply (signed "God, and the special angel who wrote this after God told her the words") and a copy of the book When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers (of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" fame). According to, the story is true; it happened in San Antonio, Texas in 2006.

I sometimes envy believers when it comes to offering words of comfort to mourners. Even if prayer has no demonstrable effect on the world, the phrase "I'll pray for you" has an emotional effect on believers. Even prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has esophageal cancer, has said that he appreciates the intent of those who pray for his recovery even though he urges believers not to "trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries". If somebody (especially a child) asked me if the soul of someone they loved was in heaven, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to be blunt and say "no." I'm faithless, but I'm not heartless. I think the best I could manage would be something like "Wouldn't it be nice if s/he was in heaven?" But then I'd try to turn the conversation to "What would s/he do in heaven if s/he had the choice? What kinds of things did s/he like to do with you? I'm sorry s/he's gone, but I'm glad you two got to know each other." If I'd known the deceased myself, I'd try to share a happy or funny anecdote.

Offering condolences as a non-believer requires more work than just saying "I'll pray," but if "I'm so sorry for your loss" doesn't feel sufficient, there are ways to comfort without invoking religion. Sadly, as I and my family and acquaintances get older, I'm going to have all too many opportunities to practice this skill.

H/T to Michael Josephson, Founder of Josephson Institute


  1. This IS a tough topic, and one that many of us have encountered. I suppose, with my kids, because the question of what happens when we die has always been answered very simply ("our bodies decompose and our remains feed the earth"), there hasn't been a question directed to me about heaven (much to my mother's chagrin, I might add *SIGH*).

    In offering comfort for the loved ones of someone who has passed away, the words "My condolences" are usually followed with, "if there is anything I can do, please let me know." And that may sound trite and cheesy, but it is a more practical thing for me than something like prayer. Further, because they're not just random, meaningless words for me - I do follow through. While I try to not "pester" a recently grieving family, I make a point of calling or stopping by with a dish of food, or make arrangements for them to go out to eat so they don't have to worry about that. Another thing I've done is given (paid) housecleaning services for a month or two (not expensive at all for that, if it's once a week or every other week for a couple of months). Little things we don't think about when we're grieving - things like eating and keeping our surroundings tidy. Even a couple of months (again, paid) for laundry service. These are small practical things that provide a different brand of comfort, in the aftermath following a funeral or burial, when suddenly there is a profound void where a loved one once was.

    What I do is what I would want for myself, were I to find myself in a position of such grief. Maybe not food, specifically, since I enjoy cooking as a distraction as much as to eat. But things like housecleaning and laundry? In the depths of sorrow at the loss of a loved one amid the grieving process, the last things I want to think about are *chores*....

    :-) Just a couple of small suggestions.

  2. Excellent suggestions; I'll keep them in mind. Happily, I don't anticipate needing them anytime soon, but it's good to think ahead when you know that situations like this are going to affect people you know sooner or later.