Vox Populi 6 – Words of Sorrow

Posted by on January 17, 2011 in Thoughts | 5 comments

Welcome to the sixth in the series of “Vox Populi” articles on my blog, where I ask for your feedback and thoughts on a given topic. Hope you enjoy these short topical pieces, and please leave your feedback in the comments.

Topic 6: Platitudes

Recently on reddit/r/atheism someone posted a short piece asking people what would be the right thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one, had some particularly difficult news, or is going through hard times. It’s never easy for anyone to show sympathy for another, but the religious have an easier way our with what they say. “I’ll pray for you”, “You’ll be in my prayers”, “He’s/she’s in a better place”, “It’s all part of God’s plan”, and “He’s/she’s with Jesus now” are typical responses you’ll hear from a religious person when confronted with another person’s torment.

Of course, none of these platitudes are any good for an atheist like myself, and some of them I’d even find insulting (to a degree, though in times of distress it’s not good to go there). While the person giving the platitudes means well whatever they believe, I think it’s better to go with something real, something tangible and something heartfelt.

At the funeral of a loved one a couple of years ago, a friend delivered something along the lines of “You are a beautiful, wonderful, strong person. Nobody should ever have to go through something like this. I know you’ll be fine and I’m here for you if you need me.” This was all it took to make the griever feel better. It was real, heartfelt, and carried the same pain as the griever was feeling.

Have any of you experienced this? What would you do in a situation like this?

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  1. When a very dear friend lost her father-in-law (she is Godly, I am not) I got her to talk; when the times seemed appropriate, I shared my own inadequacies about knowing what to say. This seemed to help her.

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  2. At a recent family gathering, as my mother in law (who is suffering from alzheimers) was leaving and saying her goodbyes, my mum said “i’ll say a prayer for you”. I was completely taken aback…. though my mum is catholic, religion was NEVER a part of my upbringing and i never once heard the ‘P’ word come out of her mouth in my whole 35 years!! I guess mum didn’t really know what to say and this was the easy way out.. or perhaps she really was going to say a prayer… perhaps i’ll ask her about this sometime…

    Me, I tend to offer the “I’m so sorry, if there is anything i can do for you, i am here to help” type of platitude, because to me that is the honest heartfelt truth…

    Kim :)

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  3. “What can I do to help?” seems to be fine advice for either side of the theistic fence!

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  4. Working in an Intensive Care Unit means that I see people die regularly. It also means that I also hear many of the above-mentioned platitudes quite regularly. Grief affects people in different ways, and I find that many people just don’t know what to say, and may be worried about saying the wrong thing.

    I personally find the “god’s plan” platitude highly offensive, and gobsmackingly insensitive. I wonder how anyone could possibly respect or revere a “plan” that rips people from their familes and leaves children orphaned. If I ever had to face the death of my wife or child, the last thing I would want to hear would be that it was all part of some divine plan which somehow makes it all OK.

    I also am not a fan of using “I’m sorry for your loss”. To me, it always sounds like I am apologising for something, and that somehow I bare some form of responsibility for it.

    Recently, a friend was with their much-loved family member as they lay dying in another ICU on the other side of the world. On her Facebook page were a heap of “I’m paying for you” style messages. At first, I had no idea what to say, until a Bhuddist friend of ours wrote, “You and your family are in my thoughts and have my best wishes and empathy for your current challenges”. I couldn’t have said it better myself, as it was exactly what I felt. I fairness, I imagine that for many, “I’m praying for you” is really some kind of shorthand for conveying the same feelings.

    In the end, I think that if you are going to offer any form of condolences, it should always be genuine and from the heart. And if you don’t know what to say, then sometimes a simple hug can be more meaningful and supportive than words ever could be.

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  5. My grandmother died recently. Responses to this news from friends and co-workers were mostly along the lines of “I’m so sorry” or “my condolences”, which I found oddly comforting. The were simply ackowledging my grief, not trying to magically make it go away like it was a bad thing. (I don’t think grief is a bad thing–it’s a natural and perhaps necessary reaction to a loss.)

    The funeral really pissed me off, though. The priest kept going on and on about some fellow called Jay-ZOSS and hardly touched upon my grandmother’s long and colorful life. It was appalling, and I think it’s put me off funerals forever.

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