Dealing with an atheist.
February 19, 2011 10:25 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my wife deal with the death of a loved one? I am an atheist and I find it hard.

My wife's uncle just passed away after battling cancer for a good many years. He was in his early 50's and never really had a fulfilling life - divorced from an abusive wife, couldn't have children and suffered many setbacks. My wife wasnt too close to him, but he was a wonderful man and she's taking it very badly. Mostly, she blames herself for not visiting him enough and taking care of him during his last few months. She feels she didn't appreciate him whilst he was around.

My wife always has had a tendency to get pessimistic and depressed. This has got her into a situation where she sees no point in life and feels angry towards God.

I am an atheist. I find it hard to console her by saying the usual "God will take care of things" or "God has a plan" or whatever. And I don't think I shd urge her to think rationally now..she's not that in that state of mind..if that makes sense.

How can I help her? I feel handicapped. I'm wondering if I should step back and let her go through the motions and let her heal on her own. But I'm also fearful that if I'm not there by her side, she'll just spiral deeper into depression. 

Being an atheist, I feel a little ill-equipped in this situation. How can I help my wife? I'd appreciate your advice. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This might sound bleak but at least he's out of the pain and misery that is this life. Please put it in softer terms if you do use it though.
posted by gadha at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

While God is a convenient answer there's no reason to call upon an entity you don't believe in. Life is rough. There are no perfect words to solve her grief. Just be a good listener and hug her a lot. Perhaps donating to a cancer research group or hospice provider in his name would give her comfort.
posted by amanda at 10:44 AM on February 19, 2011

I'm an atheist too, but for what it's worth, a lot of theists don't find it very consoling to hear that God has a plan, not if that plan involves the painful, pointless death of a loved one.

In my experience as a mourner and as a consoler, it helps a lot just to know someone understands your grief, allows you to express it, and doesn't judge you. Sorrow doesn't respond to reasons, but loving presence makes it easier to bear. What you can do is let your wife know that it's OK to feel sorrow or grief; it's part of the human condition. Our culture often downplays those emotions, insisting that there's something wrong with people if they aren't happy all the time.

It can also help to talk about the deceased, especially about fond memories. Ask your wife about her good memories of her uncle, or about what he would want to be remembered for. Some people make the mistake of never talking about the deceased, out of concern of reminding the mourner of their loss. Believe me, they don't forget. Tell your wife that the death sucks. Ask her about the good times. If you knew her uncle, talk about what you'll remember. And give her lots of hugs.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:45 AM on February 19, 2011 [14 favorites]

If there is no God, then we must appreciate what we have now. Support her in her grief- she needs to mourn who this man was. Help her to celebrate his life and his strengths, by talking about her memories of him and his goodness. And then do your best to celebrate him by consciously and deliberately living those values. Talk to your wife about how you might both make his goodness part of your day to day lives. Maybe you can support charities for people leaving abusive marriages? Or take up a hobby or a cause that was dear to him, and help your wife to feel closer to him by honoring something that he cared about.
posted by pickypicky at 10:48 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read asavage's address to the Harvard Humanist Society? It may give you food for thought on this topic, and may even help you explain your dilemma to your wife.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:48 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I really really enjoyed this article about how we deal with grieving in America, discussing some of the myths that have become popular about grieving despite lack of empiracle evidence. It's a bit long, but I think you may find it very well worth the read.
posted by xarnop at 10:50 AM on February 19, 2011

Sorry: Finding a better way to grieve
posted by xarnop at 10:52 AM on February 19, 2011

The loss of others and how we deal with it is a universal human experience. You can console her the way we have always consoled each other throughout our time here on this Earth: through companionship, through love, through sympathy, through consolation.

There is a classic piece on Consolation by Seneca, a stoic philosoper: The Consolation to Marcia. In this case, Marcia has lost her child and is unable to stop grieving. Here is an excerpt:

But suppose, Marcia, more was snatched from you than any mother has ever lost — I am not trying to soothe you or to minimize your calamity. If tears can vanquish fate, let us marshal tears; let every day be passed in grief, let every night be sleepless and consumed with sorrow; let hands rain blows on a bleeding breast, nor spare even the face from their assault; if sorrow will help, let us vent it in every kind of cruelty. But if no wailing can recall the dead, if no distress can alter a destiny that is immutable and fixed for all eternity, and if death holds fast whatever it has once carried off, then let grief, which is futile, cease. Wherefore let us steer our own ship, and not allow this power to sweep us from the course! He is a sorry steersman who lets the waves tear the helm from his hands, who has left the sails to the mercy of the winds, and abandoned the ship to the storm; but he deserves praise, even amid shipwreck, whom the sea overwhelms still gripping the rudder and unyielding.

"But," you say, "Nature bids us grieve for our dear ones." Who denies it, so long as grief is tempered? For not only the loss of those who are dearest to us, but a mere parting, brings an inevitable pang and wrings even the stoutest heart.
But grief is effaced by the long lapse of time. However stubborn it may be, mounting higher every day and bursting forth in spite of efforts to allay it, nevertheless the most powerful agent to calm its fierceness is time —time will weaken it. There remains with you even now, Marcia, an immense sorrow; it seems already to have grown calloused — no longer the passionate sorrow it was at first, but still persistent and stubborn; yet this also little by little time will remove. Whenever you engage in something else, your mind will be relieved. As it is now, you keep watch on yourself; but there is a wide difference between permitting and commanding yourself to mourn.

The larger piece can be wordy but these very passages were found to be deeply consoling to a religious friend of ours who was otherwise alone and frightened and doubting God. In these passages she saw that her grief was like the grief of others, even people from thousands of years ago, and left her feeling less isolated, more connected to the broader experience of being human.
posted by vacapinta at 10:54 AM on February 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm an atheist as well, and I don't consider anyone dead until there are no more fond memories of them; that's what helped me get through the death of a friend. It may help your wife as well.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 11:00 AM on February 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

Her uncle's worth isn't to be measured by his achievements or lack thereof--that your wife mourns him is a tribute to his impact on the world. If he was a wonderful guy, I'd find ways to remind her of the things he did or times together and of other friends he made, etc. My dad wasn't a success in the eyes of the world, but the 200 people that came to his wake told me all sorts of stories about him, and those anecdotes made me see how loved he was by his friends--even people who thought he was a miserable cuss told me funny stories. Does she have photos of him? Just sitting and letting her talk about him and her remembrances might be a nice thing to do. It's not the hereafter that matters, I think, but what happens during our lives.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:00 AM on February 19, 2011

I'm puzzled by why you, an atheist, would think it necessary to bring God into it at all. Why do you feel limited in that way?

Why not just say "I know how hard it is to lose a loved one ... The feeling that we didn't appreciate them enough is universal. I'm here for you." Consoling someone does not require reassuring them that the deceased is in a "better place" -- it simple requires acknowledging their pain and being there for them.

Why do you think God even needs to be brought up?
posted by jayder at 11:10 AM on February 19, 2011 [10 favorites]

God has nothing to do with it.

Life is full of choices, some people make bad ones or suffer from bad ones made by others. The trick is learning from those mistakes and trying hard not to repeat them. Not to wallow in guilt. Waste no more time on the past, it's GONE. Seek to avoid wasting the future.
posted by wkearney99 at 11:20 AM on February 19, 2011

he was a wonderful man

It sounds like the world is a better place for his having been in it. Surely that is something to be celebrated, and the best way to honor him might be to follow his example.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:21 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is sad, it does hurt, it's okay to feel that way. Trying to say it's okay, his suffering has ended, every cloud has a silver lining, etc, is not a good idea. Bad things happen, not necessarily in fair amounts. That's part of life, and grieving over bad events is too. Just be there for her, don't pretend everything's okay.
posted by skewed at 11:25 AM on February 19, 2011

I doubt that any attempts to reason with your wife (be they along atheist or theist lines) would be very effective right now. As others have said, being a patient, loving and sympathetic listener is probably the single best thing you can do for her, assuming you're primarily interested in offering comfort and support, and not in effecting any sort of conversion (and assuming that's the case, thank you for being so respectful of your wife's beliefs, even though you don't share them!)

If she seems to be having a lot of emotional trouble that's specifically religious in focus (anger with God, questioning the value of living, etc.), many churches offer really good, frequently professionally-led grief support groups that would offer her a chance to work out some of those feelings with other people who're in the same position; perhaps you could do a little research and try to connect her with a group in your area that at least roughly matches her particular denomination. Many ministers and priests are also happy to meet in person to offer counselling or suggest further avenues of treatment.

Also, C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, written in a confessional mode after the death of his wife, is generally regarded as a classic treatment of the grieving process as it relates to Christian faith. If your wife is up to some reading, that'd be an additional resource to consider.
posted by Bardolph at 11:41 AM on February 19, 2011

(Just realized that the my post above assumes throughout that your wife is Christian. If not, then the Lewis book might be less relevant, obviously. Apologies!)
posted by Bardolph at 11:47 AM on February 19, 2011

DevilsAdvocate is right, of course, that you and she can try to follow his example, as one way to celebrate his life. There are a variety of ways to honor people, which you may want to think about, depending on what he might have liked. My family has arranged for the planting of trees in honor of several family members, for example. One tree is in a park in a town of my grandmother's. Another is a tree planted to beautify the cemetery where my mother is buried. When my husband's father died, we went looking for the best photo we could find to enlarge, frame, and keep in a place of honor in our apartment. My friend did me the infinite kindness of donating in my mother's name to an art center my mother held dear.
posted by gudrun at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2011

It's not quite making sense to me that you are focusing on being an atheist when your wife is grieving. Be nice. Console. Cook favorite dinner. Listen. Ask for a story about something special she remembers about him.

When this situation has passed, maybe ask yourself why your atheism was so perplexing to you at this juncture. I'm an atheist too. It doesn't mean you have to be Spock when someone dies, nor is it an appropriate time to be provocative about your beliefs. Just be a good friend/husband/person.
posted by quarterframer at 12:29 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

We are lovable based on who we are, not on what we achieve. Help your wife celebrate what was wonderful and lovable about her uncle. What were his best qualities -- his humor? His compassion? His generosity? By remembering these qualities, she (and you) can seek to emulate them. And in so doing, you will be both honoring her uncle's memory and also keeping what was best about him alive every day.
posted by scody at 2:28 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think as an atheist you are better equipped than you realize to help her through this.

As an atheist you know that that the dead don't have wishes or pain or regret, so there isn't anything she can do now to help her uncle's life be more easier or more meaningful. So her suffering is only causing more pain for herself and those who love for her. I hope believers wouldn't say that her suffering pleases God, or helps her uncle in the afterlife; as an atheist you can be certain of this. But she make the conscious choice to honor her Uncle's life by resolving to love and cherish and nurture those around her right now, today, this moment, including herself. If he had regrets, let her strive to have none, if he felt neglected, let her vow to never again neglect a loved one.

She can be angry or confused with what God's intention are; but she must see that living a joyful, loving and grateful life is what her uncle would wish for her; and what a kind God would want also.

She will be grieving for a while. Just love her and be patient. Far in the future she may burst into tears, seemingly out of the blue. Grief is messy. Just keep gently reminding her that you love her, that she has many people who love her and whom she loves, and that believer and atheist alike, the present is all that any of us can be certain we have.
posted by tula at 2:48 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Supporting someone during a time of grief doesn't need to be about talking them out of feeling sad. You can be present with her as she feels the feelings she has, which are totally normal, expectable reactions to death. Trying to "console" can sometimes be packaged with an implicit message of "hey it's not ok that you feel bad about this, and I'm uncomfortable and can't deal with it, so hey cheer up!!!" and honestly, calling her irrational for being angry with her conception of god isn't really as supportive as I suspect you're really wanting to, and trying to, be.

Hug her, hold her, listen to her if she wants to talk about it. You don't have to fix it (breaking news: you can't fix it, and nothing can but time), you don't have to do anything to make the world sunny again, you just have to be present with her and let her know you are there when she needs you.
posted by so_gracefully at 5:44 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mostly, she blames herself for not visiting him enough and taking care of him during his last few months. She feels she didn't appreciate him whilst he was around.

I went through similar feelings when my grandmother died. Geographic distance, complicated family relationships, and financial issues prevented me from seeing her as often as I would have liked, in the end.

So from this experience, I can tell you the following:

The guilt over having been a "bad niece" will pass, and there isn't much either of you can do about it in the meantime. You can assuage your wife's feelings by reminding her that: other loved ones were with her uncle, he wasn't alone... and in the time she wasn't spending with him, it's not like she was lying around eating bon-bons; she surely was taking care of her own family's needs. Which is likely exactly what her uncle would have hoped for her.

The pity she feels over how his life was lived, you can maybe help mitigate by finding ways to emphasize the good, fulfilling parts of his life, whatever those were. I know that when I lost my grandmother, a lot of my sadness was exacerbated by thinking about the loneliness she likely experienced at the end of her life, as a two-time widower with family scattered to the four winds. Of course, more than anything, that was a function of my being 30-something and facing the notion of mortality and aging; when I thought instead about the parts of my grandmother's life that made her happy, I was buoyed.

You might also try to help your wife separate the guilt and pity, from the actual grieving for the loss of her uncle. Being raw and sad about his being gone is a process she has to go through, sure —but she is beating herself up needlessly by piling in the other feelings, and extending the healing time.

I can't help you regarding how to deal with her feelings of anger toward God. I can only say that grieving a family death is normal, and it causes situational depression that can often resolve itself. But there is nothing wrong with talking to a pastor, counselor, or therapist if it seems that more assistance is needed.

In fact, talking to a pastor would be exactly the right audience to address your wife's anger at God around her uncle's death. Clergy are absolutely trained to field that question and provide comfort in exactly this scenario. She doesn't have to be a member of any particular church, either; you could just Google to find a nearby church. Most church websites offer leadership contact names.
posted by pineapple at 10:33 PM on February 19, 2011

Are you unsure of how to react because she didn't seem to be that close to him, and you don't understand why it's having such a big impact on her?

Something like that happened to me once. My brother's close friend died unexpectedly, and it hit me really hard. He wasn't my friend and I didn't feel close to him either, but somehow a combination of things made it really painful for me. I cried a lot. I'm not a religious person. But really all I wanted to do was be able to talk about it and cry for a while. I didn't want any encouraging words about him being in a better place or everything happens for a reason, or how life isn't fair and why am I taking it so hard anyway when I hardly ever thought about the guy while he was alive? I bring this up because my boyfriend didn't know how to handle me at the time. He said he would've known how to respond if it were a close friend of mine or a family member, but being that it was my brother's friend, he didn't get why I was so distraught. You know what, neither did I really, but I was.

I just wanted to talk about it with the people who mattered to me most. I just wanted them to listen and nod in a listening manner. It's possible that's all she wants too. Grief is complicated and doesn't always make a lot of sense. It took me a week or two to get past the need to cry about it and talk about it all the time, but then I was back to my old self again. I still think about it, but I'm not a mess about it anymore.

So let her talk to you about it. If she seems oddly quiet and lost in thought, don't ask her what she's thinking, but do ask her how she's doing and if there's anything you can do for her. If she's still unresponsive, think of something nice to do for her. Do not by any means "step back and let her go through the motions" - that just sounds cold, and I find it strange that you consider that an option. This has nothing to do with God, even if she brings God into it. This is a human issue. Treat her like a human you really care about.
posted by wondermouse at 10:38 PM on February 19, 2011

With grief, depression and pessimism, it is helpful to get into one's body and walk out in nature, taking deep breaths. Can you buy some seedlings and take her out one day to plant a tree/a few trees in the soil as a gesture towards commemoration in a way that feels unconnected to God? Walking there in the future, watching the seedlings grow, thinking of her uncle as someone whose life lives on in her fond memories and in the cycle of life would be something I would appreciate in a similar situation.
posted by honey-barbara at 1:44 AM on February 20, 2011

Sometimes you find yourself using phrases other people use, sitting in similar ways, or ordering similar foods, etc. The more time you spend with someone, the more this happens. The most clichéd example is the phrase "Oh my god, I've become my mother!" I believe that you give and take these little pieces through your relationships with others, and this is how people live on, in the pieces. My friends and family have given me small pieces and mannerisms that I will continue to pass on to my friends, my children, my loved ones. It's one of the more comforting and beautiful things I believe.
posted by razzbaronz at 12:07 PM on February 20, 2011

Remember you are a husband first and an atheist second. I doubt your wife wants to hear platitudes you can't offer; I'm not religious but I do (mostly!) believe in a Supreme Being and I wouldn't want to hear stuff about God's or Goddess's will, or Uncle John is happy in the afterlife, or what have you. Plenty of devoutly religious people feel the same way.

So be there for her. Share memories of her deceased loved one with her. Maybe help her put together a scrapbook of her uncle's life, to share with younger relatives. Did her uncle have a particular cause or interest? Maybe donating or volunteering a few hours at a charity or cause he would have supported - the Special Olympics, Humane Society, or whatever he supported in his life.

Remind her that [i]good[/i] people are the ones who lead good lives - the rich, famous, and important are not ultimately better or worthier than you or me or Uncle John. Bernie Madoff won't leave very many good memories behind. Lindsay Lohan will forever be associated with the phrase "train wreck." But if Uncle John was loved and well-thought-of by family and friends, then that is I believe the best we can hope and strive for.

If your wife's grief disables her and/or she continues to spiral downward and really can't function or you fear for her, please get her therapy. If her grief has triggered intense guilt or any other complicated emotion or set of issues that time and support can't heal, don't try to deal with it yourselves or "suck it up." Get help if you need it.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:05 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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