How Do You Give Comfort And Condolences From A Secular Perspective?


When it comes to secularism and the many words and labels surrounding it, I have no shortage of posts exploring the subject.

My first entries were written from the perspective of a self admitted and proud atheist. My later ones were from more of an apatheistic/unlabeled/undecided perspective. Somewhere in between, you have my angry exit from the atheist community, and my exploration and experimentation of other terminologies as alternatives. Which eventually led to an acceptance of ambiguity.

Basically, I know what I am in terms of principals, morals, ethics etc. So there is no need to attach these traits to some generalized label.

But as much as I have analyzed this area and its many facets over the years, one area that has not really ever come up was comforting the downtrodden or upset. Be it in the case of condolences after a passing, or just when a close person is going though a rough time of trial.

I ran head first into this last year after a friend of mine lost his father. In such situations I do not like using standard boiler plate remarks like “Your in my thoughts”, and certainly not the many variations of “They are with god now / I will pray for you”. But this also makes it hard.

I made this realization very recently after one of my cousins fell EXTREMELY ill due to exposure to a VERY nasty strain of C difficile.
While he seemed to have come back from the worst part of his illness, he ended up falling EXTREMELY ill again, at one point almost passing away due to heart failure. So needless to say, his immediate family (as with the rest of my relatives) were on pins and needles for a few days. Unfortunately for my cousin, the 15 minutes of heart failure resulted in total brain death, and a very hard decision to pull the plug. Though a tough decision for anyone to make, my cousin being only 42 years old AND by all accounts healthy (before the illness struck) made it particularly difficult for everyone. Particularly my 2 little cousins whom now are growing up without a father.

As a result of the stress of the situation, many/most of my family turned to the common coping mechanism of such a situation, prayer. His immediate family were asking for prayers (on facebook), and friends and family were responding in droves. Some even forming prayer circles (or these days, prayer networks) as a way of reaching out.

Given the situation, I can’t really blame them. During times of tribulation, you reach out to whatever can give you comfort. In fact, back in 2010 (when I thought the world as we know it was going to end due to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster ), I did the same thing.
In the beginning of that ordeal, prayer was utilized a lot. Towards the latter end of my period of turbulence after having the world shall we say fall apart, I found more solace in the final installment of the Harry Potter franchise than I did in god (I’ve always loved the series, since hearing it first read to my ELA class in grade school). But despite coming back to my senses again, I did once lose my shit when the world (at least from my perspective) stopped turning.

I may very well have harshly judged a person whom told me the same story that I have lived, pre April 2010. Because it does indeed sound ridiculous to the point of embarrassment (how can someone of a mindset of reason and rationality ditch reality for divine intervention at the drop of a hat?!). And really, it was to silly and embarrassing to share for a long time. But I’ve quit beating myself over the head over it. Simply because I’ve accepted that one can not expect perfection out of the flawed human perspective.

Meaning, anyone can arrogantly proclaim themselves the hero in an emergency situation playing out in their minds eye. However, most of us will never know our true reaction, unless the situation actually arises. This does not mean that your solely at the mercy of chance (observe your surroundings EVERYWHERE you go). All it means is that unless you have training in how to calmly react in chaotic situations, you may not understand where you will end up.

Having this in mind, I understand why family and friends turned to prayer in these situations. It is a form of therapy which is justified in the situation. But it also opened/opens up a weird conundrum.

How do you comfort someone without resorting to prayer?

One seemingly obvious situation is to just lie (who is going to check?).
But I would not take that route for a couple of reasons.
First, ide rather not say anything than to join the “I will pray for you” flock. Such a situation as this (in my mind) deserves more thought than boiler plate phrases.
And secondly, because its dishonest. While the ramifications of such dishonesty are nonexistent, some may not take kindly to such an act. Which is the LAST thing you need at a time like this (a schism).

I decided to write a small epitaph of sorts. Having seen the heavy influence of religion in Christian funerals and in the Christly followers notes of condolence, I decided to focus on the life, accomplishments and trials of my cousin. Even if others may not realize how much they let religion cloud out a person’s life, I don’t have to.
And the result was quite well received. Well enough to be used to close my aunts eulogy at his funeral. Something I am proud of.

Though I solved my conundrum, I know that I am not the only person that has ever gone though this. How do you approach such situations?

If you have a solution to this problem (or if you otherwise have something to say), feel free to leave a comment. Or if not here, share your experiences with the rest of the secular community.

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