There is an insightful piece in the Guardian today, Grieving As an Atheist: A Surprising Dilemma, by Tiffany White. She tells of initially being at a loss for words upon learning that her best friend's mother died.
I felt like I should have been saying the usual things: "God is with her now", "She's now in heaven" or "You're in my prayers". These phrases sound better because these are the phrases we're used to saying. "She's in a better place" provides a sense of hope and optimism. "You're in my prayers" shows caring and understanding. But that day, as I stood there on the phone struggling to think of the right things to say, I realized I couldn't say those phrases anymore. I couldn't tell her I was praying for her because I wasn't. I couldn't tell her I thought her mother was in "a better place" because to me that place was a hollow grave.
As White states, there are some pat phrases we offer when we want to be empathetic or sympathetic. When you grow up within a religious tradition, there are several of these stock phrases you can pull out of your quiver whenever the need arises. These phrases may lack genuine substance, but they make the utterer feel as if they have performed their solemn duty.
But even if I were still a Christian and had the privilege to pepper my condolences with hopeful phrases of heaven and angels, those phrases might sound better, and sure they provide immediate reassurance (which is what they're designed to do), but the phrases themselves are empty. When people say they're praying for you, how often are they really? But saying "I'm praying for you" sounds nice, regardless if there's any truth to it or not. We're conditioned to say these phrases whenever we're confronted with a tragedy, but we put little thought or effort into why we say them.
When faced with tragedy or heartache, if we are at all honest with ourselves, almost anything a person can say is empty. It doesn't make the situation better or bring a loved one back from the dead. So, what could a religious adherent or an atheist say or do as a meaningful gesture? I think White hits upon the best answer.
During my second phone call to my best friend, I decided I would let her do the majority of the talking. After all, this wasn't about me, it was about my friend, and I realized the best thing I could do for her was to simply be there for her and be a supportive listener. I told her she could call me any time she wanted, even if it was 4am, even if she just wanted to bawl in my ear. Even though I wasn't armed with an arsenal of hopeful and optimistic phrases to make her feel better with, I realized that simply being a caring and understanding friend was more important. And isn't that what really matters?