Godless Comfort in Times of Tragedy

I had my first experience with godless comfort when a woman at my job lost her father. I found her in the break room crying uncontrollably, the pain seeping from every inch of her. Embracing her, I encouraged her to express her feelings–her confusion, her anger, her sorrow. I held her in silence as she sobbed for several minutes.

If it had been an earlier time, I would have prayed for her. I would have “rebuked the devil” and begged God for his grace and mercy, for his protection over the soul of my co-worker’s father. I would’ve prayed that she find peace and comfort in her bereavement, letting her know she would surely see her father again.

But I couldn’t do any of that. Having admitted to myself a few weeks earlier that I was an atheist and humanist, I would have been lying if I’d told her I’d pray.

We’re all going to lose loved ones and witness others’ losses, no matter our beliefs. The recent devastating movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, reminded us of that discomforting fact. But sadly, we live in a society in which some believe these terrible things not only happen for a good reason but can be soothed with divine intervention. I can’t recall the amount of prayers that flooded my Facebook wall. Supplications to God were everywhere–on blogs, on major news sites, on television. Some even suggested that although God didn’t stop the massacre because he was upset with our demands for a secular nation, he can surely comfort the bereaved and injured. Makes perfect sense.

What, however, do the now 19 percent of us who have no religious affiliation say to grieving human beings when we don’t believe a prayer will work? Insisting our thoughts are with someone is considerate, but there’s no real emotion in that. We’re not really thinking in tragedies–we’re feeling. We feel outraged. We feel violated. We feel sad. And we know a few nods toward the sky won’t change any of that.

I believe the simplest way for humanists to express sincere sympathy, remorse, or grief is to act. That’s what I did when my co-worker was grieving: after I listened to her, I bought her a beautiful white vase of flowers. Was that going to bring her father back? No. Was she going to jump for joy? Of course not. But the small gift was my way of showing her I cared.

A prayer might be psychologically soothing, but it won’t help. Neither will the radio-like waves of positive thoughts we hope to transmit to grieving minds and hearts. All we can do for the people of Aurora and for those around us is to act. We can express our human feelings first, then help where we can. If we’re able, we can send money for medical expenses or funeral costs. We can sit with those near us who are in pain. Even if it’s through technology, we can be there for each other, human to human. When we’re at our lowest, that connection is all we can be certain is real.