A Humanist

Last week, HNN editor Maggie Ardiente made a call for suggestions on what humanists can say to friends and family who are going through difficult times. Thank you to everyone who submitted ideas and suggestions!

An anonymous HNN reader submitted:

We send healing thoughts your way.
Consider yourself hugged. Sorry we can’t be with you at this trying time.
You are in our hearts.

Another anonymous HNN reader writes, “I have found it helpful and appreciated when I say things like,

What can I do to help?
You are stronger than you know.
I am here if you need me.
What do you need this minute?
You are blessed by many people who love you, and who want to help.
Do not deny the depths of your (insert word here: grief, sadness, pain, etc)  Go there, and then rise up with your face to the sunshine! I will be here eagerly awaiting that day.
I have faith in you.
I know you can get through this.
There is always hope.

Lee Dastur from Wayne, Pennsylvania writes:

I am so sorry to hear that you are going through such a difficult time. Do let me know I’d there’s anything I can do to help.  (Several days later, I call or send over some soup. And I continue to keep in touch as long as there is a need.)

Doris Green of Prescott, Arizona writes:

As a nurse for over 50 years, I always cringed at the useless platitudes most given to patients needing comfort, such as, “All things happen for a reason,” “God works in mysterious ways,” or “He/she is going to a better place.”
When my husband was dying, I asked if there was anything he needed. He replied, “All I need is you here by my side.” Most of my dying patients only needed a human touch nearby to ease their passing. 

An HNN reader named Madhu writes:

I just read Maggie Ardiente’s message in this week’s email, about where Humanists seek words of comfort. I too suffered a bereavement recently, losing my mother to a kitchen fire in Mumbai several weeks ago. And I too found much comfort from friends and colleagues via online social networks, especially in response to several blog posts I felt compelled to write about the circumstances of my mother’s death. Earlier this week, I wrote a note of thanks for all those who had offered words of comfort, and shared what brings me some solace during this dark time. Here is a link to my recent post (which contains links to two earlier posts about my mom’s death). I hope you and other Humanist readers find this useful.

Rachael Solem writes on why sometimes saying that you will “keep someone in my thoughts” is not the perfect answer :

You have posed an interesting question for me.  I ‘keep someone in my thoughts’ or ‘send my healing wishes’ or something like that, but I have not found an elegant and accurate way to express what I feel.

Part of this is because I am ambivalent about the power of keeping someone in my thoughts or indulging in wishes at all.  This, like a few other concerns, falls into the category of that human tendency to hope in general.  Other very human tendencies I indulge in from time to time include categorizing behaviors as ‘evil’ and believing that if I continue to give, I will continue to have, a kind of grand exchange with the world.

In all these, I see how much we want to, and therefore tend to, put our world in order:

I am well, I have the power to wish you well, if I use that power you will be well AND you will owe me a favor, maybe.
There is good and there is evil, I am good, other is evil.
If I am good, I will also be well.

The order of the world, from the human perspective, tends to be made by puts and takes, by a sense of balance that is kept, somehow, somewhere.  Of course, this is just not true of the world.  In its infinite complexity, history and scope, it is far beyond what our minds can comprehend.

So, what to say to loved ones, or even just acquaintances who are going through hard times, have experienced terrible loss, are facing physical or financial hardship.  At the very least, I convey, in whatever way works for a particular situation: I care.  I will help you as I can.

For this there is a saying, I think from the Swedes: Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.

Some times, that’s all we have.
Some times, that’s all we need.

Another anonymous reader writes:

Usually, when a religious friend or relative lose a loved one, I will say, “I am aware of the pain you are experiencing, and there is no doubt whatsoever that you feel as though the agony will never go away. When my precious older brother died suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt the same way.”

I suggest that they write a letter to their recently departed from their heart, saying everything they wish they had verbalized while their loved one was still alive. I make it a point to write down in this letter all those fun filled times, instances, and all the special moments that felt magical and were the super glue to further strengthen their already strong and love filled bond.

Finally, I remind them of the miracle that had taken place for two people in billions to cross paths and go on to build such a mutually heartfelt, rewarding, fulfilling, and wonderful bond. I encourage them to grieve, of course, but to do so with all those intimate, fun filled, and love packed times they had with their dearly departed; making it a point in their mind and heart to dwell on this, rather than the painful stab in the heart brought on by death (which is a fact of life and unfortunately inevitable).

I am mindful in reminding them that their beloved dead mother, spouse, sibling, best friend, etc. would want this for them instead of the pain, agony, and torment of not “letting go”.

And finally, Rick from Pennsylvania writes a simple but very effective comforting phrase:

It’s going to be okay. Now let’s have a drink; I’m buyin’.

As a humanist or atheist, what other words of comfort do you use for friends or family members going through difficult times? Share them with us in the comments section below.