When you can no longer say ‘I’m praying for you’ or ‘the person is in a better place’ to someone who is grieving, what’s left to say?

I can’t remember the exact moment I became an atheist. There was no epiphany moment. I simply moved away from religion gradually until the binds fell apart completely (those binds being agnosticism, which got tossed once I realized I was simply prolonging the inevitable). But since I became an atheist, I wouldn’t say it made any drastic changes in my life – until my best friend called me one day to tell me her mother passed away.

Although we live in different parts of the country (me in New York, she in Oklahoma), we still call each other weekly. But on that particular day the usual familiarity of speaking over the phone was eclipsed by the suddenness of tragedy. I couldn’t give a sympathetic hug or offer a shoulder to cry on. All I could offer were my condolences … which were what exactly?

“I’m sorry for your loss” felt too impersonal. That’s what you say to acquaintances, not best friends. “I’m here for you”, I told her, which still didn’t feel like enough.

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.

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