Our world is full of random suffering. The ups and downs of this world often leave us struggling to come to grips with reality as we work through our grief. When we hear an unexpected diagnosis of a serious illness, or lose a loved one, or fail to realize a dream, it can be crushing. When these times come, what other people say and do can make a huge difference in how we feel. Sometimes what other people say can help us to heal and move forward. Other times others will offer suggestions or reasons for the tragedy that only make us angry or even increase our grief.
One such situation is when we speak with someone who holds different religious convictions than we do. For example, if a friend or acquaintance believes in life after death they may offer reassurance that a lost loved one is in heaven and that we will see them again, or they might suggest that our lost loved one “is in a better place.” If we do not share the same convictions, these statements can seem like empty platitudes regardless of the other person’s true intentions. While the person offering the words may have good intentions and is hoping to help us feel better, it is possible that his or her words even offend us. It can feel as if he or she is trying to fix us using tools that we do not believe are effective.
For these reasons, a religious person who is speaking with someone that has experienced suffering but who does not hold the same religious convictions would be well-advised to avoid using religious statements as a means to comfort. Someone who holds different views of reality will draw little comfort from such statements. For example, sayings such as, “God has your best interests at heart,” “God never gives us more than we can handle,” “God has a perfect plan,” or “God sees your suffering,” will have little meaning for someone who does not believe that God exists. Likewise, offering to pray for someone who does not believe that prayer is effective would seem unproductive. Given that there is a chance that the sufferer could even be offended by such words, they should be used very carefully and avoided unless one is certain they will be received well.
Rather than offering comforting words dressed in religious language, a potentially better option would be to offer help to the grieving person. One could ask if there is anything that the person needs. Or better yet, one could offer specific help such as bringing over meals and cleaning the person’s home. Another option would be to simply offer a wish that things had turned out differently.
There is the old saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.” What is “nice” depends greatly on who you are speaking to. If you are speaking with a non-religious person who has experienced a tragedy in his or her life, it is not nice to try to give them encouragement using religion. It might be better to say nothing at all.