We've all heard it before: "How can atheists comfort people whose loved ones have died"? Or something to that effect. Really, the issue can extend from helping people deal with their grief, to coping with the inevitably of your own death, to just plain getting through hard times. And, understandably, for a group that draw their emotional strength and support from their religious faith, it is utterly baffling that people without any religion could deal with such stress and answer such injustices. But, in all honesty, I would argue that, despite lacking the crutch that religious conviction can offer us in trying times, nonbelievers may actually have a leg-up when it comes to the very problems that belief supposedly helps others overcome.
Apologizing for Tragedy:
I am afraid that I cannot begin this discussion without first addressing the shortcomings of invoking the divine in order to justify the misfortunes that we experience. I am not going to address the potential for treading into just-world bias territory, and thus using your perception of ultimate fairness to blame the victim, since it rarely occurs in the context of consoling the bereaved. But I will mention that the belief that everything happens for a reason does tend to implicitly lead to a similar conclusion: this seemingly unfair, horrible occurrence was necessary for some unknown reason, and possibly deserved. Whether you feel exalted due to this idea is solely a matter of perspective. There is no telling whether seeing a greater purpose behind everything comforts someone or disturbs them in light of recent events, but either way, it brings about its goals by ultimately suggesting that you have no control over such occurrences (even if they can be triggered inadvertently by your actions). It is the dictate of a higher power, and not everyone can hear this and take it as consolation. Obviously, this comes as a surprise when such things are idly brought up in the form of platitudes as stock responses to grieving parties. Aside from justifying death by invoking a potential afterlife, any other injustice just cannot be easily banished with the grating problems of Theodicy unconsciously grinding in the background for the duration. Which is where we come in.
Freedom to Feel:
It is perhaps a rather old trope: the idea that suppressing your emotions, whether it is for the sake of adhering to social norms or just due to one's own philosophy about the merits of such emotions, will ultimately just strain you. It will drag you down, until you finally break and let it all out. It is suggested that just letting it all out as it comes may be less harmful. Which, is more or less correct. To feel proud of successes, to feel joyous in celebration and good company, to feel angry when slighted, and, most importantly, to feel sad when met with tragedy, is what it means to be human. Yet, sadness disgusts us. It is deemed ignoble, something to suppressed, hidden, and avoided, even when justified. And all the more when you are foolishly weeping over the corpse of someone who you will inevitably meet again, and whose death was a necessary end to reach a loving and all-knowing entity's goals. Yet, we still weep. We still cry. And the best thing that can be done is to let that person do so. To be able to not have their personal tragedies
dismissed, qualified, and deemed to be less significant by others for the sake of getting on with life and saving face. Just being there for the person in such a state is good enough, the human element and the presence of a sympathetic ear, a person to cry alongside you.
Of course, with the benefits of not needing to explain away legitimate tragedies in order to fit into the framework of a fair-minded and benevolent deity, there is our alleged shortcoming: an inability to explain anything at all. From the view that there is no greater, god-given purpose, atheists are deemed to be incapable of offering up comforting platitudes of our own, in addition to just a shoulder to cry on. In a world where human life is without cosmic meaning or importance, who are we to fret about injustice? Existence is cold, pitiless, and uncaring, and the world rife with tragedy without promise of otherworldly reciprocation for our troubles.
My answer is a humble "so what?". The fact that the world wasn't built for us does not make humans any less important to one another. Bad things happening across the world shouldn't stop us from caring when such things happen to our neighbor, or even ourselves. And even if the universe isn't itself necessarily fair, we must go on as long we live, because, as far as we know, this mean little rock is all that we've got.
The Deep Sleep:
One of the main selling points for religion, and the one that is perhaps the most effective in offering comfort for the dying and their relatives is simply that you can call do-overs on existence. There is an afterlife, and it is kick-ass (usually, and sometimes only if you meet certain entry requirements, which are rarely brought up by anyone during the more dire hours). So why is the man on his death bed still afraid? Why are the bereaved still crying? Is it just standard inconsistency in their beliefs, or is it something a little more...intriguing? Far be it from me to assume it to be true, but I do kind of get the impression that these people know the full weight of death, even when ostensibly trying to use their belief in a next life to deny, or cushion it. Despite the buffers, and despite how illogical it is for them to fret over what is merely, from their perspective, a brief departure to a better place, they exhibit feelings that are more consistent with what atheists see death to be: the end.
I only bring this up, because the fact that we lack belief in any given rendition of the afterlife (or any afterlife at all) is brought to the forefront when questioning our ability to comfort. And it is true: the buffer that is a hypothetical life after death should offer amounts of solace that you just cannot bring to a funeral otherwise. Yet, as alluded to above, it is far from universally effective (for reasons unknown). In addition, what merit do such methods of comfort have if they 1. aren't necessarily true and 2. often include what could be called "punishment lives" as well as "reward lives"?
So, what do we have to offer on this matter? Just some perspective. As nice as afterlives sound on paper, they would be fatiguing. Existing is hard work, and when it isn't, it is outright boring. And if this were not true, would we really be the same people? Eternity is damn long, especially in light of how tiresome it is just to exist for a few decades on a world as dynamic as Earth. And yet, dying as we know of it is just fading into unconsciousness. You pass away, pass on, and all that remains that could be called "you" is, well, your remains. The process of dying is potentially painful, horrifying, unjust and cruel. But when you are actually dead, none of that matters to the person who is dead anymore, because the pain stops, the memories fade, and the eternal coma has been entered. Once again, this issue is matter of one's particular taste, but I don't personally mind the idea of slumbering forever, or of just passing into oblivion. Being non-existent is relatively painless.
The idea that you can live forever simply makes this life, the one that we actually know exists, less important and even arbitrary (depending on the theology), and it is necessary to acknowledge life's finite limits, while simultaneously dealing with the inevitability of death, in order to function. Trying to get around this, while it does help to deal with untimely deaths, puts you in a precarious position: you need to convince yourself to remember that life is infinitely long when at a funeral, and yet try to force it to the back of your mind when you are trying to provide for your family, progress in the job market, or generally struggle in any other manner against currents that should be dismissed as inconsequential if you did conveniently ignore your own immortality.
Where We Stand:
To put it briefly, those of us who do not rely on divine explanations are actually in a rather robust position when it comes to dealing with the problems that confront us. We are not constrained to force meaning into every event, and try to put positive spin on true misfortune. We similarly do not wrest the perception of control from grieving parties in an attempt to console them. We can feel free to stress the importance of humans to one another and the importance of this one life. We can accept the inevitability of death, and find comfort in that just going unconscious is a far milder fate than damnation, and is equally as peaceful as any paradise could be. And we can care. Just like anyone else can.