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‘Thinking of you’ works just fine

Tue., March 19, 2013, midnight

Q. I am a lifelong atheist and at the age now when many people in my life are facing illnesses, as well as the deaths of their parents and siblings. Some of these people, not knowing my religious beliefs, ask me to keep them in my prayers. It’s always awkward for me, and I usually mumble a half-hearted yes. Instead, should I come clean about my beliefs?

A. It depends on the relationship.

Ray Ideus of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, a chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said he’s blunt when good friends ask for prayers. He tells them: “I’ll do you a favor and not pray for you. A prayer is a way of escaping a responsibility.”

He means the responsibility to depend on yourself and other human beings for medical help and healing, rather than ask for help from God or a higher power.

More often, though, Ideus takes a more diplomatic approach, which we recommend.

He says: “I’ll be thinking of you.”

When people are in crisis, or deep in grief, they can feel isolated. Asking for prayers is one way to connect with others and to God – or a higher power.

More than anything, people in crisis want to be listened to, so a discussion of your humanist beliefs will not be particularly helpful. But when the crisis passes, and the grief diminishes, you might want to talk with a friend about why you couldn’t agree to say prayers when asked.

Ideus also believes atheists should not accept prayers on their own behalf.

When he was in the hospital for heart surgery, a chaplain stopped by. He told her: “I’m sorry. I’m an atheist and I don’t need you.”

She returned the next day and said “My thoughts are with you.” He told her: “You chose the right words.”

If you keep your focus on the needs of your friends in crisis, rather than on the need to share your beliefs, you too will choose the right words.

Q. My son is a freshman at a college far away from home. One of the students on campus died after drinking too much and falling off the dorm balcony. How can I support my son as he moves through his grief?

A. Your son now belongs to a new community outside of his family and that community will grieve this event together.

Yet you may want to call the college’s student life office, campus ministry staff and the counseling center. Ask what they have done to support students after this tragedy. And ask what you can do. You can act as partners in offering support.

“Student life has a protocol for students who may be troubled. They look for changes in behaviors, such as trouble studying, dropping grades, a change in the quality of their interactions or students who suddenly have drug or alcohol violations,” Jack Treacy, a Jesuit priest and the director of campus ministry at Santa Clara University, told EndNotes.

“Tell your student ‘You will never have another moment in your life when so many people want to support you,’ ” Treacy said.

Make certain your son knows what resources the school offers, such as drop-in emergency counseling sessions or an evening prayer service where students can openly talk with each other. And tell him you are always available to listen.

While it may be tempting to ask your son to come home after this tragedy, unless he is unable to function, interrupting his education will not be helpful, Treacy said. Allow your son to grieve among his peers.

“Parents can pressure their children, and students are very aware of expectations and they don’t want to disappoint,” Treacy said.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional, and Rebecca Nappi, a Spokesman-Review feature writer welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their EndNotes blog at

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