When her dad died of cancer in 2004, Devon, an actor and artist, received a lot of platitudes along the lines of, “He’s in a better place.”
Growing up in the Bible Belt, Devon, then 21, knew that these heaven-centric condolences were well-intentioned. And regardless of geography, Americans are generally pretty ill-equipped with what to say in the wake of a death. Devon knew that “in a better place” was a common, expected go-to.
But as a young woman who still very much needed her dad, hearing that he was in a “better place” just made her feel more alone.
As she saw it, that simple phrase packed a heavy, unspoken assumption: If her dad was a believer, then he was in a better place. If she, too, followed Jesus, then she could look forward to being reunited with her dad someday.
It all felt pretty presumptuous, even if Devon had grown up Christian.
“I was just in the beginning stages of gaining the bravery to truly question my faith,” said Devon, who now identifies as a spiritual Atheist and doesn’t believe in the concept of heaven.
“Watching my father die a relatively slow and painful death, my questioning began to deepen, and I was becoming more critical of a religion that for years I desperately wanted to stick within me,” she said.
Suddenly, “in a better place” felt more “predatory” than helpful or hopeful, she said. “At the time, all I really wanted to hear was ‘I’m here for you.’”
Devon, who asked to use her first name only for privacy, is hardly the only mourner who has felt uneasy about the rush to usher loved ones into “a better place” after death.
While many no doubt feel comforted by the phrase ― according to a Pew Research Center study, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults say they believe in heaven ― it can feel prescriptive for Atheists and agnostics who don’t believe in an afterlife.
Plus, not all religions have a Christian-esque (or more broadly, Abrahamic) conception of the afterlife; some believe in the existence of spirits or reincarnation rather than heaven as an everlasting dwelling place for God and relatives and friends who made the grade.
For instance, in many Buddhist traditions there’s no equivalent to heaven, said Kimberly Brown, a meditation teacher and author of “Navigating Grief and Loss: 25 Buddhist Practices to Keep Your Heart Open to Yourself and Others.”
“Buddhist tradition suggests that when this life ends, we begin another life in another form — as an insect, a dog, a human — and this continues until we learn complete wisdom and compassion (aka ‘enlightenment’) and are no longer stuck in this cycle of rebirth,” she explained.
“Oftentimes we will say something because we don’t know what to say, or because it will make us, rather than the mourner, feel better, or because death is not an easy thing to think about or face, so we deflect.”
Personally, Brown is not sure she believes in reincarnation in a literal sense.
“But if it’s true, that means all of us have been each others’ mothers and fathers and spouses and family in past lives,” she said. “In that way, it’s a useful belief, even if it’s just a metaphor, because if I think that you and I have known each other before, it changes my relationship to you. I will treat you with more care and consideration.”
Given Brown’s thoughts on the hereafter, she admits she felt “angry and unheard” when a friend of her mother’s used the “in a better place” line on her after her mother died.
“I had to remember to take a deep breath, put my hand on my heart, and reassure myself that I was OK.”
She also had to remember that her mom’s friend meant no ill will: “When someone has died after a great suffering ― a terrible disease or painful injury ― it’s understandable that religious people might feel they’re in a better place,” she said.
As a Hindu, Mat McDermott, the senior director of communications for the Hindu American Foundation, believes in a dharmic cycle of death and rebirth.
There is no afterlife per se, he explained. Rather, there is one super consciousness that gets called God or the Divine that differentiates into individualized beings and takes physical form.
“Upon the death of physical form, these individualized beings exist on a different plane and then usually return to physical form after some time,” he said. “This is far more plausible to me than, say, the Christian idea of heaven and hell and judgement.”
His take on using “in a better place” is simple: “If someone’s beliefs are that you do go to a better place, then use that phrase, just don’t assume though that everyone believes that, and don’t use it if you are at all in doubt.”
Judaism, meanwhile, is somewhat agnostic on the afterlife, according to Rabbi Seth Goldstein, who serves Temple Beth Hatfiloh and the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington.
“There are multiple ideas but no concrete vision of what it is or what happens,” he said. “I tend to believe and teach that while at death our physical bodies die, our souls live on in the fabric of the universe. We also live on in the hearts and minds of all those who survive us.”
“In a better place” doesn’t hit right for Goldstein theologically, but he, too, gets where people are coming from.
“I don’t think there is ever one right thing to say to someone in mourning,” he said. “Oftentimes we will say something because we don’t know what to say, or because it will make us, rather than the mourner, feel better, or because death is not an easy thing to think about or face, so we deflect.”
Reverend Brandan Robertson, a Christian author and public theologian, is of slightly mixed mind when it comes to consolations like, “They’re in a better place.”
The saying reflects a core belief of Christianity (and many other religions) that, after death, we hope there is something better awaiting us, and he firmly believes it serves a purpose for many in mourning.
“This hope for an afterlife is very psychologically useful as we all face the fear of the unknown related to death and dying,” he said. “So I believe it’s important to know that it’s not wrong to talk about that hope, and in fact, it can be so helpful and healing.”
That said, it can come across as “crass or unempathetic” in the early stages of a loss.
“I do think it’s high time that Christians and people in general pause and think about how we deal with others’ grief and consider better ways that we can support and encourage people in seasons of loss,” he said.
“They’re in a better place” isn’t the only grief cliche that might need to be reconsidered.
Tyler Feder is the author and illustrator of “Dancing at the Pity Party,” a graphic memoir that recounts what it was like to lose and mourn her mother at age 19.
Feder told HuffPost that people said all kinds of religious platitudes afterward. The worst was hearing things like, “God has a plan” or “God needed another angel.”
“Not only do I not believe in that concept as a Jewish person, but it was devastating to think of my mom’s death as anything other than a deeply tragic act of nature,” Feder said. “She had a rare, aggressive kind of cancer that ate away her quality of life for eight months until she died at only 47 years old.”
The idea of that being anyone’s plan “makes smoke come out of my ears,” she told HuffPost.
What to say instead of, “They’re in a better place.”
All those sayings presumed Feder’s theological beliefs. What she would have preferred to hear from those at her mom’s funeral was actually pretty simple: Tell me what you loved about my mom, or share with me a memory of her in life that you’re not going to forget anytime soon.
“I loved hearing stories about her, and I also derived a lot of comfort from simple compliments like, ‘Your mom was so nice. I miss her,’” she said. “They made me feel so much less isolated in my grief. My mom was so nice, and I miss her too!”
Even if you didn’t know the person who died, “'Your mom sounded so cool,’ goes a long, long way,” the illustrator said.
Ted Meissner is a mindfulness teacher and a secular Buddhist, so his views vary from the other branches of the Buddhist tree.
“We do not believe in the afterlife; our focus is on this lifetime. However, that most certainly includes the effects of one’s life that extend beyond its ending: People long gone still have a very strong impact on the world today, and for those of us who were close to them, even more.”
Meissner was once part of an inter-religious panel that wrangled with this same central question: What do you say to comfort someone after a loss, when words seem hollow and potentially glib?
The answers from everyone ― representatives of various denominations in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism ― were the same: Comforting the person should always be paramount, rather than expressing a well-meaning but possibly unhelpful ideological belief, Meissner said.
“Compassion manifests as heartfelt empathy and the willingness to be present to a fellow being in pain, and nothing else,” he said. “When someone offers their condolences with a happy thought, it can be quite harmful to someone in mourning, as if their suffering is in error. It isn’t.”
Ultimately, most people in mourning just want to know that there’s a community of others supporting and loving them in moments of loss, Reverend Robertson said.
“Mourning can be one of the seasons where we feel most alone,” he said. “So making yourself available, sincerely empathizing with a person’s sense of grief or pain, and not trying to ‘fix’ those feelings tends to be the most helpful way to offer support, from my perspective.”