I've been to church maybe half a dozen times since the day before Katrina hit.
One of those times was a funeral mass for the preschool son of our secretary at work. At the end of that one, on my walk home, I announced to the world at large that some things were just too stupid for words. The death of a young child and the grief experienced by all those around is one such thing.
Even though I am an atheist now, I still have my long and fairly devout history in the church. So, I have a lot of god-based mental habits. It's very hard not to fall back on them.
One time when it's very easy to regress is when a friend, who herself is not a truly a deist, has re-admitted her kindergarten son into the ICU and in desperation has asked for prayers.
What are you gonna say? "No, I won't pray, I'm an Atheist." – c'mon now. O.K., let's try again, this time without the arrogance: "Sure, I'll sacrifice my intellectual integrity to farcically pretend to petition the Lord." A bit patronizing, no? There are any number of responses here; many of them are bad, especially if you're fixated on your non-god-ness.
My point is that your belief, or lack of belief, or non-belief, in a deity gets real unimportant, real quick, when someone you know and care about is faced with that kind of terror and sadness.
For now, I've chosen ritual. I've chosen to keep a vigil. I've told her that I've lit and candle and that I'm wishing grace, peace, and love to her and her son. (Given that she and I are separated by nearly 2000 miles, I don't see that I can do anything more substantive.)
Are these actions of any physically demonstrable value? Probably not, but who really knows?
Are they beneficial in other ways? How can they not be? How can it be bad to let someone who's scared shitless, and her young kid who's less than comfortable, know that they are not in this alone?
So, Nikki, since my first response was a bit awkward and stilted, here's what I actually meant: "I love you and I care about you. You are not alone, and I really hope that this storm passes without harm."