DEAR MISS MANNERS: When given devastating news, such as learning that a friend has stage 4 cancer, my first thought is to say, "You will be in my prayers."
But if a friend is not of the same religious beliefs or is an atheist, this is not always appreciated. Is there another way of letting them know this?
GENTLE READER: The strange thing about conventional expressions of sympathy is that they shouldn't seem formulaic -- and yet statements are most apt to be disastrous when they are original.
Right now, the response of being in one's "thoughts and prayers" has become so standard as to strike many people as unthinking and unfeeling. Additionally, there is the religious angle that you raise, although Miss Manners would think that a nonreligious person could appreciate a religious person's seeking the solace in which he or she believes.
Spontaneous responses are apt to be worse. Such typical ones as instructing the person to think positively about a tragic situation, or offering assurances that it is all for the best, have a devastating effect. So does offering unsolicited, amateur advice.
It is best to stick with simple words, along the lines of "I am terribly sorry. I'll be hoping for the best. I hope you know how much I care for you."