What to say to an agnostic whose friend has died

The day job has been pretty busy lately, so I haven’t had any time to think about how I’m going to start up the first Kielle Foundation book or even how the new Saucy Goose Press website is going to look.

But what I have been doing is reading and replying to comments and emails that still keep coming in from here and there from people who have listened to the “This American Life” episode and yes, I’m even tracking people down via linkbacks and Google searches because one of the things this experience has taught me is that it doesn’t hurt to reach out to someone and say thank you.

The reaction I have to the emails I’m getting to both my personal account and my less personal Gmail account begins with me getting teary-eyed all over again because I can’t stop thinking that the only reason why people are writing to me is because Kelly’s dead. I think that’s just something I’m going to have to get used to, I’m afraid. (Who knows; maybe it will even help.)

Then I start to remember how life felt almost four years ago (her “deathiversary” is on September 22, two days after my birthday) and I go back through my personal online journal. Today, I found particular meaning in this excerpt, written the week before Kelly’s wake in California:

Yesterday, I went to my former high school to visit one of my favorite teachers, Ms. Oliver. When she called to confirm our lunch appointment a week or so ago, she asked me why I was flying back to California from New York and I told her about Kielle. She consoled me and said that she was eager to see me again. Her enthusiasm was confirmed when she gave me a huge, two-armed hug that I returned with just as much gusto. Apparently, she still talks about me to her International Baccalaureate candidate students as the cautionary tale of what happens when you miss an I.B. test due to extraordinary circumstances, like being in the hospital for a kidney infection. She finished counseling one of the students (who I think was having a problem with another teacher) and then closed the door.

The first thing she asked me was how she looked, if she’d changed. I honestly told her that I thought she looked the same, and she dropped the bomb on me that she asked that question because her husband died of leukemia five years ago. That did it. Tears welled up in my eyes. We talked about Kielle and the total unfairness of it all. She told me that when I told her that my friend died, it must have been fate or kismet that lead me to think about getting back in touch with her because she wanted to be able to help me. I told her about how angry I was, and she told me that I shouldn’t be angry. I shouldn’t be angry at people like the guy on the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” show that my sister had on her TiVo who survived his bout with a very rare form of cancer just because he survived. But I am. It’s petty of me to be angry at survivors. But as [my friend Neva] and I said last night, life is just not fair. Or just. Or pretty. She gave me a book recommendation that I’m going to pass along to [Kelly’s husband] and will likely pick up myself. But I doubt it’s going to help.

Sadly, I don’t remember the name of the book that Ms. Oliver recommended to me, and I don’t remember passing it along to Kelly’s husband because one of the pieces that didn’t make it to the air on the radio show was a part where I read to Coach Hogan what Kelly’s husband wrote to tell the hundreds of us who were Kelly’s friends about how she died. How one very specific sentence stood out to me as summing up precisely how unjust God was, or at least the God I grew up with.

After I read that passage with tears and snot running down my face, that was when Coach Hogan finally understood that I didn’t want to be preached to, but that I wanted comfort and consolation, and to understand the exact nature of God and faith and—more importantly—how people can still believe in God when reality contradicts so many things that we who were raised in religious homes are taught.

I know that I’m not satisfied with Coach Hogan’s answer that we live in a fallen world because that’s not enough for me anymore. I’m definitely more satisfied with what Kelly’s best friend (a devout member of the Russian Orthodox church) said when I spoke to her the Sunday after the show aired, and even a dear friend of mine who’s atheist said that he couldn’t argue (too much) with it.

In closing, all I can say is that if you are ever comforting someone who is grieving who doesn’t really believe in God, never say that they’re in a better place or that it’s all according to God’s plan because that is the last thing someone who has lost someone they loved wants to hear.

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12 Responses to “What to say to an agnostic whose friend has died”

  1. Hugh Says:

    This is very moving and very true. You’re a great writer and a great thinker… I’m glad to have found you via This American Life. My daughter is graduating in a few days as an IB candidate having gotten into her first choice college. Obviously, I don’t know you, but I like the things I know about you. The worst thing about religious people thinking they are headed to a better place is that it causes them to squander the time they have here. I see it time and time again. Thanks for not wasting your time here.

    • Hex Says:

      I don’t think this foible is unique to religious people; I think a lot of people take for granted that they are going to be here tomorrow. A friend of mine once said, “Teenagers think they’re invincible, and nothing that’s happened has proven me wrong yet.” Conversely, I think that religious people often enough are in touch with their mortality, and realize they have to “make this one count.”

      Like anything else, I think people’s vigilance toward using their time wisely has its limits, regardless of belief or unbelief.

      • Trisha Lynn Says:

        Conversely, I think that religious people often enough are in touch with their mortality, and realize they have to “make this one count.”

        Hex, you know better than to make statements like this because would you honestly say that the non-religious friends we have in common don’t make their lives “count”? Also, see the second post I wrote here, where I note that most of the atheist people and friends I know do make the most of their lives because they know there is no Afterlife.

        • Hex Says:

          I think you misunderstood my comment. I was specificially addressing Hugh’s statement:

          “The worst thing about religious people thinking they are headed to a better place is that it causes them to squander the time they have here.”

          The statement came across to me with the implication that religious people who believe in an afterlife could care less about their *current* life. I was addressing that implication. I would never imply that atheists overall don’t attempt to make their lives “count.”

          • Hugh Says:

            I definitely generalized in that statement, but only because I think it’s fair. Like most generalizations, it doesn’t apply to everyone, but among the devout, it’s frustrating to me how many seem to think if they are pious and keep their head down, they are heaven bound. Keeping one eye on heaven is distracting and wasteful… better to keep all of your faculties focused on your fellow humankind and the world around you. In my experience, atheists are more grounded in this way.

    • Trisha Lynn Says:

      Congrats to your daughter, Hugh! Sadly, due to the kidney infection I contracted the week of the I.B. tests, I missed out on my English test (my best subject!). After my fever came down and I was recuperating in the hospital room where they’d stuck an I.V. full of antibiotics in me, I called Ms. Oliver, my former freshman biology teacher and I.B. coordinator to appraise her of the situation. I think I then went back to trying to get some sleep and rest (because that morning, my fever had spiked to 103 F.) A bit later on, I heard from a classmate who’d driven to the hospital to visit me that after I called her, she ran into our senior English class and announced rather joyfully, “Listen up, everyone! Trisha’s okay! She’s just in the hospital!”

      The most unfortunate part of all is that when I spoke to Ms. Oliver again after they’d kept me overnight for observation, she said that because they’d not been able to rush right over to administer the test to me in my hospital room, I automatically disqualified myself from achieving the Diploma. Yes, this was after completing my long hours of community service (much of it spent singing in the youth choir at my Catholic church), the Science seminar and the Theory of Knowledge seminar, and the 20,000 word Extended Essay (which I wrote about the evolution of female characters in comic books).

      I did learn that without the points for my English test, I’d still earned enough points on my other tests and whatnot combined to have earned the Diploma.

      I am not entirely sure what great life lesson I learned from that, but at least it’s a nice cautionary tale for every I.B. student that came after me after I graduated in 1995.

  2. JohnV Says:

    I wouldn’t even say those to a devoutly religious person.
    I think that there are a thousand truths about bad things happening, all of which have a little truth in them, but also just fall flat with a lot of people.

    I’m sorry this hurts so much.

    I often say, “I’ll pray for (you,him,her,them),” because it’s the release I have when things are just out of my control.
    This is not an appropriate thing to say when someone’s asked for a ride to the store and you have a car with a full tank in the parking lot.
    Even on my most religious days, I’m not sure what prayer does. I’m a tool user. I want someone to say to me, “Use this screwdriver and you can get the paint can open.” I don’t want someone to hand me a cell phone that only transmits and I never know if the other person has picked up.
    Prayer lets me register that I care. It lets me do something when there just isn’t anything to do. It calms me in the face of great discord. If it’s the devotional equivalent of chewing gum, then as with gum, at least it works to distract me.

    I’m really sorry at how hard this has been on you.

  3. Ernesto Tinajero Says:

    Trisha, I agree with you that it is that last thing you say to someone in pain. We should learn the power of just being present to another. What is also sad is how your pain has become a debate point for believers and non-believers alike. It reminds me of the saying that whatever anyone says, its says more about their world and background than it does about yours.

  4. MoonWolf Says:

    My mother died while I was in college, after being in a coma for a better part of a month. Complications due to her Type I diabetes and having contracted Hep C when she had been a registered Nurse many many years before. Thats what the doctors say. I found her, when I went to wake her up, before heading to classes, alone in the house except for our dog (my father on a business trip.) I was forced to call the ambulance and my father, by myself. She never once came out of the coma, although, she made us aware of her right before my father followed her wishes and pulled the plug on her. He got counseling, grief therapy, and 6 months after her death… met my now step-mother and got married again. I, shoved all my emotions that I felt about all of it into a nice neat box and shelved it with everything else in my life that I wasn’t able to handle.

    Lot’s of their friends said inappropriate things to us.. to me. Like, “it’s god’s will.” or “she’s in a better place,” “she’d want you to go on and live.” And too many others. For the most part, I ignored them, people who confront me now with “I’ll pray for you.” only get to say that once. They rarely say it a second time or get a chance too. I hate that one most of all. Personally, I thing the old adage of “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.” except where you see “nice” we could change it with “helpful.” Because personally, some christian’s version of prayer is not going to help me. But it will piss me off. When someone else dies that I know, for me, I offer “blessings” to them. or even a hug if they are opened to it. I just don’t understand the reason for pressing another one’s religion on others especially when they might be hurting due to death or some other issue.

    I remember my mom every year on her death anniversary… even though it’s been years since 1992. Light a candle on my altar or ask the Goddess to pray for her on her actual birthday which comes close to the time when the veil to the Summerland is thin and I hope she may hear me. And even though she was catholic by choice and chose that for her kids, she gave us the option to choose a new religion that suited us when we got older. It made me unpopular at the catholic high school i graduated from in Augusta GA, when i began to question the teachings of their god. It was my mom who always came to my defense in HS, she met with my teachers and the principal every time. She may not have been able to protect me when I was a child but at least she came through for me when i changed from catholic to Pagan. Supporting me and my right to believe in whatever I wanted.

    I spent years hating a religion for what the monsters did that took my innocence. It was early in my life when I considered god no better than the men in my life as a child that hurt me. And over the years those feelings grew stronger when my soon to be ex, went born again and started preaching forgiveness for the men who abused me… raped me… and others whom i believed were responsible for the pain I suffered. It took the man I’m involved with and in love with to help me to see that i can’t keep hating a “faith” for what men have done. I don’t hate indiscriminately now, an entire religion for what a few have done. But nor do I trust them either, sometimes we have to find our own footing. A way to understand those things that we often have no ideas on how to explain why they happen.

    Blessings to you, while you come to terms with all this. I hope your path isn’t a bumpy one. Blessed Be Trisha.

    • Trisha Lynn Says:

      MoonWolf, thanks so much for your words. I have some friends who are pagan and whenever they ask friends to intercede for another friend or pet in need, I always used to tell them that I’ll pray for them because I always thought that a little extra prayer from somewhere was better than nothing at all.

      These days, I tell them that I’m thinking of them, and that seems to be enough, because what is prayer (or offering blessings) other than thinking about someone really intensely and wanting good or beneficial things for them?

  5. Hugh Says:

    I also invoke “thinking about” someone… it seems much more genuine to me anyway. Even when I was a believer, I always found it odd the amount of criss-cross praying people did for each other with no apparent benefit. Or, at least no benefit greater than what would be conferred by random odds, frequently worse because people tend to pray for unlikely things.

    Related to this, I work with a group that helps jobless men and it is primarily a “Christ-centered” organization. I think it’s very strange every time someone sends an e-mail blast that says “so-and-so has this great job opportunity, he just had the final interview, please pray that God’s will be done”. Huh? What if god’s will is that the guy remain jobless and lose his home? Or that he get hit by a bus? There is no divine hand guiding these events. You and those around you have to make your own good fortune in this world, period.

    And sometimes, maybe you should have just stayed home that day, or maybe you just aren’t the guy for the job, or your life choices line up to cause illness (or death). It’s the choices (good or bad) you made WAY before an event (good or bad) that caused the outcome. Not God and not prayer. But, I will be thinking about you…

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