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When a tragedy happens, there are many who turn to God. And then there are people who don't believe in God, or whose faith has been destroyed by a tragic event. The number of Americans turning away from religion is growing - a trend we're exploring all this week in a series, "Losing Our Religion." This morning, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty shares the story of two women who lost those closest to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE)

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: It's a perfect day for flying, Carol Fiore says - clear, breezy, a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains.

CAROL FIORE: We're standing in front of Mile High Gliding, where I flew gliders quite a few years ago. Part of why I enjoyed flying so much is because I did it with Eric.

HAGERTY: Eric was her husband for 20 years. After they married, he flew F-15s in the Air Force. And then he became a test pilot in Wichita, for the airplane manufacturer Bombardier. On October 10, 2000, the plane Eric was co-piloting crashed on takeoff. When Carol arrived at Via Christi Hospital, she learned that her husband had burns over 50 percent of his body.

C. FIORE: Then I found out that he had been given him his last rites.

HAGERTY: Not a surprise, since Via Christi is a Catholic hospital. But even after Carol announced that Eric would not want anyone praying for him, a priest hovered and prayed, day after day. Finally, she kicked the priest out.

C. FIORE: I think that was a turning point in the whole religion thing, for me.

HAGERTY: She told everyone that she and Eric were atheists. And still, as he lingered near death for 36 days, people offered religious consolation. "God has a plan," they told her, and "Eric is going to a better place."

C. FIORE: And when he was in the hospital and they said that, he was laying in a bed with tubes coming out of him, with 50 percent burns and no face. Is that a better place? And then after he died and people said to me, well, Eric's in a better place - I'm an atheist. Eric is in the ground, rotting. I know that sounds horrible to say that, but that is where he is. How is that a better place?

HAGERTY: After Eric's funeral - which was held in an airplane hangar, not a church - Carol was flailing. She was hardly able to take care of herself, much less her two young daughters. All the grief groups were attached to a church, so she tried the self-help section of Barnes & Noble.

C. FIORE: Everything I found had to do with God - putting your faith in God, believing that God had some sort of plan. I found nothing to help me.

HAGERTY: Carol realized she had to go it alone. She moved the family from Wichita to Loveland, Colorado. And as a coping mechanism, she began to write - a book about her husband and now, a grief workbook for atheists. But mainly, it's her daughters who give Eric's tragic death some measure of meaning.

C. FIORE: I don't believe in an afterlife, and I don't think I'll see him anymore. But I just have to look in Tia's eyes, and hear her laugh; and hear Robin talk about history the same way that Eric did; and know that he is still there.

C. FIORE: Hey, honey!

ROBIN FIORE: Hi!

C. FIORE: Hi. I brought you some stuff.

R. FIORE: Oh, oh, thanks, my...

C. FIORE: And here's your zoo...

R. FIORE: ...zoo shirt. Yeah.

HAGERTY: Her daughter, Robin, is a student at the University of Colorado, at Boulder. She says she sees her dad's genetic influence in her and her sister.

R. FIORE: And as an ecologist and as a scientist, we believe that, you know, when you die, your energy becomes part of a system again. So in that way, I guess, people can never really be gone.

HAGERTY: And yet Carol Fiore believes it's harder for her to grieve because she's an atheist.

C. FIORE: I often envy religious people, who have that devout faith. And they know that they're going to see their loved ones again when they die. But I don't believe that. I - sometimes, I wish I did.

HAGERTY: This is a sentiment that Joanne Cacciatore hears often. Cacciatore is a professor at Arizona State University. After her baby died in 1994, she started the MISS Foundation, a grief group for parents that is now nationwide. She also began focusing her research on how people grieve after a child dies.

JOANNE CACCIATORE: What we tend to see is that people who have some type of spiritual base, tend to cope - I don't want to say easier. But they tend to take comfort or solace in the fact that they'll be reunited with their child, at some point.

HAGERTY: Cacciatore says she's seen nonbelievers embrace spirituality, and religious people wash their hands of God. She says tragedy almost always shakes a person's faith, but they usually circle back to it. Mari Bailey doesn't think she will.

MARI BAILEY: So it's this end unit over here.

HAGERTY: Bailey and I are parked across from a brown, stucco house in Phoenix. This isn't her home, but she knows it well.

BAILEY: When you walk in, there's a kitchen, a very small kitchen. And that's where Michael was shot.

HAGERTY: Her son, Michael, was killed here eight years ago. He was 21 - fresh out of the Navy, and enrolled in culinary school. That day, Michael went to a friend's house. An acquaintance dropped by. He started yelling, and waving a gun around. He shot Michael close up, square in the chest.

BAILEY: And that was when my world just shattered.

HAGERTY: Soon, her faith would follow.

BAILEY: So this is St. Francis Church. And this is where my sisters and brother and I were baptized and...

HAGERTY: This is where Bailey sought solace after her only son died. What she found was a priest who told her, "We all have our crosses to bear," and "It was time for God to call Michael home." She thought a priest could not possibly understand the pain of losing a child.

BAILEY: I just remember thinking, that's it; I'm done with the Catholic religion. I think it got more personal with God when I tried just praying on my own. Then I became more angry. And I questioned, why do I need to be praying at all? Why is my son dead? And what kind of God lets a child be shot? And I think that was more me not only just leaving the Catholic religion, but that was me leaving God, too.

HAGERTY: Later, she says it was hard to break from her religion. She thought...

BAILEY: Uh-oh, what am I going to use to save me now? And I really came to the realization that yeah, I think I'm alone in this, and I need to save myself.

HAGERTY: She saved herself by learning everything she could about traumatic grief. And the research suggests that one of the best ways to heal, is to help others.

BAILEY: Good evening, everybody. My name is Mari Bailey. I am truly sorry for the circumstances that have brought us together tonight.

HAGERTY: Bailey opens the monthly meeting of Parents of Murdered Children. The mothers here tell of children whose ends were too soon, too violent.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My son Chris was shot in the face.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I lost my daughter Litha(ph) to a domestic violence situation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: My son Michael was shot in the head by my own nephew.

HAGERTY: It's here, in the pain, that Mari Bailey feels a little more whole. And yet she can't quite abandon the hope of seeing her son again.

BAILEY: For the sake of Michael, I just need to believe that there is more to life, beyond death. Because if it's not, then that means that my son's life is over completely.

HAGERTY: Bailey says wishes she could believe in God again. But, she says, "I just can't."

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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