After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope Many have long turned to religion for solace in the aftermath of a tragedy, but that's not an option for the nonreligious or those whose faith is destroyed by the event. For the nonreligious, dealing with trauma and loss often requires forging one's own path.
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After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope

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After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope

After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Other Ways To Cope

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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!


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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