How to extend love, hope, and care for those who are sick and who ask for your prayers when you are not religious

When I was six my little sister Beth came down with the flu one evening. She was pretty sick the next morning when I went to school, and the last memory I recall is of the doctor, having made a house call, pulling a tongue depressor out of her mouth with a long strand of mucous attached to it. Later that afternoon my father walked into my first grade classroom, picked me up from my desk, carried me to the car, and drove home without speaking a word. For the rest of the day my parents were unable to speak when I asked where Beth was. Days later, in an effort to comfort our whole family and help us accept Beth’s death, my Grandfather, a Lutheran minister, along with my Grandmother, told us Beth was so special that Jesus had called her up to sit by his side. When my Mother protested in angry tears, my Grandfather said that we had to accept God’s love and his will as an expression of that love.

I’m not sure if this was the moment that set me on a course toward agnosticism and ultimately atheism or not, but I never thought Leslie’s contracting cancer or our hope for her survival had anything to do with God, although I don’t think either of us ever doubted that love and hope between and among humans has powerful emotional and possibly physical healing potential. I never blamed God for her cancer, nor did I appeal to God for her recovery. I’m fairly certain Leslie did not either. But we do have friends who are religious who told us they were praying for her.

In the past year I’ve had a number of friends and relatives who have experienced health crises, and have asked me and others to pray for them. Of course I want to channel all the positive energy I can toward their survival, recovery, and good health, and send them my love and hope for the best. But I would be a hypocrite to let them believe I am appealing to God for a positive outcome. Each time I see a post, receive a note, or have a conversation wherein I am asked to pray for recovery from a serious health condition I am reminded of my Grandparents’ words, and the reasoning that follows. If I were religious, and if I accepted their words, then I would have to accept that God had a reason for inflicting Leslie with brain cancer, and similarly had intentionally given cancer to my friends and relatives, given that God is all knowing and all powerful. Therefore, in asking me to pray for recovery and cure, I am being asked to ask God to change his mind. Either this, or I would have to believe that God perhaps had not been paying attention or his powers had slipped when they contracted their diseases. But then, God is the creator of cancer, is he not?

My heart breaks for those I care about who are suffering and scared, and going through uncomfortable treatment with no guarantee of success. And I cannot hear about or watch what they’e going through without being thrown back to the fourteen months that Leslie went through. Most, I hope, have better prognoses than Leslie did, and are suffering from conditions for which medical science has developed much more effective treatments. A network of loving, caring, hopeful, well-wishing friends and relatives can only add to the odds of long-term survival and complete recovery. In the meantime, I won’t pray, but I will contribute to organizations that fund cancer research and provide support for patients and families of cancer survivors.