Atheist dies, asking people not to tell her child that Mom’s in heaven

I thought for sure that the McFarland Thistle was a Scottish newspaper, but it actually comes from McFarland, Wisconsin (population 7808), and don’t ask me why. Perhaps there are many of Scottish ancestry there. At any rate, reader Gregory James called my attention to a heartbreaking but also wonderful article in the paper, “McFarland’s Heather McManamy dies; leaves extraordinary letter to all.” McManamy died this week of metastatic breast cancer at only 35, leaving a four-year-old daughter, Brianna.

But before she died, she wrote 40 letters to her daughter to be read at various milestones in the future; these letters will apparently be published. And she left as well a final note to her friends and family, which was posted by her husband on Facebook. I reproduce it in full below. McManamy was an atheist, and her nonbelief is evident in this last message (especially in the second paragraph), as it is in the video at the end. She faced her death bravely, even with humor, and didn’t clutch at false superstitions.

So … I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, apparently, I’m dead. Good news, if you’re reading this, is that you are most definitely not (unless they have Wi-Fi in the afterlife). Yes, this sucks. It sucks beyond words, but I’m just so damn glad I lived a life so full of love, joy and amazing friends. I am lucky to honestly say that I have zero regrets and I spent every ounce of energy I had living life to the fullest. I love you all and thank you for this awesome life.

Whatever religion brings you comfort, I am happy that you have that. However, respect that we are not religious. Please, please, please do not tell Brianna that I am in heaven. In her mind, that means that I chose to be somewhere else and left her. In reality, I did everything I could to be here with her, as there is nowhere, NOWHERE, I would rather be than with her and Jeff. Please don’t confuse her and let her think for one second that is not true. Because I am not in heaven. I’m here. But no longer in the crappy body that turned against me. My energy, my love, my laughter, those incredible memories, it’s all here with you.

Please don’t think of me with pity or sadness. Smile, knowing that we had a blast together and that time was AMAZING. I (expletive) hate making people sad. More than anything, I love making people laugh and smile, so please, rather than dwelling on the tragic “Terms of Endearment” end of my story, laugh at the memories we made and the fun we had. Please tell Brianna stories, so she knows how much I love her and how proud of her I will always be (and make me sound way cooler than I am). Because I love nothing more than being her mommy. Nothing. Every moment with her was a happiness I couldn’t even imagine until she came crashing into our world.

And don’t say I lost to cancer. Because cancer may have taken almost everything from me, but it never took my love or my hope or my joy. It wasn’t a “battle” it was just life, which is often brutally random and unfair, and that’s simply how it goes sometimes. I didn’t lose, dammit. The way I lived for years with cancer is something I consider a pretty big victory. Please remember that.

Most importantly, I was unbelievably lucky to spend over a decade with the love of my life and my best friend, Jeff. True love and soulmates do exist. Every day was full of hilarity and love with Jeff by my side. He is genuinely the best husband in the universe. Through all my cancer crap, he never wavered when so many people would want to run. Even on the worst days you could imagine, we found a way to laugh together. I love him more than life itself and I truly believe that a love like that is so special it will live forever. Time is the most precious thing in this world and to have shared my life for so long with Jeff is something I am incredibly grateful for. I love you, Jeff. I believe that the awesomeness that is Brianna is our love brought to life, which is pretty beautiful.

It absolutely breaks my heart to have to say goodbye. If it’s half as sad for you as it is for me, it breaks my heart over again because the last thing I ever want to do is make you sad. I hope that with time, you can think of me and smile and laugh, because, holy (expletive), did we have a breathtaking life. Go google “Physicist’s Eulogy” and know that it is a scientific fact I will always be with you both in some way. I know that if you just stop and look hard enough, I’ll be with there (in as non-creepy a way as possible). You’re my world and I loved every second we had together more than words.

Friends, I love you all and thank you for the most wonderfully awe-inspiring life. And thank you to all of my amazing doctors and nurses who have taken such incredible care of me. I don’t doubt that my team gave me every possible good day that they could. From the bottom of my heart, I wish all my friends long, healthy lives and I hope you can experience the same appreciation for the gift of each day that I did.

If you go to my funeral, please run up a bar tab that would make me proud. Heck, blast “Keg on My Coffin” and dance on the bar for me (because there had better be a dance party at some point). Celebrate the beauty of life with a kick-ass party because you know that’s what I want and I believe that in a weird way I will find a way to be there too. (You know how much I hate missing out on fun.)

I look forward to haunting each one of you, so this isn’t so much a goodbye as it is see you later. Please do me a favor and take a few minutes each day to acknowledge the fragile adventure that is this crazy life. Don’t ever forget: every day matters.

Here’s a news report on Heather’s struggle and death ; it gives me a bad case of the sniffles, as it did the reporter at the end. I defy you to read the above, or watch the below, without some tears:

A few photos from the Daily Mail:





Every day matters.


  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I posted her letter on a closed FB group for atheists with breast cancer and people really liked it. If you’re wondering why a closed FB account exists for atheists, it’s because there are many women who not only grow tired of the god talk in other support groups but are also chased out of the other groups and demonized when they express distaste for the prayers hurled their way. The moderator at what many of the ladies call “the big cancer group” has her hands full trying to curtail the god talk.

    Religion poisons everything. Even dying. Even cancer.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      That is such a great idea – the FB account for atheists. Really sad that it is necessary, but wonderful all the same. Good luck with it.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        It has a strange story (the FB account). The person who started it read an article I wrote about atheists with cancer and how the god stuff is stressful. She proposed creating an FB account for atheists and I thought it was a great idea and encouraged her to do so. She moderated the whole thing while undergoing chemo and surgery which is a huge feat as you need to approve new members and make sure the religious haven’t snuck in to torment us.

        Sadly, she left the group in anger because she posted an article full of unsubstantiated claims about Tamoxifen, the drug used to stop estrogen from binding with cancer cells and feeding them. Many pointed out the errors in the article and this made her tell us we were close minded and she left.
        It’s sad when atheists are sceptical about gods but accept a lot of poorly reasoned arguments that can frankly be dangerous. I feel bad about what happened and I think she was just fed up given her chemo treatments which were a real struggle for her.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          I can’t imagine moderating a Facebook page while undergoing chemo – I don’t know how she managed!

          Still, it’s great it carried on after she felt unable to be a part of it again. Any atheist who’s been seriously ill or similar knows how difficult the God talk can get. It’s good to have a place to go to rant about that if nothing else.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            Indeed and it is so ironic that these loving Christians yell at fellow sick people that they will burn in hell and such. It really is dastardly. Have compassion you zealots!

        • rickflick
          Posted December 19, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          I can see how, given her condition, she might have been unwilling to rethink her position on the drug. Reforming your thinking takes a lot of courage and energy even when you feel good. Hopefully she will recover and reconsider.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I’m very glad to hear that such closed FB groups exist.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      I posted it in a closed atheist group too, which includes members with cancer or who are living with a permanent injury or something. I noticed the reporter never mentions Heather’s an atheist, and her letters to her daughter are referred to as blessings.

      Anyway, I cried. It’s a beautiful letter.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        I wonder if there is something wrong with me in that it didn’t make me sad. I read it as something written by someone I would have liked to know. I don’t know if this is because I interact with people who are in late stages of cancer and read blogs of women who have since died or that I am not seeing the reactions of her loved ones or that I’m becoming hardened to suffering. It’s very weird.

        But, there you go. I’m sure I have other qualities that entertain the WEIT community.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          You certainly do! I think I’ve said this before – I always enjoy your comments. Keep ’em coming! 🙂

          One of the reasons it got me so much is mysister hhad a four year old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s been clear for seven years now, but the memories of what she went through will always be there.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

            Yeah a woman on the atheist group is stage 4. Her treatments are to buy her time. She has a little grandson she is raising so that’s pretty rough.

            My friend was diagnosed with a rare cancer this year and she has 2 kids. Luckily she has n node involvement so that is great. It was so weird because my dad got cancer 3 years ago then her mom got cancer and died them I got cancer last year and about year later she got cancer. Now her dad is in a later stage of cancer. They are all different cancers and her family is in India but it’s like we are trading odd cancer diagnoses continually!

        • Sastra
          Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          The letter didn’t make me sad, either. That is, it was sad, but I seem to have a curious callous spot when it comes to grief and mourning. I adored my dad, but have never cried over his death. I did not cry when my cats died either. I’m not sure what’s going on with that, frankly.

          I used to be in a service club and my own enthusiastic project involved visiting with nursing home residents. Try as I might, I could never get anyone else to join for long. Someone finally told me they all found the nursing home too depressing. That surprised me a bit. Not the optimal situation, surely, but obviously better for them than the alternative of being alone and ignored.

          I might lack sensitivity, but I spent almost 20 years being the cheerful weekly visitor for many folks whose families seldom came because it just hurt them too much. I’m not sure there’s something “wrong” with us then. Sometimes the callous are the only ones who show up.

          • Randy Schenck
            Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

            Visiting the homes is a tough job and anyone who does that is more than brave. As we get older we start to add up the number of people we know well that end up in the homes. We visit them when we can but it does not get any easier. Always that thing in the far reaches of the mind that asks – how long before I…

          • Marella
            Posted December 19, 2015 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

            Sensitivity is vastly over-rated. There are many jobs I couldn’t do because I am over sensitive and my children also. My mother has terrible dementia and is in a nursing home, I visit her less often than I’d like, because I find it so distressing to see her like that. My brother has a friend who’s had a long and successful career as an ambulance officer, due to a complete lack of sensitivity. It has its compensations but really, I could do without it.

            • rickflick
              Posted December 19, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

              Fascinating point of view. Let’s be grateful for the full spectrum of perspectives. No regrets.

          • rickflick
            Posted December 19, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

            I’d say you have a healthy and constructive perspective.

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 19, 2015 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

            I’ve noticed in the past decade or more that I find it much easier to be compassionate with strangers than with family. My theory is that the death of anything I loved, pet or relative, was so traumatic when I was a child that I’ve somehow learned to blot it out as much as possible. I also like to think that I’m making some karmic reckoning equal by being there for essential strangers when possible.

            Of course, I’ve been known to be overcome with grief as much as two years or more after a loved one died.

        • Cnocspeireag
          Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          Yes, from what I have just read, all who knew her were privileged to know her.
          Sympathy for the loss of a wonderful person is appropriate of course, but how understanding she was of a child’s perspective.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 19, 2015 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for stating a different perspective. That’s superb.

        • reasonshark
          Posted December 20, 2015 at 9:13 am | Permalink

          It didn’t make me sad, either, or at least not particularly so. In my case, that’s because she explains why sadness and grief isn’t her aim, and why it’s important to go for the good stuff while you can and emphasize the relationships in her life. It’s hard to argue she didn’t do the best she could in her position. Give or take one or two soppy rhetorical moves, it’s a philosophy I agree with, and it strikes me as sincere and sober but also uplifting.

          To put it another way, I was too busy nodding and saluting at her words to succumb to any tears.

        • Linda Umland
          Posted December 20, 2015 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

          I wasn’t saddened either. I was proud of her for standing up even after her death in her beliefs. She has done what I would hope I could do for those left behind in her letters. It felt like an acceptance for the circle of life. That death is also a part of life. It’s how we are designed. It’s what is supposed to happen. How we choose to live our lives and the kind of memories we build with others will keep our spirit with loved ones. I think she did a wonderful thing.

          • GBJames
            Posted December 20, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

            It is how we are. I don’t agree that it is how we are “designed” or that it is how things are “supposed” to happen. There’s no designer and there is no intention involved. This is just how it is.

            But I completely agree that she did a wonderful thing. If I was her child growing up I would be proud of my mom.

    • Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      “Religion poisons everything. Even dying. Even cancer.”
      When I though I’d imagined all the ways religion can poison the world. 😦

      • Pat
        Posted December 22, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        I am sorry that atheists seem beset by religious zealots.

        However, when you do profess a belief in God it is amazing how many people pick on you and bully you for being stupid for believing in an imaginary person.

        I acknowledge that it is hurtful and insensitive for an atheiest to be offered prayers, especially if you are suffering from a life limiting illness, such as cancer.

        Everyone has a choice – I wouldn’t want to push my choice down anyone else’s throat.

        Stay strong

  2. rickflick
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Wow. She knew how to say goodbye. I feel weepy.

  3. Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Well, that WAS hard to read. Only because I had to keep stopping so I could squeeze my eyes shut, then sniff. Such a beautiful letter and, as chance would have it, I just read the Physicist’s Eulogy the other day (which I have bookmarked) As short as it was, this lady had a life that MATTERED — what a wonderful testimony to a life well-lived. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Suddenly my problems don’t seem so problematic.

    • Dave
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, really!

  5. Posted December 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    it was a bit of a sniffy letter, but also made me cheer and resolve to always stand against those theists who try to spread their nonsense in their continuing need for external validation.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t recall ever reading anything at once so heart-rending and heart-lifting.

    I’m heading down to my local Irish tavern to request the band to play “Keg on my Coffin” and to stand the lads and lasses at the bar a round “on Heather.”

    • Posted December 19, 2015 at 7:25 pm | Permalink



    • rickflick
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      I’d love to join you.

  7. Vaal
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Well, you were right. That was impossible to get through without watery eyes. She is an inspiration to be sure. If only we could all face the end that way. And of course she is a strong rebuke to this idea that theism offers the only way to face death with equanimity. Theists always presume that they could not get through such an experience without their “faith,” or couldn’t have made it through a previous hard time without their religion. But this tends to be an assumption by people who haven’t tried. A realistic view of life, one which teaches us to accept certain realities and do the best we can within them, also confers a path for equanimity and dignity in hard times. Many religious people presume it impossible because they’ve only tried Faith, and their religions strongly teaches them such an alternative path is folly.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Iirc CSH’s Tom Flynn once wrote about an epiphany he had at his mother’s funeral. She had been a devout Catholic and thus her service was filled to the brim with repeated reassurances that she was now in heaven with God. As an atheist listening to the tedium, it suddenly struck him that no, the devout were not using religion as a coping mechanism. They were using religion as an elaborate method of denial.

      When you really “cope” with something you first accept … and then you learn to manage your pain in a positive way. The mature sense of what it means to cope is to “deal effectively with something difficult.” Whether the issue is grief over a death or shock over a life change, this would seem to require not just strength and courage, but clarity and insight.

      But religious funerals are all focused on insisting that the thing which upset you didn’t happen. She’s not dead. Nope, she’s fine. Better, even, and you will see her soon. Death? Can’t be true, we know it can’t be true. Don’t think it is. She’s still alive. She’s here. We know. You know. Remember that. And so forth…

      How is this a healthy method of coping? The focus now is not on looking back on a life which is gone and taking what joy you can from their life — but on YOUR need to deny the obvious. Whoa, that’s so hard. But by golly it’s the only possible alternative because nobody can be that strong. Figure out how to avoid it, then. It’s like being in a state of perpetual childhood.

      “Heaven” reminds me of the little white lie parents sometimes tell to small children about their old sick dog and how the veterinarian took him to a farm where he is now running and playing with all the other animals. Only for “small child” substitute the “parents,” and for “parents” substitute “all the grown ups.” And then imagine that the truth is never, ever supposed to dawn.

      • Posted December 19, 2015 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        Ol’ Blue was a good and faithful dog darling but he had to go off to a farm in upstate New York to be with other doggies. He’s much happier now. Uh, no, we can’t go see him sweetie. It’s too far away and he is busy. Look, over there dear, it’s a new puppy!

      • Posted December 19, 2015 at 9:50 pm | Permalink


        I’ve always thought just this.

        “But religion is a source of comfort.”

        No, not really. It’s an enabler of denial.

  8. Posted December 19, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this.

    My husband is in the final stages of Adenocarcinoma, unknown primary which wasn’t discovered until it had already metastasized to the bones. He is in hospice now. We live in Oregon, so he can use Death with Dignity (now called Compassion and Choices)if he so chooses.
    We have been married for 56 years. We’ve had a good life with three children who are all supporting us with loving care.

    For those who may be able to read it, may I suggest “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
    It won a Pulitzer prize and gives a history of
    cancer treatments. The sections dealing with breast cancer will make you livid. We may have come up with a number of terrible cancer treatments that don’t extend life much for many people, but may be as painful as cancer. We still haven’t learned enough about causes of cancer to prevent it.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      And thank you for sharing the bad news — and the good. Love always matters, but 56 years of it matters a lot.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing. I often reflect on the good fortune that at least we have more relaxed laws on on dignified exits – the cup of hemlock. I often wonder how it would be with me.

      Your comment about breast cancer reminds me of the case of John Adams daughter. She needed full amputation and there was no anesthetic. At least today we have anesthetic.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry to hear, Rowena.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing your story. It makes a big difference when you have the support of friends and family. Thank you also for the book recommendation; it sounds like something I will read soon.

    • Posted December 19, 2015 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      “We still haven’t learned enough about causes of cancer to prevent it.”

      @Rowena: That’s right, but there are some of us trying. The aim of my doctoral research is to chip away at the etiology of breast cancer by studying an exposure that is so ordinary we don’t give it much thought. Prevention is key.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 19, 2015 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

        There was something in the news recently about environment being a bigger factor than once believed. You may have seen it. Exposures to carcinogens I guess. Heredity must be the other major factor.

        Sounds like a review of literature type paper.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

      I’m so sorry, Rowena!

    • Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      My condolences, Rowena.

      It sounds like he’s had a great life with you. I’m sure he’s very grateful for that.

      Thank goodness (the goodness of the people of Oregon) that you have the Choices. (We will retire to WA state, same story.)

      I second your recommendation of The Emperor of All Maladies. It is a superb book. And I was very tickled in 2010 when it won the Pulitzer Prize, because its author is named Siddhartha Mukherjee. Wonderful.

      I’ll also throw in a plug for Atul Gwande’s most recent book, Being Mortal (and all his books, actually — a very gifted writer.)

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Well, I am writing this thru tears. That last paragraph made me laugh, though, and it was perfect timing too. She seems a very wonderful person but as she says, this is not fair but it does happen anyway.

  10. Vaal
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    That rings very true.

    Also, it’s amazing how this meme remains about religion helping people “cope” with tragedy and death. When tragedy happens, for instance natural disasters in areas that are very religious, you see those parents grieving and wailing just as much as any secular person.

    At that point now the religious person, Christian especially, confronts all the more acutely the problems brought upon by belief in God. “Why God? Why? Why did you let my loved ones die like this?”
    This is not comfort, it’s often another level of distress, where tragedy has been topped with a cracking of one’s very beliefs that one has to hold together.

    When presuming the benefits of Faith, Religious people often forget the various costs of their beliefs – the constant mental battle of “keeping faith,” of constantly trying to fit that square peg into the round hole of real life. Once you posit a Good God, Omnipresent, virtually everything can become a strange, troubling puzzle – a “why?” arises behind EVERYTHING to anyone who thinks about it.

    This is one of the surprising reliefs felt by many who deconvert. There are many ways in which accepting reality is less taxing than reality PLUS living-with-a-bad-theory of-reality.

    • Vaal
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      whoops, that was meant as a reply to Sastra, above.

    • Posted December 19, 2015 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      That is exactly right, very well said.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Which situation is easier:

      1.) your daughter is jogging on a windy day. Just as she passes underneath an old tree, a dead limb snaps and falls, killing her.

      2.) your daughter jogs to her grandmother’s house. Just when she gets there your mother opens the door, pulls out a gun, takes aim, and shoots her dead. She refuses to explain why she did it, and goes into hiding.

      Either way your daughter is dead. But in what universe is the second scenario “easier” to deal with because you really want to believe your mother must have had a perfectly splendid reason?

    • Posted December 19, 2015 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      Yes, well said.

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      So true! Very well put.

  11. Randy Schenck
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I had to go look up the town, McFarland, Wi. because that was my mother’s name. Did not make watching the video any easier.

  12. Marella
    Posted December 19, 2015 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I bet they tell her kid she’s in heaven and “watching over her” anyway, people can’t help themselves. My mother-in-law, who knows our whole family are atheists, couldn’t stop herself from telling us after my father’s death, that he was “looking down” on us from somewhere unspecified. We all ignored her and carried on, but it was embarrassing and disrespectful.

  13. Posted December 19, 2015 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree with all the praises for Heather’s wonderful letter, but we should be aware that some deaths of the religious are not so maudlin nor just sentimental nonsense – what about the Irish wake with song, dancing, and good drink?

    A few weeks ago I went to a modified version of one such, for an elderly father who died of longtime Parkinson’s. After Catholic ceremonies at the funeral home, then a funeral mass, then more priestly ceremonies at the burial of the cremated remains – then a party – er, a wake – and a VERY(!) good one, with the deceased’s family at his house, with some of the best liquor and wine one could wish for! Entirely devoid of any more religious nonsense.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 19, 2015 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      It makes you wonder if they couldn’t have dispensed with all that ceremony and just had a party.

  14. Posted December 19, 2015 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I only hope I can be half as strong, half as eloquent, when my time comes. Thank you for posting this, and thank you to Heather for being such a wonderful human being.

  15. Posted December 19, 2015 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I cried twice: while reading the FB post and at the end of video.

    How can we possibly remember that every moment matters, as it does.


  16. Posted December 20, 2015 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    OT. According to the town’s historical society, the majority of McFarland and area residents were from Norway (not surprising for Wisconsin). And William Hugh McFarland, it’s founder, was English … Maybe the faux Scottishness just reflects the name of the town.


  17. Mike
    Posted December 20, 2015 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Thats one of the most moving letters I have ever read.

  18. HaggisForBrains
    Posted December 20, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    In tears too, partly because her attitude was so similar to that of my late wife Isobel, who died of metastasised breast cancer nearly three years ago now. During the humanist funeral there was a pause in the eulogy for silent reflection, and Isobel had instructed the celebrant to warn that anyone caught praying out loud would be ejected! I’m pleased to report that a quiet chuckling could be heard from the assembly.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 20, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      Great story! She was my kind of human being.

  19. darthcontinent
    Posted December 20, 2015 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I’d hope, too, that no one poison’s the child’s outlook on life by telling her that mom is absolutely, positively, utterly gone after death, because just as we can’t conclusively prove a God or higher power does exist, we cannot and should not exclude the merest possibility that something so ridiculously awesome at least might be out there.

    Humanity is far too young and immature (given that, for example, it’s 2015 and we have yet to send a manned spacecraft beyond our solar system) to lean on hubris and make conclusions so concrete when there is still so very much more to be explored.

    The point isn’t to hang foolishly on some shred of hope that a God exists, but rather to not look on that possibility trivially and then dismiss it, because that kind of thinking can insinuate itself into everyday life and color your interactions with others negatively.

    Saying the ultimate fate of something or someone is “unknown” is better than “we’re 99.999% certain we know and therefore we’re right because we think we are and that’s good enough, and you should think that way too.”

    • GBJames
      Posted December 20, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      I trust you feel the same way about Valhalla and the thirteen heavens of the Toltecs. You can’t be sure of those, either.

      • darthcontinent
        Posted December 20, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        Sure; they sound like pretty tall tales but I simply can’t write them off. I’d even have to admit I won’t write off the possibility that somewhere, out there, pink unicorns just might exist.

        • GBJames
          Posted December 20, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          Is there anything you “write off”?

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 20, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but is the possibility that pink unicorns exist something that is attention-worthy, over everything else in the universe that we don’t think exists? If not, why is the possible existence of the things you mentioned in your comment any different?

        • reasonshark
          Posted December 20, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          We’re well aware of the strict philosophical issues about absolute knowledge. Our failure to repeat them after every sentence is not a nefarious plot to smuggle absolutism to the table.

          We’re also aware of people trying to waste time championing nigh impossible events as though they were worth as much as everyday events, and not, e.g. because they’re pedants trying to inject credibility where it doesn’t exist in an effort to demonstrate their “humility”.

          I hope you’re not this pointlessly dull in your everyday existence, or I’d be amazed you manage to get out of bed without listing the infinite number of events that you can’t write off as a cautionary tale to yourself.

          • Sastra
            Posted December 20, 2015 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps WMBW (We Might Be Wrong) is supposed to replace PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) after our every sentence, thus making not just atheism but skepticism, science, and the entire field of philosophy reflexively deferential not to God, but to the people who believe in God.

            But doing that might be wrong.

            • reasonshark
              Posted December 20, 2015 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

              Of course, we might be wrong about being wrong, and then where would we be, assuming I’m not wrong to suppose that that would be wrong? I could be wrong, of course. 😀

    • Sastra
      Posted December 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink


      Who are these strange Straw People of whom you speak, those atheists who think they can be 100% certain of empirical truths? We can’t. You’re right. But a technical possibility doesn’t automatically translate into a ‘live possibility.’

      In our experience the distinction between “not possible” and “probably not” has less emotional baggage attached to it than the distinction between “probably not” and “maybe, who knows?” I could, of course, be wrong — but I am inclined to suspect that you warn us about the first when you really want to scold us about the second.

    • Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      no one poison’s the child’s outlook on life by telling her that mom is absolutely, positively, utterly gone after death

      Well, I’m open to any new evidence you might bring to the table; but, so far, this is exactly what all the evidence indicates.

      Yeah, it’s a bummer. Oh well!

      I’d much prefer to tell a child the truth rather than a comforting lie. However, for very young kids, I might do just that — until they are old enough to hear the truth.

      that kind of thinking can insinuate itself into everyday life and color your interactions with others negatively

      Atheism is a direct line to nihilism, is it?

      Don’t know too many atheists, eh?

  20. Posted December 21, 2015 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    What a great message!

  21. Donald Peddie
    Posted December 21, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I am just coming to terms with a diagnosis of a large and metastasising lung cancer. Life expectancy 3 months to 3 years.
    I have started blogging but after reading this letter I may stop. This wonderful woman has said everything I could possibly want to say.
    Unlike her I am almost 60 have lived a wonderful life and her worries about her daughter are my worries about my grandchildren
    Thank you so mych

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 21, 2015 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Sorry to hear about your diagnosis, Donald. The last few years, between a friend and myself have been completely cancer filled between me, her and our families. It’s a real PITA. If you’re sick of reading about all the battle language associated with cancer, you might want to pick up the Barbara Ehrenreich book, “Bright-sided”. Diane G recommended it to me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and it was a nice thing to read because it called a spade a spade with our society’s fetishization of cancer.

      I also started reading Rowena’s recommendation in this thread and the author is an excellent writer.

      • Posted December 21, 2015 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        Sadly, I think the battle language stems from places like those where I work (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute) trying to fundraise. Nobody raises money unless there is a nemesis to beat. I thought of this because a Facebook ad with beating cancer language just flittered through my feed from the American Cancer Society, and the women pictured reminded me of Heather McManamy.

        FYI, Diana, I thought of you at the dentist on Friday. When on the toilet, I noticed they were an Under business. I also noticed that the light contraption they used to get a better view of my teeth had Windex smudges on it. I wondered whether I should let people who were so clearly un-anal-retentive in my mouth. But they proved themselves to be fantastic and gave me cookies on my way out.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 21, 2015 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

          Haha cookies.
          The thing I liked about the letter was that she called out the battle language. The downside is if you’re not battling, you’re considered damaged. You get chased away from support groups if you show this.

          • Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, I get how the not fighting could be a issue.

            My father died, not long ago, at 59 from a large laryngeal tumor. He was a libertarian who never sought medical care for his illness. I didn’t know he had cancer, though I’d suspected it. He was diagnosed at his autopsy. He died without ever receiving treatment. No chemo or radiation, and no support groups. Though I wish I could have prevented all of it, there was something dignified about his choice not to fight. Were he not poor, I would have no beefs or regrets about this, as he died without any of the stigma that often accompanies cancer associated with smoking. But, he was poor and, although he claimed libertarian values, I know it would have been different had money not been a factor. Maybe he could have been treated??

            Still, despite his poverty, there was dignity in his choice and he died consistent with his values.

            • rickflick
              Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

              I think I can grok that.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

              I think your missing my issue with battle language. When you’re sick and going through treatment, it is perfectly acceptable to feel bad about it. However, the battle culture demands that the sick always be in a fighting mode with a positive attitude. It is really unfair to people who should be allowed to feel their feelings. This whole attitude is reinforced by other sick people.

              • Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                Why do you think that is?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

                That battle language is used among those with cancer? It was probably innocent enough but it got away from everyone. If people express anything but being in battle mode they often find themselves chased out of support groups. The chasers most likely feel that the more they adopt the warrior attributes the more likely they will beat the disease. Of course, this makes those who “lose the battle” appear as though their death was all their fault where it is most likely none of their fault. People can be really peculiar when you get sick. My friend had someone tell her that the reason she got her really rare form of cancer was probably because she ate badly and didn’t exercise. That couldn’t be more far from the truth and it cost the friendship because, like me, my friend just refused to take any crap off people and if they gave crap, they were gone. If you only have so much energy to give, you need to limit who you give it to. Makes sense in life in general.

              • Posted December 21, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

                I mean, not why do you think I misunderstood, but do you have a hypothesis about why other sick people don’t let each express negative emotions?

    • rickflick
      Posted December 21, 2015 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      Sorry to hear that Donald. I wish you the best in dealing with it.

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