Why do bad things happen to good people?

I got a call from my old friend Rachel the other day. We were buddies in college and roommates in our 20’s. While arranging a time to grab lunch, she said,

“You heard about Marla, right?”

Marla was another friend of ours from college.

“No? What about her?”

There was this long pause and my heart just sank.

“She died,” she said. “She was hit by a truck after dropping her daughters off at school. She was killed instantly.”


I stopped in my tracks and just stood on Wabash with my phone at my ear.

“What?! What?!”

I hadn’t talked to Marla in years. The last time I saw her I remember she and her husband came over for dinner, along with Rachel and her husband,  and we all cooked pesto pizza and watched “The Long Kiss Goodnight” with Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.

“I can’t believe this happened,” I said to Rachel. “How could this happen?!”

Marla and her husband Dave lived in Valparaiso with their two daughters. Marla had just dropped off cupcakes to her daughters’ school before a truck ran a red light and killed her.

I write a lot about spirituality, and “you are where you’re supposed to be in every moment,” blah blah blah… but I just can’t imagine Marla was supposed to be killed by a truck. 

This is bullshit, God!

So why do bad things happen to good people? I posed this question recently to a woman who not only died in a kayaking accident and came back to life to talk about it, but she also had to bury her son when he was just 19. Dr. Mary Neal is an orthopedic surgeon who was dead for fourteen minutes and says she was literally “kicked out” of Heaven. Apparently God told her she had to come back and tell her story. She was in town for a talk at Evanston Hospital in April and I tried to pitch her for a column. There was no interest in print so I interviewed her for WGN radio instead.

Since then she’s been on The Today Show and Fox News talking about her brush with death and her book “To Heaven and Back”.

“I’m a pragmatist!” She told me. “I couldn’t make this stuff up if someone put a gun to my head.”

And then she said something I will never forget:

“I can’t tell you how many times over the last 13 years where something terrible has happened where someone says ‘Isn’t that terrible about that boating accident?’ and I think ‘No actually, it was a great gift.’”

“A tragedy is a great gift?” I asked.

 “If you think about ‘bad’ things- think about Jesus- he was betrayed, he was arrested, he was beaten, humiliated, and he was killed. That’s bad. By all accounts we should look at that and say ‘That’s the most horrible thing you can imagine.’ But look what came of it. For more than 2000 years people are remembering his story and using it to heal and love. So can you look at that and say it was horrible, but I look at the affect it had on the last 2000 years and it’s incredible. He brought a covenant of love. You can look at every bad thing that happened and almost always there are incredibly good things that come of it. You know change doesn’t happen when things are easy. Change happens when things aren’t easy and when you are pushed. So I would say there is no such thing as good and bad. It just is. And we may not understand it.”

I definitely don’t understand it. But I will hope that a gift can come out of this.. somehow. While reading this blog post written by Marla’s husband Dave, I was reminded of Marla’s big heart. Her talent. Her artwork. 

This is so unfair!

So tell those you love how much you love them while you still can. And try to find the blessings in the chaos, I guess. Even when it’s hard.

And today, it’s really fucking hard, dammit!  


19 Replies to “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

  1. It took me a long time to understand what the phrase “Virtue is it’s own reward” really meant,

    A lot of us, and that used to include msyelf, unconsciously believe that virtue is an insurance policy. We do good, so that good will come to us, and avoid doing bad, so that bad things won’t.

    While this is true in an everyday sense – being a jerk will simply create enemies – there is no amount of goodness that can prevent tragedy from striking. Where is God? I believe He is there. But He takes the long view, a very very long view, and we must do the same.

  2. I spend so much time complaining about dumb things, being irritated with my husband and children because they didn’t clean up after themselves, or pay any attention to me, appreciate all my hard work to be a good mom, blah, blah, blah. Life is very precious and we don’t get a promise of how long we’ll be here. I will never understand why someone gets to be there one minute and is gone the next. A friend’s mom told her that we never know God’s plan and what else he is saving someone from when he takes them away from us…what is plan is for them. Faith is a very abstract concept. I hope your memories of your friend Marla will get you through the hard times, like your writing and humor helps me when I’m feeling blah! Hugs to you and everyone that Marla touched in life. ~Phae

  3. Oh, Jen!
    I’m SO sorry to hear about your friend, Marla … AND … I agree with Dr. Mary Neal that, on SOME level, her death qualifies as a “great gift,” even though I realize those close to her, on THIS side of the Bright Light, understandably may not feel that way now … or ever.

    I hope you and her family find some measure of peace in the amazing legacy she left. What a beautiful tribute her husband wrote in his farewell blog! His love and admiration for Marla rang in every word, and I felt inspired by the relationship they built together. They had something rare and wonderful.

    As you know, I have had many brushes with death. If where I went is where we ALL go, Marla is enjoying the “Art Show” to end all art shows — the one that NEVER has a waiting list. She has “Arrived,” as her husband put it. Thanks for sharing her story, along with Dr. Mary Neal’s powerful testimony to the good that can come from something very, very painful.

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