Wednesday, April 17, 2024

On a rainy day in Georgia, family and friends gather to reminisce about Laken Riley

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A gray hearse parked in the rain outside the church last Friday. Inside, people gathered to remember Laken Hope Riley, whose life ended too soon.

Laken should have been doing simple things like running, singing, going to the store with a friend, or studying on her iPad to become a nurse. She chose this path when she was very young, maybe in first grade.

At 22, she was close to achieving her dreams. Then, one morning last week, she went for a run and didn’t come back.

After she passed away, her story gained unwanted attention. People knew more about how she died and the chaos that followed than about her life. Her close ones didn’t want to talk to the media, which is understandable.

The focus shifted from who Laken was to the details of her death, the person accused of killing her, immigration issues, mayoral actions, governor’s letters to the president, and more. These conversations, though necessary, became loud and ugly, unrelated to Laken’s memory.

It’s okay to question why she died or how it could have been prevented to help others. But these discussions shouldn’t overshadow Laken’s memory with noise and negativity.

Laken’s old running coach remembered her differently. He pictured calmness and loveliness when thinking about her.

He said, “People who run long distances are a bit peculiar. No matter if it’s raining, windy, or cold, they stick to their workout. Others might find excuses, but not a distance runner. They welcome the challenges and believe they can conquer them. Morning runs can be beautiful, with amazing sunrises or the sound of owls mating.

“Laken was a beautiful person, devoted to her health studies, and a selfless teammate. She’ll always be with us when we run.”

Laken, like many young adults, shared her life on Instagram. She was pictured at prom, swimming in a Colorado lake, and cheering for her Georgia Bulldogs. In 2016, she shared a sunset from St. Simons Island with a Bible verse. In 2019, after a mission trip to Honduras, she posted a photo with children, saying, “God used me in ways I couldn’t imagine.”

About nine weeks ago, on January 1, she posted a New Year’s Eve photo, captioned “Here’s to 2024.”

Four days before her death, she posted pictures with friends, captioned “xoxo.” The post now has over 2,000 likes and 1,100 comments, ranging from condolences to political discussions about the accused undocumented immigrant.

In Athens on Tuesday, near where Laken last ran, a wooden sign by Lake Herrick had been altered with black tape to read “Laken.” Bouquets of flowers lay beneath, swaying in the late-winter wind with a few raindrops falling.

A trail led to a forest on a steep hill by the shore, filled with young magnolias under a leafy roof. It was calm and pretty there. The path went deeper into the woods, like a natural hideout. You could picture Laken running freely, alone and safe.

But that was just a made-up story, a path that never happened. Now it’s Friday, and the weather is cold and rainy. A man left the Woodstock church and opened the hearse door. Others followed, carrying a casket covered in white flowers.

“When someone like Laken, who always shone bright, is gone, the world seems much darker,” said the church’s main pastor, Samer Massad, in a message to the media.

“Laken was special,” he added. “She was a gift to anyone who knew her. Smart, kind, caring, and thoughtful don’t even begin to describe her. She was a loving daughter, sister, and friend. She made everyone around her feel comfortable and seen.”

Reporters couldn’t go to the service, and Laken’s loved ones weren’t available for interviews. Her friend Connolly Huth, likely in the funeral procession, posted on Instagram after Laken’s death.

You were supposed to finish our first marathon with me, stand next to me at my wedding, save lives, and be the aunt to my kids. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I find peace in knowing how strong your faith was in God and how you reflected Him in everything you did…

I don’t know how I’ll go on without you, but I’ll run that 26.2 in your honor. I’ll let everyone know about the perfect, beautiful, funny, smart, kind, and driven person Laken Riley was. I’m forever proud to call you my best friend and roommate. I love you to the moon and back, and I can’t wait to see you up there <3

The men put the casket in the hearse, closed the door, and a police radio sounded. Cruiser lights flashed blue and red, reflecting in the dark puddles on the cold road. Wind blew, and rain fell. The procession left the church, turned right onto the parkway, and headed down towards the cemetery.

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