Wednesday, April 17, 2024

One gloomy day in Georgia, family and friends fondly recall moments with Laken Riley

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A white car waited outside the church in the cold rain on Friday. People who cared about Laken Hope Riley were inside, remembering her life that ended too soon.

She should’ve been doing normal stuff like running, singing, or going to the store with a friend. Maybe studying to be a nurse on her iPad. Laken knew what she wanted since first grade.

At 22, she was close to reaching her goal. But one morning last week, she went for a run and never came back.

After that, things got crazy. People knew more about her death than her life. Her friends and family didn’t want to talk much. The story was more about how she died, who was accused, and all the political stuff around it.

It’s okay to wonder why she died or how it could’ve been prevented. But talking about it got loud and messy, which didn’t honor Laken’s memory.

Laken’s old running coach saw her as the opposite of calm and pretty. He said runners are a bit strange. They don’t mind bad weather; they just focus on finishing their workout. Unlike others who find excuses, runners embrace challenges and believe they can do it. Laken, passionate about health studies and a great teammate, will always be remembered.

Laken, like many young people, shared her life on Instagram. She posted pictures from prom, swimming in Colorado, and cheering for her Bulldogs. In 2016, she posted a sunset with a Bible verse. In 2019, she talked about a mission trip to Honduras.

About nine weeks ago, she posted a New Year’s Eve photo, saying, “Here’s to 2024.” Four days before her death, she shared pictures with friends, captioned “xoxo,” now with lots of likes and comments, including condolences and political discussions.

In Athens, near where Laken last ran, there’s a sign by Lake Herrick, changed to “Laken.” Flowers lay beneath it, swaying in the late-winter wind with a few raindrops falling.

The trail went into a forest, a steep hill by the shore, with young magnolias under the trees. It was calm and pretty. The path continued into this natural place. You could imagine Laken here, alone and safe, running without worry.

But that’s not what happened. Now it’s Friday, cold and rainy. A man came out of the Woodstock church and opened the hearse door. Others carried a casket with white flowers.

“When someone like Laken, whose light always shone so bright, is gone, the world seems darker,” said Pastor Samer Massad in a statement.

“Laken was special,” he added. “Smart, kind, and caring just scratch the surface. She was a loving daughter, sister, and friend. She made everyone feel comfortable and seen.”

Reporters couldn’t go to the service. Laken’s loved ones didn’t want to talk. Her friend Connolly Huth was probably in the funeral procession. Here’s what she wrote on Instagram after Laken’s death:

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

I don’t know how to go on without you, but I’ll run that 26.2 for you and tell everyone about the perfect, beautiful, funny, smart, kind Laken Riley. Proud to call you my best friend and roommate. Love you to the moon and back, can’t wait to see you up there <3”

The men put the casket in the hearse. Someone closed the door. A police radio buzzed. Cruiser lights flashed, reflecting in the dark on the pavement. Wind blew, rain fell. The procession left the church, turning right toward the cemetery.

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