There are no easy philosophic or theological explanations for unnatural death — no greater, cosmic good that neatly justifies unfair suffering. And those who try to find God’s will in an earthquake, a cancer ward or a mass killing are engaged in a particularly cruel and arrogant exercise. Coffin would have none of it: “Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. . . . The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Death is not the expression of a just moral order but its violation. And the proper response is not explanation but friendship. “Immediately after such tragedy,” said Coffin, “people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers — the basics of beauty and life — people who sign letters simply, ‘Your brokenhearted sister.’ ”