at the kitchen table: grappling with god(s)

 photo by  Xin Li

photo by Xin Li

1.  Do you feel as though a higher entity/supreme being/energy force has a presence in your life? What do you call it, and what makes you feel it exists?

Bon:  I have mixed feelings on this one...I don't have a faith, per se, but am willing to err on the side of Pascal's Wager and generally try to live as though there might be some greater spirit of good and enlightenment out there. If I were to call it anything, I suppose it would be "god" (intentional small caps)...but that's as much a Sunday School hangover as anything else.

Janis:  I do feel there is a power/force bigger than us humans. I do not have a name for it though... sometimes I call it the Universe. I know we only have seeming control over some things, and the rest, is this force at work, or rhythm...

Julia:  I do think there is something out there. But whether of the somethings there is a being supreme over all the rest is not something I think about too much, or even care that greatly about. It would probably be considered a strange position for a Jew, but then again Judaism in general doesn't place particular importance on the matters of the other side. I find that it suits me just fine.

Kate:  I never thought there might actually, really be a supreme being or presence until Liam died. I physically felt his soul leave his body after I asked the presence to take it, and make it safe, and make it whole. And it did, and with the gift of that experience my entire worldview and belief system and heart have been altered forever.

Niobe:  I think it of as the tetragrammaton, the sacred, unutterable Name.

Tash:  No, I really don't. I guess on occasion, if I felt anything, and had to pinpoint a location, it would be a force from deep within. Sometimes it's just indigestion.

2. Describe, in a word or two, the nature of your spiritual self before and then after the loss of your baby/babies.

Bon:  Before...critical of explanations. After...more critical of explanations.

Janis:  Before... still somewhat cynical. After... a bit more open.

Julia:  I don't actually think that I changed in this aspect at all. I do not feel entitled to special favors, before or after. I don't think the universe revolves around me, or anyone else. I think it just revolves. But now and again I get to catch glimpses of beauty and wonder in it.

Kate:  Before... indifferent, self-sufficient, self-centred. After... blown open, full of light.

Niobe:  I don't think you can exactly call me spiritual -- not before and certainly not after. I deal with religion the way I deal with most things: rationalization and over-intellectualization.

Tash:  Before... interested on an intellectual level but certainly not invested. After... validated.

3. Do you pray, even if you wouldn’t call it praying? To whom? What for?

Bon:  I do. It always surprises me, and usually only happens in moments of extreme emotion. My prayers usually consist of one of two words..."thank you" mostly, for moments of extreme beauty and grace, or "please," in moments of extreme desperation. They're directed to the universe.

Janis:  I say Buddhist prayers in the morning, which is more like a ritual, and a meditation/study than a request, or asking for something. It's more for self-improvement; as I read the words I ponder the meanings (if my mind is not elsewhere). But I do sometimes request for strength, healing, for myself, for others. I ask them from the Universe.

Julia:  I do not often pray in the traditional sense. I never pray to ask for things or outcomes. I sometimes think of moments of piercing beauty as prayers—visual prayers of acknowledgment and gratitude. There are also words of truth that sometimes make a sort of a prayer in that they are the voicing of the sacred and the raw. And there are blessings, formal ones like the blessings of our children each Shabbat, and informal ones that tend towards those sacred and raw truths.

Kate:  I would call it a conversation more than a prayer. I summon. Sometimes it answers, sometimes not. Sometimes it's Liam's light, sometimes that guiding presence on the night he died. I just want to talk.

Niobe:  Aside from the Shema just about my only prayer (and it's not a Jewish one at all) is: Thy will be done.

Tash:  I never used to pray, but I certainly used to wish and hope and have (little-f) faith in things. I find wishing and hoping meaningless exercises since last year -- there's nothing I want, nothing I could imagine wishing for, I hate to hope because I fear the let-down. Funny, I'm an atheist, and yet I've profoundly lost my (little-f) faith.

4.  Is there a particular line of scripture/teaching/sentiment that you find particularly helpful? Or is there one that’s commonly referred to but is unhelpful?

Bon:  Buddhism's four Noble Truths—all of which relate to suffering—were about the only formalized religious meditations in which I found resonance and comfort and some bit of a path to try to stumble along towards understanding and healing.

Janis:  I am a Buddhist so I can ditto Bon's answer; and in general I have found Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings to be very useful, especially those in the book No Death No Fear.

Julia:  Nothing that stands out, at least not from early on. Later there was this passage from the Rosh Hashana liturgy that I went back to hear again:  May we never abandon our memories. May our memories inspire deeds which lead us to life and love, to blessings and peace.

Kate:  Nothing in particular, and everything from all places: art, music, philosophers, friends. Rumi. Generally speaking, I am a Buddhist but don't know it yet.

Niobe Job 38:11: Thus far shall you come, but no farther.

Tash:  I used to think I was an atheist who leaned Buddhist, but lately when faced with such lessons, I immediately respond with arguments. I actually found great peace in this traditional Gaelic Blessing for reasons I outlined at the end of this post. It doesn't hurt that it was given to me by a person whose family had experienced the loss of a child.

5. Did your faith offer rites, rituals or teachings that acknowledged your baby and your healing? If not (or if you didn't seek it out in an organized fashion), what rites, rituals or mantras have you adopted as your own?

Bon:  What few rituals have slowly evolved for us have largely been ideas that have come from the babyloss community...particularly having cupcakes as a family on his birthday. After he died, we did plant trees in our yard and a close family friend who is also a retired minister spoke, but not directly of god...rather of life and remembering even short lives.

Janis:  Yes, there were rites, rituals, prayer ceremonies... but I am not sure they aided in my healing.

Julia:  Our rabbi came to the hospital while I was being induced. She was also the one who performed the burial ceremony, and who encouraged us to come to Temple the first Friday night after the funeral to enter the congregation as mourners, to be publicly acknowledged as such. In general, Judaism's emphasis on the idea of mourning being for the living rather than the dead was very helpful-- it framed our feelings as normal, justified, and accepted by the community.

Kate:  I have no rituals other than writing and listening. After he died I never considered seeking out church-based recognition (a grave, a service, priests, blessings, scripture). After he died I realized that the framework of Christianity, while comforting in many ways, was not quite the right shape to encapsulate my truth.

Niobe:  My faith has a number of comforting and healing rituals, but I chose to not to participate in them. Sometimes I wonder if that was a mistake.

Tash:  I think what I most envy is the structure and vocabulary that religious ritual can provide at a time like this. I can see a benefit in having a plan already laid out, complete with things to say, lessons to fall back on, beliefs that incorporate loss. I also think the community in which some of these rites of death take place in could be beneficial. I adopted nothing.

6. Some people say that in a foxhole (a desperate, life-threatening situation), there are no atheists. You’ve been in a foxhole. Discuss.

Bon:  I struggle with this...part of me wants to say that for me the foxhole wasn't the period of his short life...but the survival after. I did not pray or plead for him to live, only prayed that he not suffer, that he feel our presence and our love. But then, even that was an appeal to the universe for a sort of mercy. Nonetheless, the experience did not cause me to believe either more or less in a god... perhaps I didn't have enough faith to experience it as a test of faith.

Janis:  hmmm... this is tricky. I do not see Buddhism as a religion (but a philosophy) so I guess you can still call me an atheist?

Julia:  I sometimes think that given my profound aversion to the idea of an interventionist God, I am sort of a functional atheist. Like Bon and Tash, I had no crisis of faith, but in my case it was because I did not feel that my faith, or anything else, was supposed to have been a shield against misfortune. Bad things happen, and I am not immune.

Kate:  I don't think that statement is entirely fair, and it's too often misinterpreted as a dig on atheists. What it means to me is that when you suffer—when you lose your obliviousness, see the other side—even the most hardened cynic is often left grasping for light, for meaning, for that presence. That is exactly what happened to me.

Niobe:  I've never been in a foxhole.

Tash:  Wait! (waves hand frantically) I'm in and still an atheist! And this may sound odd given my answer to the above, but often I'm relieved to be. I've seen a lot of mamas struggle with their faith after facing the unthinkable pain of losing a child, and I'm thankful I only need to concentrate on keeping my head down when the bullets fly, not simultaneously worry about the metaphysical reasons for my being there and the profundity of my survival (or not).