the inescapability of karma, maybe

Angie is a writer, poet, and painter. With the stillbirth of her second daughter Lucia, Angie began writing about mothering and grief at Still Life with Circles. She shares a piece of art, music or writing from a bereaved parent or family member every day at the year-long creative project still life 365, and paints and illustrates mizuko jizo and other aspects of babyloss, pregnancy and parenting.

For a couple of months after my daughter was stillborn at 38 weeks, my husband and I saw a grief therapist recommended by the hospital and our midwives' group. She served a purpose, mainly by helping us answer the thousands of questions we suddenly had:

How do we tell everyone that our daughter died?

What do we do with the nursery?

Is it okay to tell people that we would prefer not to receive flowers?

How do I eat breakfast in the diner where they fussed about my pregnancy?

How do we talk to each other about something other than her death?

After a few months, when those mundane moments of terror in the market passed, our therapy sessions became unproductive. She would ask how my husband felt and he would say, "Hungry."

She would ask me how I felt and I would tell her about Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed, compassion, Buddhism, and suffering. Her eyes would glaze over and she then she would tell me I was avoiding my true feelings by intellectualizing.

"Perhaps individual therapy might be more beneficial for us," I mentioned to my husband as we left her office one snowy Tuesday. I had some bigger questions. This therapist wanted to educate us about our grief, not philosophize about the nature of the universe. I felt nostalgic for a time in which I never lived where a stinky Socrates sat in the town center, just waiting for someone to pose a question about fate, death and the gods. I needed an oracle, an unemployed philosophy PhD. Or maybe even a lama.

photo by MC-Leprosy

I began seeing my Buddhist therapist again. I saw him many years earlier, when I was a single woman bitching about my non-committal ex-boyfriend, insomnia, and my career. I have dabbled in Buddhism for fifteen years. And by dabble, of course, I mean reading Buddhist teachings and writing, but not finding a regular sangha, or community.

Sure, I meditated, occasionally visited a Buddhist monastery for group meditation and teachings, but I never sought an actual teacher who challenged me. Zen. Tibetan. Shambhalan. It didn’t really matter. I sometimes just wanted to feel people around me who could sit quietly together. Intellectually, Buddhism just makes sense to me. Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by our attachments to worldly pleasures and illusions of happiness. One needs to be accountable for his or her actions in every aspect of your life. Compassion, meditation, letting go of attachments and kindness can change suffering. Totally get it. Of course, there were times when I would get fascinated by some obscure text and teaching, but mostly I lived by the basic tenets, except the no wine thing. Alcohol always found a place in my Buddhism.

When I thought I should seek therapy, I sought a Buddhist therapist. I didn’t want therapy devoid of my spiritualism. I sought a more holistic solution to my angst and emotional ennui. The Buddhist therapist became sort of a de facto teacher for a lone wolf like myself. He guided me in meditation. He gave me some incredibly deep insights that mirrored my own beliefs. I learned more from him in the eight month period than I could have imagined. My therapist suggested that perhaps I was a Pratyekabuddha, or a bodhisattva who develops realizations without the guidance of a guru. He encouraged me repeatedly to seek a teacher. He pointed out, "Of course, you know, the challenges of that path are always arrogance and misguidance."

Of course, I have always been arrogant and misguided.

It made sense for me to visit the Buddhist therapist again after my daughter died and I was flailing. After I had met with him for a few sessions, we had begun reincorporating the Four Reminders into our sessions, which had been a bit revelatory to me in my earlier therapy.

1  ::  the preciousness of human birth (It is a gift you are here)

2  ::  the truth of impermanence (You are gonna die)

3  ::  the reality of suffering (Life’s gonna hurt)

4  ::  the inescapability of karma (You better do it right, or you are doing it again.)

He mentioned the last one again. "Karma," he said, "is how our actions affect our suffering."

"Oh, I have been meaning to talk to you about that," I said. And I had. I’d been thinking about how different religions deal with suffering. Majoring in Religion at university, I became fascinated with theodicy, which is the theological problem of reconciling evil and suffering in the world with the existence of a just and good God. But, in Buddhism, suffering is a whole different animal. Buddhists mostly take out God, but leave the suffering. Suffering is the nucleus around which Buddhist thought orbits. Still, something never sat right with me and karma. I want to believe that if someone commits a horrible sin against man or humanity, he or she will suffer eventually. 

But what if you are suddenly the one suffering?

"Uh, yeah, with something like stillbirth or the death of your baby without any reason, I wanted to know, uh, you know, I mean, when I think about karma, with this kind of suffering, the bad-things-happen-to-good-people-type suffering, uh, this is awkward, but what I wanted to know is: do Buddhists think it is my own fault that my daughter died?"

"Of course not," he said, after a pause. "At least not in the way that you are talking about. Traditional Buddhists feel that in our past lives we were all kinds of people: thieves, mothers, butchers, farmers, murderers, liars, nuns, doctors, children, and animals. A monk once told me that if we piled the bones of all the lives we have lived, it would reach through three universes. You may be going through your loss as a result of past karma from a life hundreds of years ago."

I hated that answer.

I wanted to spit on the floor and demand my money back. In no uncertain terms, I told him so. Then he clarified that the complexities of the idea of karma makes it difficult to explain, but Buddhists do not traditionally blame the victim for their own suffering. You could study karma for years and not quite get it. The Buddha taught not to take his words literally. He said to use this teaching to develop my own understanding of the universe. He asked me what I thought. What does karma mean to you now, as the mother of a dead baby?

I think the world is chaotic and random and often cruel. The death of my child had nothing to do with me—nothing I did, nothing my husband did, nothing my daughter did. She just died.

Thinking that Lucia’s death is my karma, or heaven forbid, her karma, or the karma of my entire tribe is of no comfort to me. Without a physical reason why Lucy died, it is hard not to search for a metaphysical one instead. It is hard not to speculate on why the Volcano Gods are angered, or what action in my youth caused my daughter to die now. And yet, I reject that. The guilt of that interpretation would eat me from the inside out until I am nothing but a withered shell of a parent.

To me karma means something much different than tit for tat. Spiritually, I have to figure out my own reason to move forward. What I do have control over is what I do with my experience of chaos and suffering in the world. This life, right now, is my choice. This is my karma. What am I going to do with this experience of loss?

Compassion. Fear. Love. Understanding. Grief. Sadness. Comfort. Kindness. Anger. Patience. Misplaced emotion. Mourning. Selfishness. Selflessness. If I toss each one, carefully peeled and scrubbed, into a blender and drink this past year down, I hope to emerge healthier. I hope this bitter juice helps me emerge more of those things I believe makes the world a place less wrought with suffering. I control that part of me, the patient loving compassionate part, the part that experiences other people's suffering and responds with love. Since Lucy died, I am frequently impatient. I am frequently unloving and unlovable. I sometimes give into anger and pettiness. But I try to use those experiences to forgive. Myself. First for the emotion, and then for the death of my daughter.

I have to forgive myself everyday.

As I walked away from that session, the therapist said one last thing just as I left his room.

"Maybe Lucy fulfilled her karma by living her life just as she lived it. Maybe she simply needed the love and comfort of your womb for those months. Maybe she was supposed to teach you about love."


Did you seek out a counsellor, therapist, or spiritual mentor after the loss of your baby? Why, or why not? What phrases, concepts, or exercises learned in therapy have contributed to your healing? What moments felt at odds with what you needed to heal? Do you remember a session that felt like hard work for you? Why, and where did it bring you?