At the kitchen table: speaking of faith

photo by  Kate Inglis

photo by Kate Inglis

Glow in the Woods isn't big on religion. It almost feels like I'm breaking some taboo to write "God" here in this post. Many of the contributors and readers are here to escape talk of religion--of God's plan, of our babies as angels, of life after death in some particular Heaven. But I also think that tackling big questions of faith is something many of us do after the loss of our children. Some lose faith. Some find it. Some, like me, limp along in a strange limbo. As if I'm still in shock, eighteen months later, from my son's stillbirth.

Join us for the new Kitchen Table discussion, read our responses, and please add your responses in the comments or link to your own blog.

1. Before your loss, how would you describe your faith? How would you describe it now?

Burning Eye:  I always had a deep faith in something. I settled on the word "God" in college. I found my way into a very different Christianity from what I was raised in. I studied with Sufis. I became Quaker. God was a living, comforting presence in my life. Now... I just don't know. I wouldn't say I lost my faith. But I've certainly drifted away from God's presence. I think I want to find my way back. I'm not sure what to believe in since Joseph's death, except that Nature is a powerful and sometimes cruel force. We are all physical bodies and we will all die.

Chris: I believe and still believe in the Universe as a living force.  Before I believed it was overall tending toward good, but now I think it is much more random and brutal.  I still think the Universe is alive and that love is a force powering it, but that we are so small in comparison to its vastness, that the bad things that happen are just part of the huge, massive operation of a vast structure I can barely comprehend.  I don't think it gives one actual shit about me or Silas, though.

Mrittika: I used to be friends with God, until I was 19. Brought up in a very religious Hindu family, I was an idol worshipper. I treated those statues as dolls, and my Grandma tells me that as a little girl, I would take them to bed with me. I prayed to the Goddess of Knowledge on a certain day of the year that is her day, and I would wake up at 4 am, take a shower and fast until the first prayers had been offered. I often believed that my performance in exams was a direct result of my devotion to her. In the year between my 18th and 19th birthdays, I lost three friends -- to sickness and suicide. I lost faith in God with them too. There was a distance, God was no longer my friend, and after my first miscarriage, I was Godless. In the past ten years of my reproductive struggle and loss, I have begun to recognize the randomness and meaninglessness of this world, this life. I still clasp my hands in front of an idol and say something in prayer, but it is more a habit and less a faith. I now believe in Nature, but I don't like the idea of the survival of the fittest or natural selection, since it seems to imply that our babies died because they were not the 'fittest?' That thought disgusts me. I like the resilience and relentlessness of nature, but I cannot understand why our babies and we are not given second chances like deciduous trees.

Brianna:  There was a time when I was very religious but that changed quite some time ago.  I had long since stopped believing in any kind of religious ideology but I still prayed to a God I had no faith in while in the hospital trying to save George.  Clearly I got no reply.  I think if anything changed after losing George it was that my surety that the universe is a random and chaotic place was strengthened.  Sometimes lightening strikes and it does not matter one lick if it was deserved or not.

Merry: I was brought up nominally Christian at home and in a school where prayers, psalms and Pilgrims Progress were recited daily. My shock on exiting that school at 11 and discovering it was not all "true" was immense. I never really recovered from feeling lied to and struggled with faith until shortly before I was pregnant with Freddie. Events before him meant I cut my losses with 'God' because if he existed, I was sure he would hate me and I hated him for the position he had put me in. I just couldn't make myself believe in an entity that would do that and if he would, I wanted no part of it. As I fell pregnant with Freddie I had begun to flirt with Paganism/Druid faith and a greater sense of universe and nature. It isn't something that I talk about much, not least because many of my friends have deep Christian faith, but it is there. I've wondered if losing Freddie was punishment for straying but again, if it was, that is not a god I want truck with. I lost whatever was left of a guilt towards Christianity while Freddie was in SCBU. They asked if I wanted him baptised and I said no. God, if he was there, was not getting him. Freddie's funeral was conducted by the hospital chaplain because that was the simplest way forward but he was explicitly instructed not to mention god in any form and the service had nothing in it that related to religion. I was done with organised religion. I'm not interested.

2. What do you believe about an afterlife? Where do you think your baby(ies) is/are now?

Burning Eye: My current vision of the afterlife comes somewhat from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. There is a scene where souls are freed from a dark limbo underworld, and their faces show the greatest flicker of joy before they dissolve into the air and float away. I used to think we dissolved into God. Into Oneness. I like the idea of becoming part of everything when we die. Not just our physical bodies decomposing, but our spirits, too. So I don't really think Joseph has a spirit or ghost out there somewhere in the world. I sort of wish I did. I don't think he's in heaven, either. But I also don't think he's nowhere. I sometimes feel him in my heart. Quite literally, his fetal cells are in my blood, pumping through my heart again and again. This is all I know.

Chris:  I hope we all turn into stars. I have no idea where Silas is, if anywhere, but if he's anywhere, I hope he's... free? painless? content? Dare I say happy? But I guess I probably believe that his life force just returned to the energy of the Universe. Or something. Anyone who tells me they know for sure I think is full of shit.

Mrittika: I really don't know if Raahi is anywhere. I used to believe in spirits, but I often find myself thinking she just vanished. Like Chris, I too like to believe her energy returned to the universe, but I don't know what that even means anymore. There is much about Raahi's birth, life, and death, that make me believe there was something bigger about her than we could comprehend. I often felt that she was someone who knew and loved me from a different time, a different life maybe, that she had come to me to see how I was doing, and to rekindle our love. The way she looked at me and at the world was deeper than anything I had ever seen, let alone in a baby. So I feel peaceful knowing I had her, I saw her again, we loved each other again. That she found me and came to me. Then why can't I believe she will find me again? Why don't I know she is somewhere looking at/for me? I don't know. The first thought that came to my mind the day after she passed away was, "I will see her eyes when I look up at the sky, I will see her looking at me that way." I have never seen her eyes in the sky in the past year. Maybe someday, when the loss is less engulfing. Right now her absence is too strong for me to wonder where she is. She is not here. That is too strong and all-encompassing a truth.

Brianna: I would love to believe that George is somewhere waiting for me when I die.  But I don't.  I think part of what I struggled with most after his loss was coming to grips with the fact that I will never see him again.  My husband believes that his energy is somewhere out there in the ether of the universe and that when we die our energies will find each other.  I think that is lovely and wish I could convince myself that it was true. 

Merry: The other week my daughter told me that there are more molecules in a cup of water than there are cups of water in the world and so every time we hold water, we hold the molecules of water we have held before. I suppose I feel like that about Freddie. His body was burned and his atoms remain and there must be so many atoms that were in him that are somewhere. In a tree, in a daisy, in the air I breathe in some days. But that is all there is for me; no heaven, no afterlife, no waiting for me. For a while I wished to die to be with him but I don't wish for that any more. If there is anything, he is alongside me in the life that carries on. I can't reconcile an afterlife and timelessness with my belief system at all. If I could hope for anything, it would be that he and I are like Will and Lyra, together if only we could slice the air right and find our way through. If he is anywhere, he is invisibly next to me in some way. I'm comfortable with that.

3. Have you had any experiences of visitation--spiritual, bodily, paranormal--from your baby(ies)? If you haven't, would you want to?

Burning Eye: I believed in ghosts and spirits well into adulthood. I used to see ghosts as a child. I grew up in a family of people who have sensed ghosts and had encounters I wholeheartedly believe. I'm not sure how to reconcile that—that I don't discount my past experiences—with how strongly I reject ghosts now. I don't think Joseph can visit me. As much as I wish I did. We have a good friend who was visited by Joseph, though, very soon after he died. And here is this same paradox—I don't believe Joseph is a spirit that can fly around and appear to people, yet I don't disbelieve that our friend had a real encounter with our son.

Chris: When I see hawks or the constellation Orion I think of Silas, but I also think that's mostly just my mind making associations that make me happy (ish).

Mrittika: I think of her when I see butterflies, or birds, I thought of her when new leaves sprung. I see her when I see a baby her age. The age she was when I last saw her. Most of all, I think of her when I see a winding road, thinking she is somewhere on it, walking alone, walking ahead of me. I know in my heart that she will always walk ahead of me. I also know that I will most likely never catch up with her, that I will never see her again. I never get visitations or messages from her. I'm not sure if I want to. It may give me a connection and momentary peace, but I know that it will intensify her loss and her absence, since it will be a shadow, it will not be she. And the 'visitation' or 'message' will end too. I have relived the moment of losing her a million times, I don't want to live through it again. Nothing about or from her will be permanent in my life, and I try to accept that my vivid memory of her and my deep love for her are all I have.

Brianna:  No, I haven't.  None that I am aware of or none that I would recognize if such things really do happen.

Merry: When I was just 18 I lost a friend and in the months that followed his death, I had what felt like powerful connections from him; once when it felt, almost as I described above, as if he was by me but invisibly separate and once in a dream that was a vivid farewell. I have waited for similar from Freddie, I have waited and waited and begged for it. But he does not come. I have no idea if the noise of our home means I do not go still enough to hear, or if I will not let it happen or if that simply isn't going to happen. Aside from occasional sensory prompts, the only thing that has ever come really close was the swish of the wind in a sun soaked clump of marsh grass once. I thought I heard him then.

4. Glow in the Woods has always been a haven from talk of "angel babies." Why has this been important to you? How do you react to the term "angel baby"?

Burning Eye: When people say "angel baby," I picture naked baroque cherubs with little wings. My baby is not a chubby little cherub. I don't want people telling me who or what Joseph is, so I'm glad to have this space where people don't say sugary-sweet platitudes that assume one thing or another about what I believe. I couldn't say it any better than a babylost mama I came across early on after Joseph's death--he's not an angel, he's my baby.

Chris: I don't believe in angels, so it has been a relief.  If pushed I will tell the person I don't want a fucking angel baby.

Mrittika: I don't believe in angels, so Glow is my refuge. And even if there are angels, for those who do believe in them, a baby does not need to die to increase their population. I think whoever believes in this mechanism needs to come up with a different reasoning for angels. I think a more plausible one is that there are baby angels who grow up and become grownup angels. Babies are babies, they are supposed to grow up and become human beings, not die and become angels. And I loathe this penchant for turning everything bad into something mushy and good. A baby died. NOTHING good can come from it. 

Brianna: I felt very isolated from the baby loss community at large until I found Glow.  The talk about "angel babies" was very uncomfortable for me.  I did not and could not relate to the belief that my son had been called to heaven to be an angel.  It was a relief to find a place that was not focused on the religious aspect of loss and to find a community of people that I could relate to.

Merry: I despise it as a term and the very fact that it is so prevalent in the community makes everywhere but Glow untenable. It is a cloying, patsy, insulting term to me and I feel as if people use it as if somehow Freddie being an angel would pacify me or sugar coat my loss. He's not an angel, he is a small pile of ash hidden in my home that I can't bear to bury. He's not an angel, he was a baby who refused to behave properly, wake up, scream and cry and do as I told him. He's not an angel because they have eternal life (says someone) and he's dead.

5. Are your family's beliefs different from yours? Has it caused any tension within your family relating to the death of your baby(ies)?

Burning Eye: My parents have a very different faith from me. I don't think we used to. It's not something we talk about—I haven't brought up God much with them. There are a few things they've said, over the phone, in a letter, about God and Joseph and all, and I just reject it. I've had to really work to disassociate myself from others' beliefs. If it comforts my mom to think Joseph is in heaven (I don't know that she does), then that should be a good thing. If Joseph's death has brought my dad closer to God, good for him. It doesn't have to be that way for me.

Chris: It seems to me that most of my family has no idea what happens after death, or what the whole God thing is all about. With my mother having MS and suffering for so many years, and then Silas dying, we aren't feelin' the love.

Mrittika: I cannot have a single conversation with my family (except with my brother who doesn't talk about Raahi anyway) without being referred to God in the second sentence. It is their way of coming to terms with their helplessness. But as a result, I feel a strong disconnect with them, and zone out the moment it goes the religious route. It has been happening since my first miscarriage in 2005. By now I'm used to it. But I still hate it. I cannot understand why and how they can keep the faith when clearly God has not loved or taken care of me and my baby.

Brianna: My in-laws are Bahaii.  They have very specific ideas about where George is and what happens after death.  It has never caused tension in any way. For the most part I appreciate that people have other views on faith and the afterlife than I do.  I am glad that other people find comfort in their religious beliefs.

Merry: Aside from a grandmother, religion seems to have fallen thoroughly by the wayside in my family and anyone who might have said anything foolish that involve platituding me with god-words learned quickly to stay silent. The biggest problem regarding faith among my family or friends who might believe in any god is now me; I was always argumentative in an academic sense but now I'm downright intolerant and rude unless I keep a hold on myself. Which means I can't have those discussions any more at all because derisive snorting is hardly a useful contribution.

6. What do you say, if anything, to people--well-meaning or otherwise--when they say those cliche religious phrases like "God needed another flower in His garden" or "Your baby is with God now"?

Burning Eye: I'm a coward. I don't say anything. I privately vomit inside. I might rant to A later. When Joseph died, a friend posted on Facebook, "God always has a plan." I just pretended I didn't read it. (But of course I still think about him posting that.)

Chris: It depends on how well I know the person.  If they are close friends then I say, "Well in that case God can go fuck him/it/herself."  Or if they say "everything happens for a reason," I laugh in their face and say "no, it doesn't."  And if I don't know them I just smile and nod and breathe.

Mrittika: I used to ignore them. But now I say with firmness, "If he did, he shouldn't have sent her to me in the first place." And if they try to convince me even more, I go, "That means he clearly doesn't want someone who is on earth as much. Like you." I have actually said this to someone, and it shut her up. My goal is not to be rude. I'm plain reacting to people trying to make themselves feel good at my expense. If there is a God, I would like for him/her to look me in the eye someday and tell me why s/he did it, and/or why s/he didn't prevent it. And then s/he will also have a piece of my mind about what I think of that.

Brianna: I think I am fairly lucky in this regard because I can't really think of too many times something like that has occurred. More commonly I get the "everything happens for a reason" cliche spouted off to me.  I usually simply say something along the lines of, "I simply cannot fathom that there is any good reason for a baby dying." That usually shuts people up pretty quickly.

Merry: I haven't had it said too often but I do loath it when I see it pitched at other people who do believe in god. It always seems a remarkable quick way to put someone off their religion, unless it is supposed to guilt trip them into being grateful. I do have a pet hate of "too beautiful for earth" though, and when people tell me "God gave up his son too" I have a very forthright answer. God gave up his son for 30 years, then got him back. And he could watch all the time, supposedly. Big deal. Big sodding deal.