Please, I beg you. Accept the Lord Jesus as your saviour and you’ll see your baby again in Heaven.
This week two readers of the book I wrote about life after loss got in touch to say what amounted to the same thing. One with an offhand comment, and the other with a handwritten two-page letter: You may not know where your baby has gone, but I do. Here’s the secret. God will save you from grief.
Am I the caged animal, or are they? Which one of us eats better—the one who forages, or the one who is fed? The devout would say, perhaps, that I am in the cage. Rusted bars and concrete, nothing to recommend. Limited, constrained, alone. Scraps and bones. A sad story, unrealized somehow. The devout would say We are free in god’s land, where ‘god’s land’ is a garden of eden.
I think about that, and about my own surety it’s entirely the reverse. The devout are, to me, in a beautiful enclosure, plush with fresh hay and daily buckets of gooey fresh flesh. Stone made of pretend, grasses cultivated to suit what has been studied to be their preference. I envy it, a little. I envy the surety of their nourishment.
I bolt through a field on the side of a highway with a squirrel in my mouth. My land is no Eden. It’s ordinary and occasionally terrifying and it makes me no promises. Every now and then, I slip through by the skin of my teeth. My land is constant peril, feast or famine. If I don’t pay attention to the grief—working on it, hunting the rationalizations and words I need to nourish myself—I could be blindsided, flattened like a fox on the 101.
I wouldn’t say being areligious is better than being religious any more than I’d say having sardines is better than not having sardines. That all depends how you feel about sardines, doesn’t it? Better is entirely subjective. It depends where you were born. Your family routine. Your relative sense of belonging (or not). Your need for questions (or not). ‘Better’ depends on how well your circumstance suited you as you grew up. Did it make sense to you that God gave his only son to save the world? Then it made sense to you. Does it comfort you? Then it comforts you. Did you come up with a taste for sugar, or for salt?
June wrote me the letter halfway through her reading of my book. “You seem so confused,” she wrote, in the loopy cursive of a woman in her 80s. “Was there nobody in your life who could set you on a clear path?”
Then Jesus something-something. She feared for my eternal soul.
I wasn’t antagonized. People really and truly mean well, and it’s not only the devout who burden the grieving with their opinions about how one should and should not grieve.
It was a bit sweet, really. A peephole to an alternate way of thinking wholly foreign to me. I sat down with her letter in my hands, marvelling a little. To think! For some people, confusion is the enemy. It is unnatural and unacceptable to despair. But for me, a life devoid of questions is a life devoid. The death of a child—the most exquisite, horrendous pain—forces us into a state of concentrated love stronger than anything else in the world. It’s not a love anybody would choose to experience, of course. But when we find ourselves immersed in that unspeakable, monstrous ache, we can’t just reject it and be healthy. The human heart doesn’t work that way. I can’t imagine thinking it does.
I wasn’t confused at all. I was a sky on fire. Pain and poetry and PTSD and stars exploding and it was all inside my head, filling the cavity of my chest on which my son took his last wracked breath. The pain was beautiful. Being his mother was beautiful. Horrible, but beautiful. Meaningful. Treasured. I wasn’t confused at all. I was larger and more industrious than I’d ever been in my life. I was route-finding.
June read my book and saw me as I was to her: masticating a bloody thing, grief, in my jaws. One rationale or nightmare or another. I chewed on it, nosed at it, held it down with my paws, tearing and ripping. She saw something untoward, alarming. The sight of it was confusing for her. It was not found at the bottom of a tidy plastic bucket. I chased it. I caught it myself.
With my bloody mess I made sacred fuel. I fed my body with curiosity, pain, ideas. I was open and alert. I paid attention to matters of my survival, and so I grew, and I survived.
At Easter supper my mom told my dad about the letter. Did you bring it with you? She said, wincingly curious. In disbelief that someone would not only think these things, but go out of their way to write down all the ways someone else is wrong in their grief. And to send it! Heavens.
I didn’t bring the letter to Easter supper. I brought wine and chocolate.
Eden looks lovely, doesn’t it? A tiger and a gazelle playing a round of gin rummy. Adam gaming for a snack. Eve traipsing in the sun because there is no such thing as vanity yet, so she doesn’t know she’s going to wrinkle up like an apple doll if she doesn’t cover up with more than a fig leaf.
Sorry. I blaspheme. What is precious to some is just… unfamiliar to me. I was neither born nor bred to it. The only gospels fundamental to my family were gospels of homemade pie pastry, Maritime kindness, and not littering. What else can I say in response, other than imagine clapping three times and all of a sudden every creature in Eden snaps back into its instincts, and the lions eat everything in sight? As everything runs, screaming and squawking, the Benny Hill theme plays.
Somewhere, in some Eden, says June, Liam waits for me. What if I never crack the code? Worse yet, what if I choose to never crack the code?
What I choose is to not fret. It’s been almost twelve years and I still don’t know where he went. Not-knowing is as important to me as knowing is important to June. I don’t know why. It just is. We are similarly earnest from opposite vantage points. As long as I don’t know—and there’s such a staggering volume of things I don’t know!—everything is possible. This is how life shimmers, cutting this wild fox a break.
Do you need to know? Or do you not mind the not-knowing? Did you inherit your faith, or are you routefinding? How have people in your life—passerby or otherwise—contributed to what you do (or do not) believe?