Thursday, March 15, 2012

Grieving without Believing

***I want to start this post by asking for understanding from anyone who is devout to a particular religion. It is not my intent to start a debate, but I do not believe in a higher power despite being raised in a moderately religious household. If this topic causes you any negative feelings or if you feel the need to "save" me, I ask that you please do not continuing reading. I will strive to be respectful in how I express myself, but this blog is for my continued struggle and I have to be who I am. I hide it almost every day to avoid conflict and debate and out of respect for those closest to me that believe, but not today. Those niceties are rarely given to me. You can poke holes in my theories and ask me why as many times as you want. But this is me. Thanks. ***

My husband recently forwarded an article from the Huffington Post about a woman who lost her three month old and is an atheist. I found myself silently nodding my head and thanking the author while reading it. There are so many emotions when you are grieving. Add every day stresses and events and it is even tougher;  the (hopefully) occasional inconsiderate/impatient/non-understanding friend or family member, continued societal taboos on talking about child death, etc.  But for me, and this is my personal choice, not believing in a higher power makes this all even more painful (especially while living in the southern US). Being raised Protestant, I know the stories and general foundations of Christianity. I would love to imagine Ellie happy and with her grandparents. But I believe that death is final. I will not see my daughter again. She is not with other loved ones who have passed. She is gone and it hurts like hell. Yet, I continue to hear people explain her death away as if some magical man in the sky took her from me and wanted to make her an angel. Or worse, that she is better off in some imagined, convenient place instead of here with her family. These statements, although I know they are not made from malice, hurt in such a deep way. I feel strong in my beliefs, yet begin to question myself, if even for a moment. Did I do something wrong? Am I being punished? Is my daughter dead because I don't believe? If I would have relented (repented?) and prayed, would she still be here? Do they think she was taken from me because I don't believe?

And then there are the survivors. Believe me. I NEVER want to see another child die. I don't want anyone to have to spend weeks or months or years with a child who needs assistance. I wish everyone were happy and healthy. But we all know that is not reality. When I listen to or read about someone recovering or beating the odds and a comment is made about God's will or the power of prayer, I want to scream: "Is anyone awake? Do you see the state of our world? The poverty, war, pollution, hatred, classism, disease, etc.? No amount of prayer is going to stop that! Have you read the Old Testament?? Get off your butt and do something about it!" I consider myself a compassionate person and think I have done good deeds throughout my life. Hundreds of people in my community and family as well as friends were praying for Ellie. But she died. It didn't help. It didn't save her. It didn't "save" me. I am not meant to understand why she's gone, you may ask? I don't buy into that. I know I will never know why her heart formed the way it did. I understand natural selection and nature and know mutations and errors happen all the time. But knowing and accepting are two different things.

I wonder how people feel when they thank a higher power for good things or health in their lives. I know when bad things happen, many will say it is done for a reason, to learn a lesson in some way. Other's will just accept that it is the will of some magical creature. Some may think I was meant to learn a lesson. But that is insulting to me and Ellie's short life. I am thankful for every second I had with her and know I am lucky. I know too many others who had so much less time. But please don't rub my face into your "good fortune" because you went to church or prayed or read your bible. How awful to imply that you deserve good things while others who don't believe do not. Are you somehow more deserving? Just support and love me. Tell me this sucks and that it's not fair. Please let me continue to talk about my girl and my pain. There is no reason to try and explain it. It happened and I broke as a result of it. No amount of prayer is going to fix me.  

I feel my daughter is with me. I really do. I carried her and felt her move. I nourished her and hope she felt how loved she was. I remember her and will always honor her. But her light has extinguished and I hurt every day knowing that I will never see her again. Believe me. It would be easier, in my mind at least, to trust that she died for a reason. Not to say that religious people don't struggle with the death of a child. Some may falter while others believe even more. But losing a child isn't easy for anyone.

I like how Jena Pincott puts it: "During pregnancy, cells sneak across the placenta. The fetus's cells enter the mother and the mother's cells enter the baby --and stay there for life. In mothers, fetal cells often take residence in her lungs, spinal cord, skin, thyroid gland, liver, intestine, cervix, gallbladder, spleen, lymph nodes, and blood vessels. The baby's cells may also live a lifetime in Mom's heart and brain. Implicated in health and disease, fetal cells may also behind some of the mind-shifts that happen in motherhood."

But as I have written before, I do think her legacy lives on through her siblings and her parents.

(I do want to say how thankful I am for the support I have received. This predominately Christian community supported our family during our worst nightmare. But I believe it was out of the goodness of their hearts and not at the hand of God.)


  1. hello - we were lucky. 5 years ago today, our son simon was finally released from the nicu after a little over 2 months. he was very critically ill because his lungs didn't function. there were 81 babies there and he was the second sickest child, despite being a giant compared to the mostly preemies surrounding him. and we were there the day that the sickest child, sawyer, did die. i cannot fully understand how you are feeling, but i know that you cannot come closer to the abyss of losing a child and then step back than we did. i do not thank god for it, because like you, i do not believe - certainly not in a higher power that responds to prayers and is all loving and all powerful when there is so much needless and horrible suffering on this planet. i know that sawyer's parents had a strong faith which did help them - they believed that he became an angel to the rest of the nicu babies. and i am a firm believer in john lennon's lyric: "whatever gets you through the night, is alright". what i hated with a passionate fury was when people would tell us that jesus is looking out for you, our lord only gives you what you can handle (so, you had a flat tire on the way to work, but 6 million jews died in ww2 because they could handle that, but you could only handle a flat tire?!!!), etc etc. some of it was well-meaning and some of it was just a cop-out - how much easier it is to say a prayer than to actually get up and f---ing do something useful to those in need.. i am very, very sorry that this happened to you and i hope that your life ahead will be filled with joy..


  2. Both of my children were born with problems and started their lives in the NICU, but I was lucky both came home to me and live on today. I truly cannot imagine what you are feeling, I can only imagine the merest echo of it I am sure. It sucks, and it is unfair. I wish there were something that I could say that would make it better, but like you I do not believe in any magical being pulling the strings.

    All I can say is that I honor your pain, and I honor your strength in being able to put this out there to help others in your situation. While I do not ascribe supernatural powers to them there are rituals I perform as a part of my life to help me process and mark things of importance. Tonight at sunset I shall light incense to honor your child and you and contemplate how lucky I am, and how sad I am for you and the pain you are in and hope that while it never will leave you, at least that it will become easier to carry.

  3. Big hugs from a fellow non-believing, grieving mom. The journey is a long, difficult one, but thanks to the internet, we are able to know that we are not alone. Than you for sharing your story.

  4. Thank you so much for the responses and support.

  5. Hugs from a believer friend who cannot fully understand your pain but can only wish you Joy and happiness for the rest of your life, becuase you're a good spirit .. Thanks for sharing .

  6. Sarah, as always, I will never pretend to understand your pain. I do understand the pain of grieving, though nothing as deep as yours. Religion was a big problem for me too for a long time, and then I just realized I didn't believe in any of it. Just know, though I've never met you personally, you and your family are in my thoughts often and I hope you will someday have less pain in your heart. I think of Ellie often and want you to know that she will never be forgotten. ♥

  7. As a mother, my heart aches for you. As an atheist, I understand your feelings of isolation and frustration. When theists ask me if my lack of belief in the supernatural makes me feel sad or like life is pointless...but as many more well-spoken and intelligent atheists before me have pointed out, the impermanence of it all makes the beauty and the pain of life all the more poignant. I am happy for the precious time you had with your daugther and the memories you can treasure, I'm so sorry for your suffering. Love to you.

  8. Sarah, you know that I am a believer, and I have been thinking of you and praying for you daily through everything. I know that you don't believe the same things I do, and thats okay. I only tell you this because I want you to know that I'm loving and supporting you the best way I know how. I can't possibly understand what your going through but I hate that you have to go through it. I couldn't explain it away or justify it with my religion, my God, or through any other means... it just sucks. Its hard and terrible and it sucks. You are a wonderful, beautiful person who absolutely didn't deserve this, religion or no religion. I hope that your future will be full of joy and love and good things to bring your family peace and happiness and to honor the memory of your sweet, beautiful little Elli

  9. I am another non-believer who lives in the South, and you are right - it is hard to be true to your true feelings without risking feeling shunned or at least having to deflect and defend against the many church-goers around us. I lost my dad to brain cancer a year ago and have struggled so much with the comments I've received from others tied to beliefs - "He's in a better place" - "It was god's plan" - you've heard all of them too, I'm sure. One thing that plagues me is something you've touched on: the way religious people pray for HEALING, yet they believe in a god that has a plan. Do they think that they are so important that by praying they can convince that god to make adjustments in that plan? If they are going to pray for something specific, shouldn't it be for strength so that they (or whomever they are praying for) can withstand whatever the Plan has in store for them???

    Two things I learned during my dad's illness and since his death are that joy is a function of perspective (in fact - I've started a blog on that) AND that it's POSSIBLE to feel connected to those who have "gone on ahead," which can be of comfort to us if we choose to let it be, regardless of whether or not we have PROOF.

    Thank you for writing; I appreciate your insight and your voice.