The Only Athiests in the Congregation? 

On Sunday past Simon and I went to a rememberance service for babies held at the cemetery where Isobel is buried. We had discussed beforehand if it was likely to be a religious service, I thought because the cemetery itself is a municipal and non-denominational one, and because it was in collaboration with the health trust, that the service would be largely secular. 

Unfortunately for us that wasn’t the case. As soon as we opened the order of service and saw the extent of the Christian religious content, we knew we had made a mistake in going, but it would have caused too much of a commotion to walk out. And so we stayed, in a room full to standing room only of bereaved parents, like us, but seemingly not like us. 

The content included a reading about how all the days ordained for us are written in god’s book before they come to be. If someone was planning this life out, I could really have done without the day my daughter died and those that followed! There was the usual pseudo comforting rubbish about heaven. Yawn. The hymn that really baffled me though was the one about how we know we can always trust god. Experience of all those present would suggest otherwise. Who could trust someone who had either decided to kill your child, or stood by and watched them die when they had the power to save them? 
I wondered how others in the congregation felt about the words they were listening to. Were Simon and I the only ones who didn’t believe a word of the assurances of a loving god who cares what happens to those on earth and the promises of seeing their baby again one day? Are we really the only people who finds the idea of a god who could fail to intervene, letting all these babies die and all these families suffer, completely unforgivable? Is it just us who sees the hypocrisy in praising a god when anything good happens, yet failing to hold them to account for the bad? I wondered if the religious content is something that most bereaved parents want or is there just a lack of imagination to plan a beautiful rememberance service without resorting to biblical readings? 

I always used to wonder how my atheism would be affected when someone close to me died. I wondered if I would be so desperate to believe that I would be reunited with them, that I would start to believe in a god and a heaven. If anything, losing Isobel has reinforced my certainty that there is no god, that religion is a man made, politically driven enterprise which preys on humans’ desire to feel that they can have some control over their lives and to allay fears of dying. I’m glad that I don’t have to try and reconcile belief in a loving god with their failure to protect the most vulnerable and most innocent of their people. The idea of Isobel being anywhere without me would cause me extreme distress, not comfort. I am reassured that I don’t think of her as existing anywhere and yet I can still find her in nature, in beauty. I feel all the more keenly my need to make the most of the one life that I have, knowing that is all there is. I find it tragic to think of other bereaved mothers living their days, ticking time away, believing they will be reunited with their baby someday. 

I fully recognise that for some, belief in a god can be a comfort, and I do not wish to offend those who do believe. I know that anything that helps a person to cope with losing their child is a positive thing. I just genuinely don’t understand how anyone in this century can believe, or would even want to. It’s something I really can’t get my head around. 

I would love to have more, fully respectful, discussions on the topic if anyone feels like commenting… 

Maybe… 

Maybe you wanted a perfectly natural water birth with limited pain medication, and instead you had to face the disappointment of having medical intervention and giving birth in a bed. Please take a moment to imagine the extent of the disappointment of saying goodbye to all your hopes and dreams for your baby in the moment you find our their heart is no longer beating. 

Maybe your labour was frighteningly  long and difficult, maybe you even experienced the trauma of an emergency Caesarian section. Try now, if you can, to imagine the fear of facing labour knowing your baby is already dead and what will be placed in your arms at the end of the ordeal, is a dead body. Allow yourself to think about the trauma of seeing your precious baby lifeless and cold, her greying skin failing to become pink, her eyes never opening.

Maybe your baby spent some time in special care, maybe you had to be separated from them for a time. Think though of the mother who leaves hospital knowing her baby will be placed in a freezer when she departs. This mother soon will have to place her baby in a tiny coffin and watch the lid being placed on, knowing she will never, ever see her child’s face again. 

Maybe breastfeeding was painful or didn’t work out and you weren’t able to feed your baby the way you wanted to. Please spare a thought for the mother whose body doesn’t understand that there is no baby to feed, who has to take medication to stop her breasts from leaking milk in the shower as she cries. Maybe you’re spending hours feeding as your baby is going through a growth spurt and your sole purpose in a day is to feed your baby. Please be thankful that you are not the mother who feels she no longer has any purpose in life at all now her baby is gone, who has endless hours to fill and no desire or motivation to do anything. 

Maybe your baby cries constantly and doesn’t sleep through the night and you’re exhausted. Imagine though how much worse it could be, to have never heard your baby make a single sound. To lie awake at night revisisiting over and over against your will the moment you found out she had died, the labour, the funeral, only to eventually fall asleep and have nightmares filled with terror and death. Imagine crying so hard that you can’t breathe and don’t know how you will ever stop crying, knowing that it should be the cries of a hungry baby that are heard in your house, not these animal like wails of pure anguish. 

Maybe you’re finding it hard to lose the baby weight and you dislike your stretch marks. How would you feel about your body if it had caused the death of your baby? How would you cope with a post-natal body and no baby, nothing to show for all that you have been through?

Maybe you and your partner are snapping at each other, both tired from looking after the baby, fighting over who is the most tired and who has changed more dirty nappies. I wonder if you can picture the conflict between a couple so weighed down by grief, so divided by differing coping strategies, trying to encourage each other to face the world when neither wants to be alive themselves. 

Maybe you’re not getting out as much as you used to, it’s hard to get coordinated to leave the house and the baby needs fed so frequently it’s hardly worth going out. Think about how difficult it is for the bereaved mother to leave the house. She is terrified of being confronted with pregnant women or babies, of being overtaken by a flashback, of meeting someone who last saw her when she was pregnant and having to explain what happened, and that any one of these things (or a million other unexpected triggers) will overwhelm her and she will humiliate herself by breaking down in public. 

Maybe you get sad when it’s time to pack away the newborn clothes and move up a size. You are nostalgic for that tiny newborn baby and wish they wouldn’t grow up so fast. Now imagine yourself packing away the newborn clothes, all unworn aside from the outfit you chose for your baby to be buried in. Imagine deciding what to do with the nappies, the wipes, the creams, the muslin cloths, the blankets, the soft toys, all carefully chosen for a baby who never came home. Imagine putting a bin bag over the rocker that your husband excitedly assembled and putting it in the atic. Imagine returning the travel system that you fell in love with and researched for hours, because you need the money back after paying for a funeral and a cemetery plot. 

Maybe you’re dreading leaving your baby and going back to work. What do you think it would be like coming back to work when you should still be off with your baby? Meeting people every day who know what happened and don’t know what to say to you, so mostly don’t even mention that you had a baby and she died. Or meeting people who don’t know what happened, who ask if you had a boy or a girl and how old are they now. How would you deal with the awkwardness that ensues when you talk about your loss? 

Maybe everyone around irritates you with opinions on how to parent your child. Unsolicited advice comes from every direction, trying your patience. Maybe you lose touch with some old friends who aren’t interested in babies. Now try to put yourself in the shoes of a mother who has lost her child. Some family members will always say the wrong thing, upsetting you with religious platitudes, worse though will be those who want to pretend that your baby never existed or was just something not meant to be. Friends you’ve supported through work problems, family problems, and break ups will just vanish. Others will say they are there for you, but no thank you it would be too upsetting to see a picture of your child or to hear about your pain. Less than four months after your baby’s death you will be told by the closest of family that you have been going on about your loss for too long and that it is time to move on. 

Maybe you’re impatient for your little one to smile, to roll over or whatever their next development goal is. What if you knew that your baby would never meet any of their milestones, they will never smile, never say ‘Mama’, they will never walk, sing a song, play with a toy or go to school? What if you have to face a whole life without your baby, your toddler, your child, your teenager, your adult child, your grandchildren? 

Maybe it’s time consuming and expensive to plan a birthday party. Maybe your house gets wrecked, you have a headache by the end of the day and you think next year you’re not even going to have a party. But imagine having an anniversary instead of a birthday. Imagine having to decide how you will memorialise your dead child. Imagine going to visit a cemetery and seeing your beautiful daughter’s name carved on a headstone, while you can’t help but picture her little body degrading in a coffin beneath your feet. 

It is hugely challenging to be a mother but maybe for some, motherhood presents extreme challenges and few rewards.

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe there is a bereaved mother out there who would give anything to have your problems. Maybe she wishes that just for one moment, you could know how it feels to be her. 

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I can’t post this without acknowledging just how hypocritical it is! Having a rainbow baby, I have at times caught myself in moments of complaining about some of the above challenges, as grateful as I am to have them. But I was compelled to write this after a friend (who knows exactly what I’ve been through) said she would only tell me her birth story if I wasn’t planning on having any more children as it was soooooooo traumatic! “Are you alive? Is your baby alive? Then don’t talk to me about trauma!” I know it’s unfair but just how I’m currently feeling!!! I listen to Mums at various classes complaining every day about one thing or another. I wish that just for one second they could know what the alternative feels like.