"A Complicated Grief"
September 15, 2014 7:43 PM   Subscribe

A Catholic woman grapples with the death of her sister's newborn baby.
We first learn about the complications with my sister’s pregnancy on Mother’s Day weekend. My sister is rushed to the doctor, and the doctors think she may be having a miscarriage. She is put on bed rest until she can go back to the doctor on Monday to find out if the baby still has a heartbeat. “All we can do is pray,” my family keeps saying, though I am not always sure if saying such things means that we’re resigned to our seeming helplessness or attempting one last-ditch effort for control. I know that prayer can change the way we look at a situation, but I don’t care about that at the moment; I just want my prayer to change the outcome.
[Contains religiosity but not evangelism]
posted by Charity Garfein (18 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

That was really beautiful; thanks for posting this.
posted by hopeless romantique at 8:53 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

My brother and his wife went through something very similar when their daughter passed as a newborn. I wish this had been available to send to them. Thanks for posting.
posted by Jubey at 9:12 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having lived through a similar experience, I can say I never felt that there was any sense of God's grace in what happened, or the aftermath. If there is a god and an afterlife, I hope I get a chance to ask that dude some rather pointed questions. An all powerful God shouldn't allow babies to die.
posted by Windopaene at 9:19 PM on September 15, 2014 [12 favorites]

Belief in a loving god or gods makes everything impossible painful, and believers are forced to erect ever-more-complicated edifices of mythology to explain away what is basically unexplainable - that a god who supposedly loves us forces the most innocent among us to live short lives of unimaginable suffering for no apparent reason. It makes me angry that people in grief are saddled with such nonsense on top of their pain. I find nothing beautiful in it.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:09 PM on September 15, 2014 [16 favorites]

@1adam12: Of course, going up to someone who has endured pain and saying, "Really, there's a way that this all makes sense or is okay" is monstrous. The only thing as monstrous is saying, "I know you suffered a lot but there's not really any reason or purpose to it." Pain is inexplicable and inscrutable. There are no narratives that you can apply to it other than your own and even then, explanations of pain are generally desperate and vague attempts at feeling like all is not lost. I respect how anyone processes pain.
posted by koavf at 10:19 PM on September 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

I came in at first to post something similar to what Windopaene said. I am not religious and at first reading I bristled at the idea that the author was trying to say there is any grace or evidence of God's love in the loss of a baby. It's normal to try to find larger meaning in these things but I just can't.

And yet as I re-read the article I realized that I could relate to this part of it:
Perhaps my prayer should not have been to suffer instead of my sister but to suffer with, to truly exist compassionately, to have asked for “grief with her grief and anguish with her anguish.” We cannot always take away someone’s suffering, but we can walk beside them, help them carry their burdens and in that way be able to walk farther together.
We learned that our friends and family are capable of even more grace, compassion and kindness than we already thought. There were many people who, though they couldn't take away the sadness and hurt my SO and I felt at our loss, were there with us in our sadness, telling us they would share the burden of our grief. It did help.

And I'm definitely changed because of this experience. I've learned some things I did not know before. However, I can't say that's a positive thing; I would rather have gone to my grave without the benefit of these "life lessons" I've learned. They're overrated as character-building experiences.
And, if I cannot always, as James asks, see all of it as joy, perhaps I can at least find a way to see the moments of joy in the pain, the grace and kindness of the doctors who treated my sister, the priest who slept in the hospital waiting room in order to baptize the baby at a moment’s notice.
I don't believe there are any moments of joy at all in the pain, though I agree with the author there are moments of grace and kindness. The only reason anyone perseveres through suffering is because there aren't a whole lot of other options.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:12 PM on September 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

After a pregnancy fraught with hyperemesis gravidarum and other problems resulting in miscarriage, at my worst, most vulnerable point--when I had virtually no emotional support from any direction--a sister-in-law approached me to say, "God gives us only what we can handle." A bucket of ice water would have been a kinder response, or a hard slap in the face.

Religion has never made sense to me and probably never will. I actually found this essay painful to read--it seemed like an agonized attempt to validate the universe's cruel randomness.
posted by kinnakeet at 3:33 AM on September 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am kind of surprised we're going with the " religion is dumb" derail when I would have thought it would be the "pro-life" tone of the article. It's subtler than most but there. While the author does make beautiful points about suffering and finding moments of grace amidst tragedy, the more interesting story to me is that the parents knew rather early on that the child would not live more than a few hours -assuming the pregnancy even continued to full term - and decided to continue anyway. Was it just religion? Was it denial of the ultimate outcome? Or did they really feel those few hours with their daughter would be worth it? (And was it worth it for either them or their daughter?)
posted by bgal81 at 7:08 AM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Religion has never made sense to me and probably never will. I actually found this essay painful to read--it seemed like an agonized attempt to validate the universe's cruel randomness.

Sorry in advance for the long personal reflection I'm about to post here. I've been dealing with questions of faith and tragedy for a long time now.

The most vocal strain of religion in America today is shallow and naive in a way that causes pain and insult for people going through tragedy. It is one of my primary sources of annoyance with Christendom, and something that pushes me away from church life again and again.

Everyone has a story of tragedy; multiple stories of tragedies. In the summer of 1999 I was packing to move to a seminary and begin my graduate education in theology. I was living in Lubbock, Texas at the time. One of the churches in the town always takes busloads of teens to a youth camp in the mountains of New Mexico, and on the particular summer a horrible tragedy struck. A trailer driving the other direction swiped the side of the buses as they were coming back from camp, causing a horrific accident. Seven teens died, all girls. Dozens others were injured. The whole town was thrown into mourning.

I was acquaintances with the driver of one of the buses, and had many friend-of-a-friend connections with other people touched by the tragedy. It made national news at the time, and spurred all the usual theological wrangling, especially in a town as churchy as Lubbock. There was--I'm a little foggy on the details 15 years later--some sort of massive memorial service in addition to the individual funeral arrangements. Thousands of people gathered to honor the lives of the girls who had died. And I'm sure many wonderful, helpful, comforting things were said, but the only thing I remember--the thing that kept buzzing in my ears so loud I couldn't hear anything that came after--was one of the speakers thanking God for sparing the lives of the people who survived the wreck.

I know why he said that. We all know why. There are scriptural injunctions to praise God for all good things. He's long been taught that it's important to cultivate an attitude of gratefulness for whatever blessings you have. He wanted to be able to say "look, God has done something!"

But it's all nonsense, of course. I'd love to ask him what exactly he thinks God did. Because there are no good answers to that. Did God shift the trailer a bit so that the tragedy was somehow less catastrophic than it might have been? Then he intentionally chose not to shift it two inches more and avoid the wreck altogether, and there for he intentionally chose to let those girls die. Did he save some people who were supposed to died that day by holding them down in their seats, or moving them to safe spot in the back? Why didn't he do that for others? It is impossible to thank God for saving one person without simultaneously acknowledging that he had the power save everyone but chose to let seven die. If a firefighter, called to a burning school, rescued twenty kids and then sat down for a lunch break and listened dispassionately while seven more died, we would not publicly thank him for saving the twenty, we would call him a monster for ignoring the seven. And yet, people thank God in the same scenario all the time, and I don't understand it. Living in Texas, I hear people thank God continually for their big new house, their shiny car, their exciting job, and it's all I can do not to end a dozen friendships by saying "I'm glad you have a new big house, but if God is going to intervene in human affairs, I would much rather he give a house to someone who is homeless, rather than a bigger house to someone who already had shelter. God's got a weird set of priorities if you are right." Sometimes people offer to pray for me, and I ask them to pray for peace in the Middle East. "Once God's dealt the with big stuff, he can help me pay my bills. First things first. My life isn't in danger."

I say all this as someone who is trying to hold on to some kind of faith. The bent of my personality is naturally toward skepticism, and I have a great many atheist friends. I share much more in common with them than with the evangelical crowd. And yet...the church provided me a kind of a large substitute family when my own was abusing me badly. Most of the best moments of friendship and camaraderie have come because of the church. My highest highs, my most profound moments of contemplation, all came via the church. My personal ethics are indelibly shaped by the life of Jesus, and I am grateful for that. I know others have been burned by the church (and I've had those moments, too, especially during my former career in ministry) but a lot of good things came my way, too.

I try to remember--and here I'm diving fully into a Christian perspective, be warned--that all the nonsense about God rescuing people isn't a core or even integral part of the Christian story. In fact, it shouts out a lot of the core teachings of Jesus, who said things like "in this world you will have trouble, but I leave with you my peace," and "blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." I mean this is a religion where the lead story is God letting his son die, and where the chief exemplars of the faith are primarily martyrs. No one should sign on to Christianity expecting an easy, happy life, and the only reason anyone does is because American Christianity is usually a sort of untenable mix of Jesus and the American Dream, where Jesus died and the apostles died and he said to take up your cross and follow him, but somehow he really meant live comfortably in your McMansion.

All of which is to say there is a kind of faith that I think makes reasonable sense that basically boils down to "life is going to have a lot of pain, and God, rather than exempting us from it, chose not to exempt himself." And maybe that's annoying and inscrutable and not what we want, but what we get is a martyr god who will set all things right in the end and calls us to walk with the poor and suffering offering what help and comfort we can in the meantime. Saying something like "God needed her in heaven" is not just stupid, it's borderline blasphemous. The more authentic Christian message is just "I'm so sorry, and I am here for you."

Which is what Jesus promised, and I think what this article is moving toward. Jesus never once promised to save anyone's life or relieve their suffering. His big promise is "I am with you always." So if I squint and hold my head just right I can see a sort of faith that trust that Jesus is somehow walking with us in tragedy and propelling us to comfort others. That's the only kind of Christianity that could possibly work, because God clearly isn't stopping all suffering, and the kind of God who saves these 20 and lets these seven die is no better than a devil. So for me it's either no god at all or a god who bears suffering with us rather than relieve it.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:26 AM on September 16, 2014 [105 favorites]

I am kind of surprised we're going with the " religion is dumb" derail

Is that really what you are getting from our comments? Because I don't think it's as simplistic or insulting as "religion is dumb." I think that's quite an uncharitable reading of what several of us have said. I think it's more that religion is often touted as being comforting, but for many, it doesn't provide comfort at all. How is this a derail?

And yes, I did think about what it meant that the parents knew the baby would not live long past birth and chose to carry to term anyway. But I didn't comment on it because I thought the article was about pain and grief and the purpose/role of religion, and also because the choice to carry to term--or not--is intensely personal for each person, and none of my business.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:25 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

But how they use religion to process their grief is your business? If we're going with the angle that some things are too personal than what is the topic here?
posted by bgal81 at 8:50 AM on September 16, 2014

I was coming here to write about my personal experiences of having faith and losing faith, but I think that Peter Aletheias got most of it right (although I came out to a different conclusion on my end). I find no difficulty in someone asking for comfort and solace from a higher power. I would love for that to be available. But if that power is the be-all and end-all, the first and the last, the alpha and the omega, then it seems logically inescapable that the power is responsible, in some sense, and in some portion, for the suffering in the first place.

Maybe there's something in the Greek and Roman and Hindu and Confucian spirituality, where there is less all-knowing and all-powerful, and more of a sense of domain and limit. Maybe if the Christian god were limited in some sense, before or after creation, so that he or she is doing the best they can in the shitty situation they were saddled with, maybe then I could believe and accept. But those imperfections and limitations are not permitted to that god. And it makes no sense to me to worship the one who hurts me.

Just as some people find solace in the grace of their god, I find solace in the uncaring, random universe. Sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes it's individual, sometimes it's collective. This woman's neice died, Peter's community lost seven young women... earthquakes, volcanoes, fire.... Would it be better if it had a traceable cause? Or infinitely worse, knowing that we could do absolutely nothing about the perpetrator?
posted by aureliobuendia at 9:15 AM on September 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Many years ago, I attended the funeral of a baby who died of what we then called SIDS when she was just a few months old.

The minister said during the service, "Sometimes when tragedies happen, people become closer to God. And that's a good thing. But that in no way makes it 'better' or 'okay' that this little girl died. It is still a tragedy. It breaks our hearts and we mourn her loss no less."

I give him a lot of respect for that. I felt like he was able to be true to his beliefs without in any way negating the awfulness of having a little baby die for no apparent reason.
posted by janey47 at 9:42 AM on September 16, 2014 [12 favorites]

Pater Alethias, your comment is very thoughtful and helps me gain some insight into what the process could be like for someone wrestling with how their faith can be reconciled with the reality that sometimes, terrible things happen. Thank you.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:02 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

All of which is to say there is a kind of faith that I think makes reasonable sense that basically boils down to "life is going to have a lot of pain, and God, rather than exempting us from it, chose not to exempt himself."

Thank you.

I often tend to get a big vague with my atheist friends, and say that I accompany my mother to church (Anglican, C of E) because it means a lot to her or because I like the music (and both are true). But I have personal reasons as well, which I don't usually talk about with anyone. What you just expressed here comes very close to my personal truth and views, and I'll leave it there.
posted by jokeefe at 1:53 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I registered just to comment on this thread (actually to MeMail Pater Aletheias)

Just over 5 years ago, My wife and I lost our first child - a son - at birth. The pregnancy was normal, his development was normal, but due to some complications during delivery, he never drew his first breath.

At that time, I identified strongly as Christian. Through the devastation of that loss, I drew upon my faith - and the faith, love and support of my friends and family (both biological and church) to get me through that ordeal.

What I saw was Christianity working the way it was supposed to: People coming together to love and support someone who was in deep, deep pain: Crying with you, bringing meals, helping generously with financial needs, and, most importantly, just being there -- not with platitudes, but just sitting there, willing to listen.

I might've heard "God won't give you what you can't handle" a time or two, and in a way, it's true. I'm still here. My wife is too. Our marriage is intact (with 2 kids added since then)

I'm on the fence now as far as God goes (or organized religion, at least) but I have to say, my Church family is awesome and does Christianity right.
posted by wavy at 3:16 PM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

The article itself felt kind of "incomplete" to me, but I wanted to comment anyway to share that I too have struggled with my faith after losing my three month old baby. What has been the most difficult for me to accept (I still haven't) is not the fact of his death, but all the suffering he had in his life because of all that time in the hospital. Medical procedure after medical procedure were made to him, out of a big big hope of his survival, but in the end we had to let him go and all I was left with was anger and anguish and a DEEP spiritual exhaustion. I still have a lot of terrible images in my head of the things that happened to him, and it makes me so sad and question "why why WHY".

Thanks Pater Aletheias for your comment and to the others for sharing a bit of their experience.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:17 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

That was beautiful and painful. Thank you for posting it, and thank you to everybody who's contributed to the discussion.
posted by Lexica at 9:24 PM on September 17, 2014

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