This is not strictly a post about pregnancy loss, or grief, or our recovery. However, I do feel like it's relevant to all of those things, because this post is about something that has an influence on all of us, whether it's directly part of your life or not - the shadow (and light) of it hangs over human society, subtly altering our experience just by existing. It also has a direct relevance to loss and grief, because often it is the place people turn in times of difficulty. And it has the potential to upset some people.
This post is about religion.
It's about my personal relationship with religion, and how it has figured into my grieving process. It's not intended to offend or upset anyone - it's just my view of the world. I want to state upfront that I don't have any issue with the practice of religion, providing it's not used as a stick to beat others with (and to me that is the fault of the person practising it, not the religion itself). I think "Faith", in it's many forms, can be a wonderful thing. That being said, here we go . . .
I was raised as a Christian, specifically Roman Catholic. I went to Christian schools. We went to church on Sundays. I studied religious education at school (I even took an advance university course on it for extra credit - what a nerd). I played in the church band. I was even an altar boy for a little while.
Somewhere around the age of 15 or 16, when my rebellious streak was at it's streakiest, I decided I didn't want to go to church any more. To me, it felt stale, repetitive. I'd sit in my pew and listen to the congregation mumble the words by rote. There was no feeling to it, no passion, and I thought - how can God be here? How can this be God? I found energy and passion, and love in other things - mainly music at that time, but also nature, and friendship, and (even though I was too cool for them at that age) family.
I remember the conversation with my parents. They understood my reasons, and they respected my opinion. They were not zealots, they were never going to disown me for giving up religion. They certainly weren't fundamentalist about scripture - if I'd told them I was gay, they would have been cool with that. But Church wasn't just a religious thing for them - it was a family activity. Every Sunday after mass we'd chat outside the Church with other families, and often a big group would meet at someone's place for morning tea. That was a big part of the weekend, and of my upbringing. I remember cream donuts from Mt Eden Bakery as a staple. Also, I had two younger brothers. If I was allowed to skip out on Church it would create issues with them. I could believe what I liked, they said - but while I lived in their house, I needed to continue to participate in this family routine.
As a parent, I get that instinct now, As a teenager, I wasn't having it. I was just at that age where rules of any sort felt like a righteous injustice that I had to battle with all the fire and brimstone of a civil rights activist (what do you mean I have to have wear a collared shirt for our family photo??! Form the picket lines!) and this was about my beliefs. It felt too important to let go. It also felt like a giant waste of time to sit in church for an hour and listen to something that I had no interest in. I could be doing better things with my time, like sleeping (hey, I was a teenager). I was also over the post-Church morning tea thing. Most of the other teens my age where no longer attending them, and even if they were, we were often from different schools or cliques, it's not like when you're 5 and everyone is your mate.
We argued. I shouted. They shouted. I reasoned, they reasoned. Things got emotional, then heated. In a typically teen melodramatic finish, I punctuated a final "NO!" by punching a hole in the living room wall. It was stupid, destructive, unnecessary. If my child ever does something like that, I'll be so pissed. Weirdly, it also worked. My parents eventually told me that, if I felt that strongly, I didn't have to go to Church, that they would explain it to my brothers. I had "won", but like a child who gets their way by throwing a tantrum (isn't that exactly what I'd done?) I felt a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. The outcome was right, I thought - but I didn't like how we'd got there. In a final flourish of irony, the hole in the wall was covered with a picture of Jesus (honestly I think it just fit the gap, it wasn't a veiled message. I think.).
Now that I had my spiritual freedom, of course I used it for very deep and enlightened things - video games, girls, sleep. I didn't think too deeply about religion or the existence of God for a long time. I suppose if you'd have asked me, I would have considered myself an agnostic - I felt there was some sort of higher presence there, and (maybe out of habit from childhood), at times of great need or sadness, I'd turn to It. It wasn't so much "praying" as a request for strength, a hail Mary pass when I really needed something to go right for me. So it was a pretty selfish view of "God" I guess.
My wife is not religious, and religion wasn't part of her upbringing. Her Dad is technically Anglican, but he doesn't practice, and her Mum has no religion I'm aware of. It just wasn't part of her life. She was fascinated by my history, in a "look at that weird fish, why does it have blue spots" kind of way. We talked about our beliefs, and agreed if we had kids, we didn't want them to be raised in any religion. We felt they should be able to make their own choices, and I thought from my experience that my early exposure to religion had taken away some of that choice - it was already in my head, before I truly had the ability to decide if I wanted it there (but then again, maybe the ethics and guiding principles of Christianity helped me to not grow up a jerk? OK not a total jerk . . .).
Although I am not religious, I remain intrigued and fascinated by faiths of all kind - Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. In recent years, having done more thinking and some more reading on the subject of God (I can recommend this and this especially), and come to the conclusion that I'm definitely an atheist now. For me, there is just no good evidence of the existence of a Creator. I'm not ruling it out completely, but in order to function in the world, we all have to make some base assumptions about what is true - and I hold the non-existence of a God as one of those truths. You don't need to be 100% certain of these assumptions in order to act on them either - I also can't rule out the possibility that (as some scientists and Elon Musk apparently believe) all of reality is an illusion and we are in a Matrix-style simulation - but to be safe, I'm going to avoid jumping off roofs and trying to dodge bullets.
So, all this is to say that, when we had our annus horriblus in 2016, losing our baby, my wife's physical and mental well being, and almost losing ourselves along the way, we didn't have a religious life raft to cling to. We were on our own, in the real world, with our grief. We had to work through it ourselves, learning to swim together, keeping each other afloat. I can't speak to whether that is a good or a bad thing, whether having a religion would have grounded us in some way - or whether it would have made it even harder, whether the events of 2016 would have made us call our religion into question, and then you're adding a spiritual crossroads to everything else you've got going on.
I can say I've never been tempted (tempted? Isn't that a weirdly biblical choice of words?) to go back to Christianity, or any religion for that matter. I respect aspects of religious life - the community, the structure, the history, the rituals and the way they reflect meaning. I can honestly see benefits, right down to the physical - religion is calming, grounding, it gives you a platform to build off. I also find it limiting. It's prescriptive, and in my opinion the prescriptions are often not founded on any basis of fact or research.
I feel like I can get the same benefits from other forms of ritual - meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling - and I personally find meaning and connected-ness in nature more than any Church. When I'm rowing a boat at night on a glassy lake and I look up at the stars, the world is beautiful and wondrous enough for me without needing to bring God into it.
That's not to say you can't or shouldn't believe and still process your grief effectively. I guess one way religion could be useful in dealing with pregnancy loss is the practice of "faith" - that is, the ability to envision and believe in something that's not physically "there". I suppose my love for my daughter is really an act of faith - I've never met her, I never truly "saw" her or held her in my arms. I have various artefacts that provide some basis for belief (pictures of the scan, her ashes) and various symbols that represent a concept of her (rainbows, certain songs, a bracelet I wear with her and Sam's initials). These things, and what they prompt in my head, are my relationship with her, and, being a practical, physical person I struggle with that sometimes. Maybe having a religious practice would help me to hold her in my mind and heart in a more "real" way?
When I was very young, maybe 5 or 6, I can remember going to Church and thinking that the Priest actually was God. Like, God is up there on the altar, he's come here specifically for a chat with us. Which is weird, because we went to different churches sometimes, so I knew there were different priests. I guess the way I thought of it, God is magic, he can be who he wants, like a shapeshifter. And He was definitely a "he" in my mind - the idea of a female or even gender-neutral God hadn't crossed my mind. Which again, is silly - if there is a God, why would he/she have a gender? What possible purpose could that serve, beyond giving us a pronoun to call him/her by? But this is a good example of how even believing in what you see can deceive you. I genuinely thought I saw God, and all of the ritual and rhythm supported that belief, but in the end it was just some dude in a white robe.
I suppose it doesn't matter how silly or crazy your beliefs are. If they matter deeply to you, they are real - whether that's the existence of God, or whether you really lost a child. And if those beliefs enrich your life (and as long as they don't hurt anyone else), they're worth holding onto. If I have a "faith" these days, that's it - believe in what strengthens you - let the rest of it go. And of course, after recent devastating events in our country it's important that we see people's beliefs as being their own business. It's our job as human beings to accept everyone no matter what their faith, or lack thereof. We are all human, we are all alive, and life is precious.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.