My child is not in heaven: Your religion only makes my grief harder

Nov 3, 2015


When I tell people about the death of my infant daughter, they often respond that she is in heaven. They tell me that she is an angel now. They tell me that she’s with God. But as an atheist, these words have never brought me any comfort.

My daughter was born three years ago. I went into pre-term labor at 22 weeks gestation, and try as they might, the doctors could not keep her here with us. Her short life, just eight hours long, has marked my life and my husband’s life deeply. Margaret Hope (or Maggie, as we refer to her) continues to exist with us in her own way, but this persistence has absolutely nothing to do with god or Jesus or angels or any other specific afterworld. This is what works for us as parents. It’s what works for about two percent of the U.S. population who currently identify as atheists, and for about 20 percent who are agnostic or unaffiliated with any particular set of beliefs.

Being an atheist in a believer’s world can be difficult at times, especially when some of the more fervently religious are close family or friends. It’s even more daunting when faced with grief and death. Christians believe that when we die, we either go to heaven or hell. Many, of course, believe babies go to heaven because they are, well, babies. When our daughter died, my husband requested to have our baby baptized, fearing in some way for her soul, a remnant of his Catholic upbringing. There was no time for a traditional baptism while she was alive but her NICU doctor performed the rite for her while we held her in our arms for the first time, our tiny, frail, lifeless daughter whose eyes never even got a chance to see. It felt bizarre to me, but I allowed it because my husband was suffering and it seemed to bring him some comfort. Later, as reality hit harder, he would lose all faith as I had done.

After we left the hospital, we were faced with the task of whether or not to hold some sort of memorial service for Maggie. Part of me wanted to go to the Unitarian Universalist church, as that is the only place I’d been where I felt like my agnostic views were still respected, where I could still enjoy some semblance of spirituality while remaining non-religious. At the time, however, I was an emotional mess and could not do much to contact anyone or even make any suggestions.

Fortunately, my brother stepped up and arranged a service at a church in Miami Beach (where Maggie “lived” for most of her brief life). While it was technically a Christian church, the fact that they were supportive of the LGBTQA community, plus their commitment to serving the homeless made me feel like this was a place I would be comfortable bringing my daughter, even after death. In a small, cosmic joke, we also appreciated the fact that the pastor was named “Hunter” Thompson.

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2 comments on “My child is not in heaven: Your religion only makes my grief harder

  • LGBTQA- what is QA?
    Seriously?! Can’t there be an alternative to endless letter adding?
    Questioning- Aromantic…
    Sometimes I border on feeling aromantic and asexual, but does it really need to be tacked onto LGBT?
    I was emphathizing with the author but lost it with the LGBTQALMNOP bit.

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  • QA

    According to web sources – question / queer, ally / asexual – universities use it to help students.

    Too many notes?!? I agree these can bog down reading, but are (usually) needed for clarity. Read on: { Salon }.

    Some parents, whose child died of natural causes or abuse, post photos with “comforting” Christian images. To an extent I sympathize – elephants, and other primates mourn by carrying, or gathering at the site. Loss is unacceptable.

    That said, I empathize with the author. When a relative says mom & dad are “watching down” on us, it brings no comfort (sometimes I’ve the feeling it’s used as a mild admonition (do the right thing!). Unlike a birth celebration, there’s no one pat way to deal with death.

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