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

  • Any distressing situation tends to lead to theists making a grab for the head-wrapping, religious comfort-blanket! – with offers to share it, used to drag vulnerable others into their irrational blinkered thinking, at times of stress!

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  • Theists can also be deliberately cruel. My father and I were very close. What he did was protect me as a child from being indoctrinated until I could think for myself. So from the time I was nine and I got kicked out of vacation bible school for asking “why” and saying things like “That doesn’t make sense.” (Nine year olds haven’t learned to be PC thank God.) So I have been secular for quite a while. Needless to say neither of use fit in the bible belt of the southern US.
    The sad thing that happen was when he died I was out of the country so his brothers and sisters rushed his funeral through so I won’t be there to protect him and they could have the full religious BS funeral. If I believed in ghosts I’m sure there was some major haunting going on.

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  • Willow – are you in a tiny minority where you live, or do you actually get to meet people that think like you even if you’re living in the ‘bible belt’?

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  • Erol, I’ve recently physically met ONE person who thinks similarly to me on religious matters. He and I quickly became very good friends. What is not surprising is he is originally from Long Island so a northern transplant and a recovering Catholic. Otherwise its the Internet.

    What is sad I’ve of had to censor the books I physically keep around the house. So its no physical copy of “The God Delusion” around the house. Thank goodness for the Kindle!

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  • Willow – thanks for your response. It beggars belief that a young and vibrant nation such as America can have so many of its people that are still wedded to religious beliefs after the leaps and bounds in scientific advance over recent years. Don’t they teach about fossil discoveries and evolution in schools in your part of the country?

    Lapses in education in the third world can be excused perhaps, but not in the USA I would like to think.

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  • Erol, I know I still can’t belief that America is so backward. I would be very surprised if evolution is even mentioned in the schools around here. If so the teacher probably ridicules it and teaches creative design. The teacher may know better but he/she wants to keep working
    It is hard to fathom the power of the religious believers. A few months ago I saw a cartoon of a daughter starting to tell her father about something scientific. His response was “I don’t care. All I want to know about science is in the bible.” Sadly that is really typical and the red necks are proud of their ignorance.

    Of course you know if you add up all the begets in the bible you come up with the age of the earth being 6,500 years. Not all Christians say they believe that but most do. Even among the old earth Christians they ignore evidence and/or try to fit it to their mystical creation beliefs.

    A few weeks ago one of these old earth Christians said that even Darwin said that evolution can’t explain the Cambrian Life explosion so that refutes evolution. Ignoring the fact that the fossils of that geologic event weren’t even discovered until twenty years AFTER Darwin’s death.

    I’m proud to say I didn’t grow up here. So of course I was exposed to evolution, fossils, and other scientific developments. My personal prediction in the sixties was that religion would be moribund in the US by two thousand. I think you can judge how well that prediction turned out. 🙁

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  • If the “comforters” did not know that you were an atheist, then I’m not surprised by what they said. They meant well but it must have seemed like they were rubbing salt into your wounds. The loss of a child or even a quick brush with death for one of them can tear parents up in ways that others cannot understand. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to say nothing at all but to help the parents in practical ways and to be there if they need to talk to someone. I am sorry that you did not get what you needed. And by way of disclosure, I am an evangelical Christian but one who doesn’t go along with hating those who disagree with me. I hope that things will get better for you over time.

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  • I find it odd that atheists can be stricken with such misplaced grief when they lose a loved one. They know (or believe they know) that their loved one is gone and is no longer suffering, their memory of their short life on earth is obliterated and their existence is only a memory in their parents’ minds. Yet this mother – who of course wasted nine months of her life and a massive amount of effort nurturing her foetus and giving birth, probably in excruciating pain – seems not to resent the waste but instead resents the reactions of the people around her. An attitude like that causes her to immediately resent those people (some of whom might actually get to read the article) and she puts up a selfish shield around herself, which does neither her nor her friends any good at all. Being a seemingly intelligent woman I would have thought her best approach would be to try to understand their position a little better, remembering how she might have spoken to bereaved friends and relatives in the past, and try to realise that it’s a very awkward position to be in.

    Of course she is suffering, sensitive and in deep emotional pain, and the memory of her lost child will be with her for the rest of her life, but I get the impression that when a few years have passed she will regret posting such a long and complaining article and will realise that it’s part of life and death and people must – and do – get over these things if they are to continue living full and fruitful lives.

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