The Experience of Loss Without Religious Beliefs

By Jean Kollantai, Center for Loss in Multiple Birth

After the death of my twin son and surviving the first weeks of raw pain and grief, one of the very first times on the “agenda” for my grieving process was my religious beliefs or lack of them. Raised very much within a particular Protestant church, I had tried others after going off to college, but in a short time came to the conclusion that for one thing, I still just didn’t believe it; and for another, I didn’t feel that I needed a lot of well-defined answers and guidelines in order to live a meaningful life. Later, I came to feel that life could be better both for individuals and for society if we weren’'t preoccupied with being “saved” from something we weren'’t counting on some other place, and afterlife, to make everything right.

Andrew was buried on my 37th birthday, which was his and his twin brother’s due date; they were my husband’'s first children at age 47. Just beginning to feel our own age, we had expected the house to be brimming and bouncing with young life and ourselves far too busy 24 hours a day to think of anything more existential than the next round of diapers. Now death seemed to be around every corner and in fact staring us in the face. Even looking at our precious surviving son brought strong fears of what could still happen to him too. As I became completely attached to him, anyway, I was also having to process the finality of his brother being gone –and it wasn't long until it occurred to me, “Wait a minute, isn't there some way I can at least be with him later, forever?”

After a mental struggle that went on for several weeks, I came to the conclusion that as much as I wanted to see Andrew and be with him, I couldn’'t subscribe to a whole set of beliefs and practices just for that reason; –it had to be true, and deeply felt. I realized that in my opinion, after you’'ve died, it’'s just like all the eternity before you were born, you’'re just not here but you don’t know it. My husband felt an afterlife could be nice, but he wasn’t counting on it!

Several months later I read the one book on the loss of a child I'’ve found that deals openly with child loss: The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff (1977). Schiff devotes a chapter to how people’s religious or spiritual beliefs influence their grieving. Though she admits to being horrified at the thought of coping with the loss of her child without her own beliefs and rituals, she talks about those who do cope without these beliefs.

I became very involved in our local support group, and also founded what is now a large national organization for multiple birth loss. For many more years now, I’ve been immersed in phone calls, letters and meetings with other bereaved parents, many of them now good friends. In the process I had another son and have been involved in talking to both my surviving twin and younger son about their brother Andrew, as well as continuing on my own “grief journey.” In these years, I don’'t think that I've ever seen a book on the loss of a baby that does not basically assume that I have religious beliefs (generally, Christian ones); that we believe our babies are angels; that we will see them forever; that we pray when we make decisions; that we have to worry about what people or books in authority in our church will say about any decisions we may have to make and so on. I try to look past these things into what may be worthwhile, at the same time appreciating much more than in the past why people choose these beliefs,– but often find myself feeling alienated and annoyed that assumptions are being made about me and that no one is speaking to my reality.

I really encourage bereaved parents to mentally and spiritually “try on for size” a number of points of view and to know you will cope and heal. Our group here has been all the richer for our conviction that all we need to have in common is the death of our precious baby(s) and that each of us has the inner strength and goodness to find our own path, while caring and sharing with others along the way.

Reprinted from A Time to Decided, A Time to Heal


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