Secular Faith, or Grieving Without God
The following guest blog post was originally published in Still Standing blog in August of 2017 and is republished here with the permission of the author. It speaks to the experience of leaving religion following a profound loss, and contains language often associated with faith, such as “blessed” and “prayer,” but repurposes the words to describe the author’s secular understanding of grief.
By Kristen Wood
You can call this the hymn of the heretic. I was not always a heathen; I was a religious person when my baby died.
For a multitude of reasons, my journey led me other ways. If I had to categorize myself right now, I would say I am a hopeful agnostic. My belief is in the unknowable nature of the universe and that the universe, in its own way, is itself divine. My faith is in truth and in the beauty of doubt.
When my Luke was stillborn, I clung desperately to religion, and heaven in particular. I sought solace and comfort in the rituals that promised me sanctification and exaltation. I grasped frantically to the assurance that I would see my son again. The thought that I may not was too terrifying to contemplate.
I have no judgment for the woman I was. She believed what she needed to believe to survive. I judge only her judgments. She judged those who did not believe in heaven, in God. How sad they must be. How could they ever survive a tragedy without that hope? She could only see one way of coping, one version of carrying on. She had the answers. I had to search for them.
I found very few answers. But I also discovered joy in the questions.
For me, comfort comes from knowing that energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed. Every atom that was my child still exists. Perhaps he is in the air I breathe. Maybe parts of him are in the dragonflies that visit me each summer. His particles could be in the tree that grows near his grave. Molecules that made up his body might be distributed in the night sky or the sunset. I find peace knowing that the elements that surround me also contain him. I find the artistry of the universe, that we are all star stuff – not metaphorically, but literally forged in the stars – beautiful.
I find delight in seeing his features in his siblings, in my husband’s face, in the mirror. There is a bittersweet happiness in the wonderment of who he would have been. Over time, I have imagined his laugh and his cry, what he would have loved, how he would interact with the rest of our family. I dreamt of the baby sounds, the toddler fits, and now, the school-aged discussions. He will continue to grow in my mind, all while staying an impossibly small infant, my paradox child.
I understand faith. I felt it. I believed. And then I realized I could be wrong.
Part of me clutched my religion like a life preserver, thinking it would save me, too terrified to let go. Eventually, my son made me fearless. I let go. I swam.
I am still, and always, open to the possibility that I could be wrong. Life converted me to uncertainty. My holiness may be in question, but my humanity was enlarged by my grief. The vast chasm of Luke’s loss became a testament to how very loved he was, and I filled the emptiness with the present. When transience and impermanence stopped being theoretical, my awareness of the here and now intensified.
I was desperate for a happy ending. I don’t know how my story will go from here, but through this, I have become more able to sit comfortably with the uncertainty. I know that my son was here. I know that I am here now. I appreciate both of those things immeasurably. They are sacred.
My son was not a test, or a lesson, or a censure. He was my baby.
I’m blessed, in every way that matters, that he was. I will consecrate him through my life. The cosmos is within us. It was within him. And tonight, I will speak his name like a prayer.