Religion

06.15.14

How Losing My Daughter Changed My Faith

After Vivian died, I could no longer say what God meant to me. Instead, I had to learn to live with questions that defy answer.

On special occasions or whenever the mood takes us, my wife, two children, and I drive down a gravel road north of our church and turn into a flat square drive that surrounds a cemetery. We park the car on the south side, before a sidewalk that leads to a section of grave markers much smaller than the others.  Our children usually run ahead of us—they know the way—while my wife and I process solemnly, hand-in-hand, to the ground where our daughter Vivian rests. 

Some days we come just to visit, to say a few words or to stand still and silent. Other days we bring replacement flowers and a new stuffed animal, which my wife ties to the vase to keep it in place. Sometimes, when the sun is warm and the wind is relatively calm, we set a blanket down for a picnic.  Our children sit for a time and eat, but they’re usually quick to rise and run about the place.

We seldom meet other mourners when we come here, but we know they come. Signs of their own family rituals remain after them: assorted flowers, toy cars lined along the grass, baby dolls dressed in blue or pink, cuddly bunnies with only the wind and stone to cuddle. Most of the graves in Babyland have a marker, made of bronze and marble, naming the deceased and telling, in too few words, something of their brief lives. We do not grieve alone.

I have my own ritual in these moments of quiet routine. Holding my wife and listening to our children play, I try to remember the day we shared with Vivian or to picture her close by, standing with us or running about, laughing with her siblings. I try to make her present, with memory or imagination, hopeful that our little remembrance will be for her a little resurrection. I don’t always succeed, but even when my daughter remains distant, the smell of the air, the caress of the wind, and the song of the birds usually leave me refreshed.

To me this place is holy and this ritual sacred, but strangely, however close I feel to Vivian, I feel distant from God. Maybe that’s not exactly right. Rather, I don’t sense the presence of a person or a being, the kind of God I hear about while sitting in the pews of the church across the field. When I contemplate God among the dead I find only emptiness and silence. I feel alone, and I do not like feeling alone, least of all here. I do not like this sense of God, this nothingness in which I now dwell. It’s dark and discomforting, and I blame it for my grey hairs.

In the months following the death of our newborn daughter, I had remained steadfast in my faith, devout and prayerful. I had not for years imagined God primarily as a figure of power, like some cosmic orchestrator of all that is, so I did not feel inclined to blame God for our loss and our sorrow. I didn’t have an answer for it, but I didn’t look to God for an answer. I didn’t expect such a response. I let God be.

Occasionally I shot a few words of prayer in what I hoped was the direction of an unseen God, but I struggled and doubted even these simple practices of my faith.

As time passed, however, my faith weakened. I lost the feeling of God’s presence and the impetus to pray, and perhaps as a consequence, the ideas I had of God began to make less and less sense to me. I lost clarity of what I believed, finally confessing to my wife late one evening that I couldn’t honestly say whether or not I still believed in God. This was not a confession that brought us peace. A cloud of unknowing separated me from the words of the creed I recited at Mass, and on that evening, sitting close to the love of my life, staring into her misty eyes, I feared that it would separate me from her as well. 

To make matters worse, I had no answers to give her. I couldn’t explain my lapse. I couldn’t point to any decisive event, something that had pushed me off the precipice. Instead, as we reflected back on the previous months and years, I felt as though once solid ground had changed into the wisps of a cloud without my having noticed, and only now did I realize that I was falling. If my broken heart was to blame, it has taken its bitter time, acting stealthily.

I hadn’t fallen into unbelief or atheism, exactly, but more of an agnosticism or skepticism about what I believed and whether I believed. I could no longer say what my faith, such as it was, meant in my life. I no longer had a sure sense of how the Christian story was true. I couldn’t answer where its myths ended and reality began. Occasionally I shot a few words of prayer in what I hoped was the direction of an unseen God, but I struggled and doubted even these simple practices of my faith. Neither Paul nor Kierkegaard were kidding when they wrote of fear and trembling.

For now I live with this uncertain tension between belief and unbelief. In a way, this tension opened up to me another way of being religious, one that oddly makes more sense to me. If God is infinite and ineffable, as my religious tradition says, then I have nothing against which to measure what anyone says of God. Without comprehending the infinite, I cannot assess a correspondence between what anyone’s scriptures say of God and what God really is. My Catholicism has given me words, but by its own teaching these words fall infinitely short of the realities to which they refer. With God, there’s no line between being and nothingness.

In one sense, I feel trapped. Looking ahead, I see no exit from this tension unless I wholly abandon my faith. In another sense, I feel liberated. Living in this tension means that I can seek wholeness in my shattered existence without having first answered whether I have discovered or created the meaning that I find. Is God the name of a mere idol or the name of one who reveals? Is my religion the product of false consciousness or a conscious response to the true God? Is the universe guided by love or by indifference? I suspect these questions defy answer. 

When trying to relate to Vivian, I’m in the same boat, charting the same uncertain course. I may only be imagining her presence when I feel her close to me, but regardless I perform my little liturgy because I am devoted to her memory, because she means the world to me, and because I choose to live with the hope that our love for her and for each other is not constrained by death or by time.

As we depart the cemetery, we each say “Goodbye” to Vivian, my wife and I with quiet reverence, our children with happy exuberance. We’ve said this simple word so many times: when we held her as she breathed her last breaths, when the hospital staff took her from us, at her funeral Mass and burial, and each time when we step away from her gravesite. For us, there is never a final goodbye. For us, death does not have the last word. Silently and sacredly, Vivian lives in our love.