When Grief and Faith Collide

About a year ago, OH and I went back to the church where we were married for the first time. I forget the exact date, or where we were on our journey to conceive, but we were definitely making the arrangements. Perhaps we’d just had our first appointment with the consultant, or had booked that appointment, or maybe we were choosing our donor. It was an emotional experience to walk back down the aisle hand in hand and know that soon we would be starting a family.

During the service, a picture came into my head as if from nowhere. I was holding a baby boy in his christening gown. Well, I believed he was a boy, although you couldn’t tell from looking at him. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a little eczema on his face, and he looked for all the world as if he belonged in OH’s family. I felt sure that this was my son. Had that vivid mental image come from God? Was it prophetic? At the time, I thought it might be. Now I’m not so sure.

So far I’ve resisted blogging about the impact my miscarriage and difficulties conceiving have had on my faith. I’m ashamed, I suppose, of not being a ‘better’ Christian who never doubts or rages or tries to bargain with God. And I don’t want to alienate my non-religious readers, who might not relate to any of this or may even think I’m completely off my trolley. But I feel compelled to speak out about the reality of pregnancy loss and fertility problems, and for me, wrestling with God is a huge part of it. This, then, is a post about what it’s like to be Christian and infertile, and above all a question: what do you do when you thought God was telling you something, but it doesn’t come to pass or no longer makes sense?

In the weeks leading up to our first treatment, I felt exceptionally close to God. I’m struggling to write this paragraph now because it’s painful to remember how happy I was, and because there’s more background than I can explain here. But basically I had trusted God through coming off my antidepressants in preparation for pregnancy, through mood swings and heightened anxiety and the resurfacing of old behaviours, and I remained well. I had trusted God in leaving my therapy group and in looking to Him to help me with my remaining issues. I asked him to teach me how to trust, to relinquish my need for control, to learn to cope with being let down, and I could see real progress after so many months of languishing in therapy. When I faced an issue, I would go somewhere quiet to pray and the answer, the best way forwards, would come to me. It was exciting and I really felt that God and I were on the same page, that we wanted the same things for my life.

When I thought I was having a very early miscarriage, it didn’t affect my faith. I was grieving, but as before in my life, I was able to draw comfort from God. On the Sunday I made an effort to go to church even though we were in another country. The priest introduced a baby to the congregation and I cried and they felt like healing tears. I thought the pregnancy was over, it was sad but very common, and we’d be able to try again soon.

But as the pregnancy dragged on, non-viable and incomprehensible, I begged and pleaded with God to stop torturing me. I didn’t normally ask for specific outcomes in my prayers, just the strength to cope, but surely these were special circumstances? Surely He would hear me and ease my suffering. Yet still, my hCG levels continued to rise too slowly. I stopped praying. I couldn’t even pray for others because I believed God didn’t listen, not to me. And church was torture. I remember having to look happy through my tears at Harvest Festival and singing, “Can we know that thou art near us / And will hear us? / Yea, we can!” I rewrote the last line in my head and it wasn’t pretty.

Slowly, slowly, I came through it. I asked others to pray for me and I prayed to the saints (even though I’m not Catholic). I learned about my condition, pregnancy of unknown location or PUL, and could make a little more sense of things. I read Jennifer Saake’s book Hannah’s Hope on infertility and miscarriage, which was extraordinarily helpful. I let go of what I wanted enough to ask God simply to help me cope, and I began to notice the good things that had come out of the situation: how I was letting OH comfort me (normally I try to be the strong one), how the loss of my baby was miraculously healing my relationship with my sister, how I was softening and becoming more tolerant towards others. And most strikingly, while I was still pregnant I had another vision of that baby boy. This time I could feel him in my arms, the caress of his flailing hands on my face.

Let’s fast-forward a little to our second cycle of IUI. By now I was back to my usual prayer routine, my relationship with God mostly healed, even though we had also suffered further setbacks: a delay in my referral for an HSG and a treatment cancelled when I ovulated too soon. But this time I was filled with hope. On my blog I hedged my bets, saying, “I’m sure God is telling me I will have a child – He just doesn’t say when or how.” That wasn’t entirely honest; it was how I had felt immediately after the cancelled cycle, but in fact I was becoming more and more convinced that this was The One. And I knew I might be being stupid, so I sat down and prayed about it. I let go of all my conviction that I would be having a child in November – that took a lot of courage – and for a moment I was empty and grey, but then I felt hope rushing in, yellow, like the sun. And I was certain it did not come from me.

So what do I make of it all, now that the second cycle hasn’t worked and the third not either?

I realise that I have been trying to control the uncontrollable by looking for signs and imagining I know what’s going to happen. After our second IUI, I raged at God for a bit but I soon relented and prayed for help. I asked Him to help me see the good things in my life, because I just couldn’t. Over the course of that day, they came to me – my OH, my career, my sense of humour, my beautiful niece, even the state of our finances (our budget is very tight because of fertility treatment, but we have enough to live off and won’t be too affected by the government cuts for now). I asked Him to show me the way forwards and I understand I had to just trust in His timing and not try to control the process. No more bargaining with God, no more lucky toilet cubicles in the fertility clinic, no more reading too much into the magpies near our house. That’s why I went into the third cycle of treatment with no expectations and why I was disappointed, not devastated, when I didn’t get pregnant. I still cried and I’m so fucking sick of crying and waiting but at least I’m not being torn apart.

The problem is that since then, I’ve been feeling more distant from God. I’m mostly not angry with Him, just dispassionate. I think one reason for this is that since I can’t control my fertility, I’m focusing on those things I can (mostly) control: our bank accounts and our house. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stick to a budget or declutter and decorate – in fact, we need to do both those things to prepare for a baby – but it’s all about me, not God. I’m relying on my own resources and setting my own goals precisely because I need to feel in control on this turbulent journey. The other reason is, how can I know what God wants me to do and what he’s telling me? Either that burst of sunshine hope didn’t come from Him, or I misinterpreted it. Was it my imagination, or was he saying there’s hope in the long run? And was the baby in the visions fictitious, or a child I’m going to have, or even (it has occurred to me) the child I’ve already lost? I can no longer trust messages that I think are from God and I can no longer trust my own interpretation, so how do I pray now?

I’m sure there are no easy answers to those questions, and I don’t expect answers. What I wanted to do with this post is simply reach out and share my experience. Maybe others out there have been or are going through something similar, and maybe we can help each other. I haven’t lost my faith and I haven’t lost my sanity (in fact, that’s something else amazing that came out of my miscarriage – not relapsing) but these are very challenging times and I don’t want to walk the journey alone any more.

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Candles

Yesterday OH and I went to Durham Cathedral to light a candle for the baby we lost last autumn, and a candle for Little Sun, whose maman very kindly did the same for us in Notre Dame earlier this month.

It wasn’t quite the peaceful pilgrimage we’d hoped for. First, there was a family with eight misbehaving kids on the bus – all sitting in different places, shouting conversations at each other, getting up and running around… We were very relieved when they got off at the stop before us. Then we arrived at the train station to find it swarming with stag and hen parties – there was even a man dressed as a penis – and no trains. That’s right, there were engineering works on the line, so we had to get a bus all the way to Durham – hardly ideal when OH gets travel sick. Still, we made it. 🙂

This is a photo of the Cathedral from the train station:

Durham Cathedral from the train stationWhen we arrived at the Cathedral, a choir was rehearsing the St Matthew Passion for a concert that evening, and the main body of the church seemed a little chaotic, so I headed straight for the Galilee Chapel, which I knew would be quiet. I like this chapel because it has a lighter, airier, more humble feel to the rest of the Cathedral, and it’s where I feel closer to God. It is built below the western towers, and right above a steep drop down to the river, which from the outside is one of my favourite views in Durham:

Durham Cathedral's western towers

Durham Cathedral’s western towers, viewed from the opposite bank of the river. This photo was taken last summer, shortly before I became pregnant – hence the brighter weather!

Inside the chapel, we found a place that we both felt was right for commemorating our baby. It was by Bede’s tomb, below an inscription that is very meaningful to me in my grief. The text reads, “Christus est stella matutina qui nocte saeculi transacta lucem vitae sanctis promittit et pandit aeternam,” or in English, “Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life & opens everlasting day”:

I light candles beneath the inscription.

I light candles beneath the inscription.

I lit a candle for Little Sun first, praying in English and French for him and his family, and then I lit a candle for our baby. After that, OH and I stood and held hands, listening to the choir sing Bach, and hugged for a long time.

Here are the candles. Little Sun’s is on the left, and our baby May’s is on the right:

Candles for Little Sun and baby MayFinally, we went for a walk in the cloisters, which you may recognise as part of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films. It was quite sunny by this point:

Durham Cathedral cloistersDurham Cathedral viewed from the cloisters

Our day ended with dinner with friends in a pub in Shincliffe, and then we caught the bus replacement service home. We managed to nab the last two seats on that particular bus, which meant sitting separately – but at least the bloke getting drunk next to me was doing so quietly!

We’ll return to the Cathedral in April for the Saying Goodbye remembrance service for anyone who has lost a baby during pregnancy, birth or infancy. In the mean time, although I’m grieving a lot (both for baby May and for the outcome of my most recent treatment), I feel a little consoled to have put May to rest in such a wonderful place.

On Being A Mother

“A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” – Luke 2:35

I never met my child. I didn’t get to hold her in my arms. I didn’t feel her kick inside me, listen to her heartbeat, or see her picture on 12- and 20-week scans. The only memories I have of her are signs and symptoms: nausea; tender breasts; bursting for a wee during Eucharist; a faint pink line on a stick; and a series of numbers from the lab. Nonetheless, I am a mother.

I don’t mean that in some sort of abstract way: that I conceived and therefore technically count as a mother. I mean that when a baby cries, rather than thinking, “Help! Someone else deal with it!” a new-found instinct kicks in and it’s as natural as breathing. I mean that my father-in-law has commented on how maternal I’ve become with my niece and nephew. I mean that when I watch the Harry Potter films, I don’t cry when Sirius dies or Dumbledore dies, I cry when Cedric’s father finds his body, because I know that heart-rending pain of losing a child you were unable to protect. I mean that I have caught myself trying to soothe the cat by gently rocking him.

I don’t know whether it’s hormonal or purely psychological, but something about having been pregnant has changed me. Some people may have that maternal instinct from the start; I never did. I was a career women who didn’t quite understand her desire to have a child, and who felt awkward around other people’s babies. Now I am a mother.

When I was pregnant, I would have done anything to protect my dying embryo. There was no real point in abstaining from alcohol, but I did so anyway. I took her to some wonderful places: the Chapelle du Rosaire (although at that point I thought I had already lost her) and Alnwick Garden. And with my negative pregnancy test coming on the Feast of All Souls, she had the most stupendous funeral music in Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, Tavener’s Funeral Ikos and the Contakion for the Departed. Without knowing, our choir director chose well.

There are people who think this is all my imagination, that I can choose to ‘reframe’ my pregnancy as too short to count, and my son or daughter as just a few cells. That is not the way it works. My loss is just as real as, though very different from, the Mother of God’s. Once you become a parent, there is no turning back. A sword has pierced my soul also.

Cherry trees in the Alnwick Garden

The cherry orchard, Alnwick Garden. Photo credit: Alnwick Garden.