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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Resolution?

Since my last blog post, I’ve been back to the fertility clinic for two scans. The first was a planned appointment – the doctors wanted to see what my hormone levels were, and whether anything was visible on ultrasound, a week on. I was bleeding at the time which made matters, erm, messy. 😛 The doctor still couldn’t see a sac, and he thought my womb and ovaries looked as though they were returning to a pre-pregnancy state, so we hoped the bleed might be a sign that things were resolving naturally – but then my hCG came back slightly higher than before. I knew it might well have risen a lot earlier in the week, then fallen when I started to bleed, but I didn’t dare believe this. Rule number one of fertility treatment: never get your hopes up (even when all you’re hoping for is that your miscarriage / ?ectopic pregnancy doesn’t drag out for another six weeks).

The second scan was on Tuesday, because I was starting to get some pain in my side. The pain itself wasn’t that bad – I didn’t even take paracetamol for it – but in the context it was freaking me out. What if I need surgery? What if I have to take methotrexate? Aargh! Luckily, the ultrasound and examination didn’t show anything untoward, and when I had yet more blood tests, the hCG had finally come down from around 320 to around 260. My case was discussed at the weekly team meeting, and they’ve decided they’re not too concerned, and unless I have any more symptoms I don’t need to come back until a week on Tuesday.

So, it looks as though the pregnancy is finally resolving. And with that comes a whole new set of emotions, because although I didn’t want them to have to intervene, a natural end is only the best of a very bad bunch of options. I have lost the baby. Our child is dead. I am free to grieve as I wanted, and f*ck, it’s painful. (And whatever the doctors think, I can’t totally rule out the possibility that in nine days time my hormone levels will have gone up again, because throughout this whole process, nothing has ever happened the way I expected. It’s been a real ordeal.)

I have to say that the clinic have been brilliant. Especially after the first few weeks, when it became apparent this wasn’t a ‘normal’ early miscarriage, they’ve been very understanding and supportive. I really appreciate the doctor who validated my view that I was pregnant, that this does count. And my consultant coming up to me after church (we know each other personally) to ask how I was coping and say how sorry she was. 🙂 It could not be more different from my experience of NHS mental health services, but maybe that’s a topic for another post.

My OH and I also really appreciate every single one of you who has commented on my blog, Twitter or Facebook or shown your support in other ways. It really helps us to know that people are thinking of us or praying for us – especially as there have been times over the past few weeks when I haven’t felt able to pray myself. This is the first time I have experienced a trauma or tragedy that isn’t someone else’s fault, and it has been hard to trust God. Struggling with my faith in the context of a miscarriage… I think that’s also a subject for another post, but thank you all. 😀

I’m Still Pregnant, But…

There isn’t much in the way of hope. This can only end badly: in miscarriage or in urgent treatment.

I had a scan yesterday because my hCG hormone levels are continuing to rise. It didn’t show anything, but the doctor was expecting that, because the embryo is usually only visible once hCG levels reach 1,000 or more. However, the fact that they’re increasing shows that something is still growing, so she thinks this is a failing or an ectopic pregnancy. I’m being scanned and tested again next week, and in the meantime I’ve been given 24-hour contact details for the local gynae ward in case anything happens.

I am eight-and-a-half weeks pregnant. There should have been a heartbeat weeks ago. Instead I am carrying a child that will never be born.