We suffered a small tragedy in our household this week. Our second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage after 10 weeks. We’re sad but coping relatively well. Raising a toddler we adore helps the healing process significantly. Friends and family have also sent nice messages, including this one from my wife’s aunt.
I got an email from your mom telling me about your baby. I am so sorry to hear this. Just know each baby is precious little works from God and apparently this little one was called home sooner. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers and be sure to take good care of yourself.
This is where I struggle as an atheist. There is nothing but kindness intended by that email. But that kindness is wrapped up in religious nonsense that I find downright offensive. Without the third sentence, I’d get nothing but warm fuzzies. With it, I get the churning heavies.
I drafted the following response, but am not sure I’ll ever send it. Nevertheless, it does help me organize my own thoughts and emotions a bit.
Dear Aunt Gertrude,
Thank you for thinking of us with your email. This is a somewhat difficult time for us, and we genuinely appreciate the well wishes of friends and family.
Having said that, I also have to tell you that we don’t agree with the religious content of your message. It’s long overdue for us to say this clearly, but we don’t believe that God exists. And we find the idea that God “called home” our fetus both silly and offensive. (Please understand that’s directed at the idea, not you. We know and appreciate that you’re responding out of love. It’s the idea you’ve been taught by the church that we object to.) It’s silly because, according to the doctors, our fetus stopped developing around 6 ½ weeks. At that point, it was the size of a lentil, which looks like this:
Although the fetus was beginning to develop many of the features of a fully-formed human at that point, it still had a long way to go. It looked something like this:
What possible reason could a god have to “call home” a fetus at that stage of development? It hadn’t even formed eyes, let alone relationships or life experiences. Even if you believe it had a soul, I’m trying to imagine what that soul would say in heaven. “Well, that was an interesting 6 weeks. Would have liked to try out seeing or hearing, but hey, those arm buds were pretty spiffy.”
It’s the standard religious answer to this question that is offensive. If you’ll forgive me for a bit of mind-reading, I’m guessing your answer would be something along the lines of “well, we can’t always understand it, but God has a plan.” And I respond with another question – what kind of God makes plans that include killing other people’s children? That would be the height of cruelty. I wouldn’t worship a god like that, even if I believed he existed. Especially if the “purpose” behind his “plan” was to punish us, draw us back to him, teach us a lesson, or even to somehow make us better people. If God thinks I’m lacking somehow, he could build me up in any number of ways that don’t involve snuffing out my children. Send a stray puppy my way to teach me sympathy. Burn Jesus into my toast to prove his existence to me. Make me botch a contract to teach me humility. The non-homicidal possibilities are endless. But we’re asked by religion to accept that our suffering in this instance is actually for our own good. Forgive my language, but fuck that.
The real truth is much more comforting to us. Anywhere from 10% to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. For women between 35 and 39, the rate is around 20%. That means there’s a 1 in 5 chance that any pregnancy will end in miscarriage in our age range. What happened to us happens to many people. And when it does, more often than not it’s because there was something about the pregnancy – a genetic problem, poor development of the placenta, something – that simply wasn’t working out. That “precious little gift from God” was never going to be born healthy. Unless you can admit that your God is even crueler, creating pregnancies (and their attendant excitement and hopes) that are doomed from the start, the most reasonable response to a miscarriage is to accept that it’s nothing more than an unfortunate but common biological event.
This kind of acceptance is not callousness. It is not despair, or resignation, or nihilism. It is acceptance born of understanding. Knowing what we know about miscarriage, it’s easier to deal with the emotional ramifications. Now we can heal, focus on taking physical care of her, and focus on our existing son. I don’t know how we’d cope if we were sitting around wondering why God allowed/caused this to happen to us.
Thanks for reading this. I hope you understand that we don’t mean to attack you or rebuff your sympathy, for which we’re very grateful. But we’re so often confronted with religious statements that we felt it important to explain our very different perspective, and why those religious statements aren’t comforting to us. We look forward to seeing you next time we’re down visiting.