Since I started this blog I’ve skirted around the topic of religion. It’s something people often have very strong and opposing opinions on and I don’t want alienate anyone either way. Except that, when you have a terminally ill child, there is no way of skirting around religion. Your faith and the faith of others is simply unavoidable.
No matter where you stand on religion, it’s hard to avoid in a hospital setting. Bedside visits from hospital chaplains; local church groups giving presents at Christmas; friends, family and random strangers offering to pray for you; gifts of rosary beads and religious tokens – it’s all part and parcel of having a sick child.I actually find it kind of amusing when some people say, “I’ll pray for you”, even though I’m pretty sure they haven’t prayed since they were in primary school. But I get it. Saying “I’ll hope for you” doesn’t seem right and “I’m thinking of you” seems pointless. Praying for someone is a way of doing something when you don’t know what else to do.
For some parents their faith and their local church community provide the calm in the storm, and I respect them, even envy them for this. Others vehemently oppose structured religion and see no purpose for it on their journey, often becoming agitated by what they see as others shoving religion in their face.
Me, I sit somewhere in the middle – confused about the whole faith business. From the moment Aidan was diagnosed, and more recently since his death, I have struggled with my beliefs. If pushed, I would say I was faithless and that I don’t believe in God or an afterlife but there have been countless times in the past 6 years I have begged ‘God’ to save Aidan, offered to trade myself for him, promised all sorts of things just to spare him. I have cried to ‘God’, yelled at him and thrown myself at his mercy. And not just the Catholic God I have been raised to believe in, I’ve even asked Allah and a few Hindu Gods if they could help a desperate mother.
As part of my journey, I even read the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner, a rabbi whose three-year-old son was diagnosed with a life-limiting disease. I hoped the book would answer my questions as to why ‘God’ had chosen us and what the meaning of life is. However, while it provided some interesting viewpoints, I didn’t get the answers I was looking for.
We live in a society where death and religion are so often linked. When faced with the thought of losing a loved one, even the non-religious of us hold hope of an afterlife.
Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief says death is often seen as religion’s trump card.
“No matter what atheism has to offer — a better sex life, freedom from religion’s often random taboos, the embrace of reality over wishful thinking, etc. — many people automatically assume that, when it comes to death and grief, the comfort of believing in an afterlife will always win out,” she said.
While Hensler denies this is the case, it’s certainly a common scenario. Granted not everyone turns to structured religion, but many people do believe in a higher existence, including the notion of angels and spirits, and/or an afterlife when faced with the prospect of losing their child.
Even I have in recent weeks spent a lot of time researching different theories of the afterlife, desperately wanting to find a religion to help make meaning of all of this.
I think had I not had Aidan, I probably would have gone through life not really thinking much about faith, God and heaven but the diagnosis of a life-limiting illness made it inevitable. Sometimes I feel enormous pressure to have an opinion one way or the other. Do I believe this is all in God’s plan? Do I believe Aidan is in heaven watching over me? I didn’t know before Aidan was diagnosed and I don’t know now. The only thing I know for sure is that it’s impossible to have a terminally ill child and not contemplate it.