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All Babies Go To Heaven

I’m asking this on behalf of my mother, who is very interested in reading printouts of stories on your site, after I introduced her to them, but has yet to master even opening a web browser (she has a general and all-encompassing mistrust of technology that was invented after 1940).

My mother has been haunted (seriously, devastated) this past year by a situation with her sister (my aunt) in which she doesn’t believe herself to be at fault but is unsure and would like to be either reassured or set straight. Be warned, this is not a happy story.

A tiny bit of back story first … when I was born, my mother asked my aunt to be my godmother. She refused, on the grounds that it would be hypocritical of her to be part of a religious ceremony when she didn’t believe in God, and had no religious affiliation. My mother accepted this with no ill-will, knowing if I ever needed my aunt she’d still be there for me. But this is important to the story.

One other thing is that just before she fell pregnant with my sister, my mother suffered a miscarriage. She still cries to think of it, even thirty years later. This is also semi-important.

Now my cousin (my aunt’s daughter) went through years of IVF, and last year she finally fell pregnant with twins, both boys. She lives miles away, but my mother and I sent cards and gifts when we learned about the twins (my mother makes hand-knitted blankets for every new addition to our extended family, and these were sent about four months into the pregnancy, and I received a thank-you email, which I passed on).

At around six months, the babies were both born prematurely, and one passed away that same day. We were informed of this by my aunt, via email (she lives in another country, so she often communicates with my mother through me), which said her daughter was too distressed and focused on her other tiny, premature baby to be in communication with anyone. We thought this was absolutely right, and I emailed back that my thoughts were with them all.

My mother, being unable to email and absolutely crushed by the news, called (while I was there) and left a message. In this message she said the following (this is almost exactly word for word … we know because my mother hates answer phones and always writes out what she’ll say before she leaves a message, so she doesn’t leave things out).

Hello A (my aunt), I’m so sorry to hear about S (my cousin) and M (her husband)’s terrible loss. It’s not the same, but I do know a tiny fraction of what S is feeling, and all of my love is with her and M. I know you don’t share my faith, but I’m praying for you all, and especially for baby K. Please pass on my love to S and M, and my regards to B (my uncle).

Now, a tense few days followed, and then came the awful news of the death of the second twin. Needless to explain how we all felt, and my mother took it particularly hard. But what she took the hardest was the email my aunt sent (to my email address) informing us of the news. It goes as follows …

Monday had been a very promising day with the doctors making quite extensive and detailed plans for K’s future.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning a sudden deterioration in Ks condition occurred and despite some very intensive care he was unable to regain any of the ground he had lost so rapidly. He passed away quietly in the arms of S and M and is now at peace. S and M asked us to let everyone know. They are devastated and couldn’t do so themselves. They will need some time to come to terms with all of this and they’re sure you will understand that they cannot face conversations at the moment. 

P.S.   No doubt you thought you were being kind with your ‘little message’ but we are hurt and angered by your behaviour. We may not attend church as often as your holier-than-thou selves, but we believe that our grandsons are with god, and we won’t have you questioning it. We are mourning the loss of not one but two grandchildren, and you have only made this time more painful. You of all people should know that. Please keep your opinions to yourself. 

It’s likely I would never have passed on this last part of the message to my mother (I know that’s wrong, but I knew it would destroy her), but by the time I reached the venomous part, I had already started reading it aloud. My mother broke down in tears, and could barely speak for the better part of an hour, mortified that she’d said something to hurt her sister at this time. We both looked back over the message she left, and to this day neither of us think it’s phrased offensively. Is it?

She certainly didn’t mean to cause pain by her remark about my aunt not being religious … she had good reason to believe it, after what happened with my own christening. And this isn’t a long standing issue …  religion has never been a sore point between members of our family. Some are Catholic, some protestant, some atheist, and none of us care or question anyone else’s beliefs. It’s never even come up! FYI, we could never question the babies’ place in heaven … it’s sickening to even think of it!

In my personal opinion, I think my aunt was suffering a horrible loss, and needed an outlet for some steam, and my mother was it. I can’t blame her for lashing out, I just wish she hadn’t. I’ve explained this point of view, and told my mother numerous times that she can’t keep beating herself up about it, but she is now so terrified to speak to my aunt, in case she does further damage, that she has me send most of her communications for her, proofreading them first for anything that might cause pain.

She apologised profusely, and was given only a curt reply, detailing the funeral plans. Since then, there has been little contact with my aunt, though we’ve tried several times. On my mother’s birthday she sent a six-word email saying happy birthday. That’s all. We remain in contact with my cousin.

Please let us know if that message would have caused offense for any of you. I feel responsible for this whole thing too, since I was there when the message was penned and didn’t see anything wrong with it. I know Mom genuinely meant it with nothing but love.

P.S. I know it doesn’t make the story any less sad, but I do want to say that a year later my cousin is now pregnant again with a baby girl, who is past the premature stages and about ready to arrive. We are delighted for S and M, and even though it doesn’t take away their pain, it goes some way to making life seem liveable again.   1011-11

Death of loved ones is one of the most stressful situations a person can endure and under such pressure, people pop revealing the messiness inside of them.   Any superficial courtesies and facades are ripped off when death comes knocking.   Your aunt lashed out in her sorrow at the one person she probably knew she could get away with behaving that way…your mother, her sister.   Anger can be a part of the grieving process and your aunt directed hers inappropriately to the wrong target because your mom was a safe target.

The only possible phrasing I read that *might* be misconstrued was the prayer “especially for the (deceased) baby”.   Your aunt had to have read a lot more into that to assume it meant praying for the baby’s soul to be released from Purgatory quickly and into Heaven. It’s a stretch for her to presume that is what your mother meant by that.   The context of the phrase, surrounded by condolences and empathy, indicates that only kindness and good thoughts were intended.

Your aunt is what would be referred to as a “secondary mourner”.  The twins’ parents are the primary mourners.  If you have remained in contact with them and they bear you or your mother no ill will, consider that the persons most eligible to be offended by your comments do not appear to be offended at all.  Continue building on that relationship with S&M with expressions of affection, congratulations, and interest in theirs and their new daughter’s  lives.  Don’t cut off Aunt yet but continue to woo her with communications.   It may take years to reconcile this but it does happen.

And please pass on to your mother that sometimes we have to rest in the knowledge that we intended no harm, that we did the best we knew how to do and that the problem truly does lie with the other person who bears a responsibility to not take up offenses easily.

{ 115 comments… add one }
  • Caros October 14, 2011, 7:37 am

    Tanz: Exactly!

  • Angela October 14, 2011, 7:41 am

    I’m an atheist and I didn’t find this offensive. I understand that when people say they’re praying for you that it means you are thinking of you and concerned (although I’d feel differently if they were praying for me to change my heathen ways). As for the comment about knowing a fraction of how you feel, I would think that was reaching out in case someone wanted to talk or just feel that they weren’t alone in their terrible grief. A person who has had some experience like this might be a better source of support and might not say unhelpful things like “It’s God’s will”. I would assume the comment was support, not competition.

  • Alla October 14, 2011, 10:07 am

    Lesson learned — Next time, just say “You’re in my thoughts.”

    My family does not follow a “conventional” religion, though it’s a common religion in our area. So, as parents, we teach our kids to use this phrase instead. But we ALSO teach them that other people do say “I’m praying for you” and that they should take this as exactly what it means — This is how some people express their love, concern, sympathy, or whatever. It isn’t automatically assumed to be a condemnation of OUR faith or of THEIR faith.

    Did auntie over-react? Is mum still over-reacting to a 30-year past lost? Possibly. Been there, done that, both cases. I went into premature labour, went to the hospital, and ended up giving unassisted sillbirth. Why? Because about 3 minutes after I came in, one of the most horrendous traffic accidents ever to occur, happened, and the injured were being brought in virtual floods. Am I over it? Yes, kind of. But I still remember, and it’s still upsetting. At the time, I threw a tray of instruments at the nurse who (finally) came to check on me.

    Three-way communications? Yes indeed. My great-gran is wonderful on the computer, at 103. My grandmother, at 87? Won’t touch the damned thing for fear monsters will pop out of it. My mother at 65? Any program, anywhere! …. so long as it doesn’t involve going on line. The OP isn’t facilitating drama or “enabling”; she’s just helping someone who isn’t tech-savy.

    Tell your mum to relax, consider the source, and if the bounds of her beliefs allow it, suggest she “pray on it” (Not sure if that’s a correct phrase, and I don’t mean to be insulting.) Then give her a hug and a kiss, and continue to do your best, and encourage her to do her best, to mend any fences that might have been inadvertantly broken.

  • Shea October 14, 2011, 11:09 am

    I’m sure the OP’s mother meant well and that her sympathy was heartfelt, but her message would bother me too. Firstly, IMO it’s never a good idea to compare your grief to someone else’s. The OP’s mother’s miscarriage was no doubt devastating to her, but there’s really no reason to bring it up in comparison to the OP’s cousins’ loss of their twin babies. I can’t presume to say that one grief is worse than the other, but bringing up a loss of your own when someone else has just suffered one always makes me cringe. Everyone’s experience of grief is different, and even if you have suffered a similar loss, it doesn’t mean that you can understand the way someone else is feeling.

    Secondly, again I’m sure she didn’t mean it, but to nonreligious people, “I know you don’t share my faith but I’m praying for you” really can come across as self-righteous and it consequently gets our hackles up. Probably because when a lot of people say that to atheists/nonreligious folks generally, they mean “I’m praying for you to see the light and save your heathen soul from the fires of Hell.” It seems evident from the OP’s description of her mother that she didn’t mean it that way at all, but if Aunt and especially the cousins aren’t close to the OP’s mom, they might not understand that, especially as they’re processing such a devastating loss. Of course one shouldn’t assume the worst of peoples’ motivations, but in their grief and perhaps not knowing the OP’s mom well, I can understand why they wouldn’t be in the mood to give the benefit of the doubt.

    That said, the aunt’s venomous response was uncalled for. If she felt offended by the message (for which I wouldn’t blame her), she should have ignored it, or given the OP’s mom the benefit of the doubt and sent her a brief note thanking her for her sympathy. In short, I do think the OP’s mom’s message, though heartfelt, was a potential minefield of unintended offense, but the aunt definitely gets the fires of EHell for her nasty reply.

  • Raven October 14, 2011, 12:29 pm

    I know everyone is talking about the religious angle, and I’m going to stay out of that one.

    What *I* would have found offensive about the phone message was the part about having some understanding of what the parents were going through. I find that to always be such a selfish comment; someone is suffering, why remind everyone that YOU are also special and went through something horrible? (Is it comparable? I have no idea – I’m not a parent and I’ve never miscarried – I’m going to stay out of that one, too.)

    Example: When my grandfather passed away a few years ago, I heard way too many, “Oh, I know what you’re going through, I remember when my (relative) passed away …. here’s their life story that has nothing to do with what you’re experiencing right now…..”

    I don’t mean to be harsh, but the me me me me me society we live in makes me sick. When someone is suffering, you support them. You listen to THEM. Reminding everyone, “Hey, remember when I had that miscarriage? I know what it’s like to go through what you’re dealing with,” is just rude. God forbid someone we let someone else mourn/be sad/hurt/ail/etc without making it about us.

  • Wink-n-Smile October 14, 2011, 1:29 pm

    I like “I share your pain,” in this case, because not only is the Mom consoling the Aunt for her loss. The Mom is also acknowleging her own pain in loosing a much anticipated nephew.

    Losing a nephew isn’t generally as painful as losing a child or a grandson. However, they are all grieving fore the SAME person. It is a shared grief.

    Mom could have clarified that (as opposed to – I lost a child, so I know how you feel), by saying, something along the lines of “I had such high hopes and eagerly waited to welcome my new nephews.”

    If the message had come from a friend, it would have been nice, but apparently misconstrued. However, this message came from family, who also wanted and loved those children. Mom had spent lots of time making blankets for them. Of course she loved and wanted them, and grieved herself for thier loss.

    People forget that. Aunt forgot that, and treated Mom as a stranger offering clumsy condolences. In reality, she was a sister, reaching out to share a common pain.

    This situation just makes me want to cry.

  • Judy October 14, 2011, 3:07 pm

    I know people don’t know how to respond to someone who has lost a child, and I do try to be gracious, but it is hard. Our son died of cancer three years ago. We have confidence in where he is and have been working through our grief. But one comment comes up (with many variations) over and over: “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost a child. I just couldn’t deal with it.”
    It leaves me talking to myself. (Mostly: “Well, I couldn’t deal with it, either”) This was our firstborn; we loved him dearly for 33 years and spent the last 5 sharing his valiant fight for survival while he lived a life of faith and without self-pity. It has been a devastating loss for us. How do you deal with the unthinkable? And yet, the courage of our son has motivated us to trust God and go on with dignity, in spite of our tears. Sometimes the best thing to say is I’m sorry, and just give a hug.

  • A.J. October 14, 2011, 3:14 pm

    After reading all of the responses, I’m beginning to think the only response ever in this situation is “I’m so sorry.” You might get yelled at for not doing more, though.

  • Cordelia October 14, 2011, 3:45 pm

    I’m not really sure how Roman Catholic teaching came into the picture here. However, the idea in question is not Purgatory (a different concept altogether) but the Limbo of Infants. Purgatory and Limbo have become confused and conflated. Long story short, Purgatory is a temporary state for the souls of people who have died and are going to heaven, but still have some temporal punishment for their sins to deal with. The Roman Catholic church continues to teach this and teaches that prayers for the dead can help these souls in Purgatory. (I should mention that historically, purgatory was not the only or even principal reason for praying for the dead.)

    Limbo, on the other hand, was considered the destination of people who were personally sinless but who had never been baptized and thus still had original sin. Opinions about the exact nature of limbo were extremely widely varied but most held it was happy and painless, just not the same as heaven. It is not consistent with the concept of Limbo to teach that you could pray anyone out of it – that’s confusion with Purgatory.

    The concept of Limbo is not widely taught in the Roman Catholic church anymore, and was never dogmatically proclaimed, but it is misleading to claim that Limbo and the attendant concepts were anything less than widely taught until the 20th century. Catholic cemeteries used to refuse to bury unbaptized children in the consecrated ground. Here’s a page from the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia that will tell you all you would ever want to know about how the concept was taught at the time, though: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm

    Just so there is no confusion, I am not Roman Catholic, and believe in neither Purgatory nor Limbo, so I am not attempting to proselytize or drag the subject off-topic.

    Okay, theologian out! Now, for the OP: I think, as many atheists have said, that it shouldn’t be offensive to be told you’re being prayed for. Unless it comes with a subtext of arrogance or smug superiority, just take it in the kind, thoughtful spirit in which it was offered. However, I tend to avoid mentioning religious things around anyone I know who isn’t religious, with the exception of points of fact (as in the above paragraphs 🙂 ). I pray for a lot of people, religious and otherwise, but I never mention it unless they are of my faith or I know they will be comforted by it. Sometimes non-religious people will take any mention of a religious practice as some kind of holier-than-thou thing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    Also, it can certainly be offensive to say you understand someone’s pain. It’s always meant well, but it can really grate on the ears of someone who’s just been through a tragic event. OP’s mom did make a faux pas in that. It’s mild enough, though, that the sister/aunt’s reaction is really off the mark. There’s nothing to be gained by holding on to this kind of resentment. OP’s mom should just keep reaching out to her sister without pushing too hard. If sister never comes around, that’s on her head, not OP’s mom’s.

  • JenaR October 14, 2011, 3:51 pm

    I bet your mother has put up with a lot over the years. Aunt over-reacted. I’d write her off as an over-sensitive individual who only sees the negative. I’ve been on the receiving end of similar situations, and these people will NEVER come to terms with the fact that they overreacted. They will not admit to being wrong and will continue to find fault in others. Waiting for a change is a lesson in futility. Sorry you are going through this.

  • Amanda October 14, 2011, 4:54 pm

    Judging from the comments, it would seem Baglady is correct. Offering condolences is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. Perhaps that is why so many people are so awkward in such situations.

    I found nothing offensive about the mother’s message and thought it was very sweet. For the record, I am agnostic and have never experienced such a loss. I read the “I know how they feel” bit as “let them know they are not alone, here’s proof that you can get through this as painful as it is” empathy. The “I know you don’t share my faith” part was to acknowledge that she *wasn’t* forcing her religion on them, but letting them know she was acting in the way she felt she could be most supportive.

    To me, there is a lot of room for interpretation. The tone and knowledge/history of the speaker goes much further than words toward determing whether they are subtly insulting you or genuinely try to be kind. When in doubt, I’d rather choose not to be offended.

    The aunt may have been used her sister as a safe and easy target to vent her anger and frustration, but the length of time it’s taken for her to move past it makes me wonder if she actually used this incident as an opportunity to vent long-suppressed resentments. Surely, she would know her sister well enough to infer the sincere intent regardless of her objections to the wording, if not in the initial stages of grief, then at least almost a year later?

  • TheBardess October 14, 2011, 7:43 pm

    @Raven- I don’t think saying “I know what you are going through” is always a selfish gesture aimed at making it about “me me me.” Sure, there are some drama queens who use it that way, but as several other posters have pointed out, very often that is not the way it is intended. Rather than trying to make someone else’s grief about them, people who use that phrase are almost always simply trying to empathize. It isn’t (always) a means of turning the focus back around to them- it’s a way of saying “You aren’t alone. Others have been here, too. There are people who understand and to whom you don’t have to explain yourself. Others have gone through this and come out of it- so can you.” Personally, during times of grief, I have often found it comforting to hear from someone who has gone through the same experience, who understands what I am dealing with, and who can perhaps share with me what helped them get through it.

  • Enna October 15, 2011, 9:25 am

    Sorry for your loss OP. I think your Aunty took it out of context due to grief. Death can make people say some mean things. Did your Mother ever got a chance to discuss it with her some time afterward?

  • Enna October 15, 2011, 9:26 am

    @ JenaR – I don’t think “writing off” a relation over a death is fair at all. Death makes people do and say strange and mean things.

  • erica September 11, 2012, 7:53 am

    This is way more about the Aunt’s religious choices.

    and I think it does go all the way back to the OP’s birth..when she was asked to be Godparent.

    It seems Aunt has used religious differences over the years to maybe cause breaches where there were none.

    I do think she’s lashing out. She is hurt. Devastated and I do agree it’s easier to read into a condolance note than to face her own questions and beliefs about death/heaven and all that.

    Very sad.

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