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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 }
  • Jennifer October 12, 2011, 6:55 pm

    This is WORLDS away from the priest who told my aunt her baby couldn’t be buried in the Catholic cemetery because they didn’t have time to baptize him in the short minutes he lived.

  • anne October 12, 2011, 7:03 pm

    OP here … I’d just like to make it absolutely clear that ‘baby K’ referred to in the message was the second twin, who was still clinging to life at that time. My mother’s prayers were particularly directed to him, because he was so tiny and fragile and needed any help we could give.

    Also, my mother says thank you for your kind words,

  • anne October 12, 2011, 7:34 pm

    OP again, sorry

    To all who said I should step back and allow my aunt and my mother to communicate, you’re quite right. My mother has attempted to make that phone call numerous times, once she got past the initial panic, but thanks to the wonders of caller-ID, has never been picked up. I’m not sure if she’s being deliberately avoided still, but a year’s worth of missed calls seems like a stretch.
    So, email is our only route for communication, and that by necessity goes through me for the time being. Nothing I can do about that, and it’s not much of an imposition. I am going to stop offering advice on the contents, you’re quite right about that.

    Hemi Halliwell – No, as far as my cousin has told me, my aunt hasn’t been to church in her life, with the exception of this funeral and her daughters’ weddings. What her personal beliefs are now, I couldn’t say.

    K – I would never presume to judge you for your level of grief, please don’t judge my mom’s. She doesn’t let her sadness adversely affect her life, it’s just something she feels from time to time. This incident aside, she’s a level, sensible woman and a good mother, and very much “right in the head”. You’re not her psychiatrist, you don’t know her, please refrain from diagnosing her.

    To everyone who wished my family well, sincerely thank you.

  • Leslie Holman-Anderson October 12, 2011, 7:55 pm

    I’m certain OP’s Mom meant nothing but good. But I also relate to Aunt’s reaction. When you don’t believe in someone else’s religion (or any religion) being told they’ll pray for you or over a situation can be seen as smug and superior. In my faith we have a custom I’ll share in hopes of averting the sort of disastrous misunderstanding here: We ask people’s permission to pray for them instead of just telling them we’re going to. They may not want prayers, or they just may not want prayers from us, and it’s considered disrespectful bordering on manipulative to do so where it’s not welcome.

    Oh, and ‘K’ — there’s no such thing as a ‘mere’ miscarriage.

  • magnet October 12, 2011, 8:03 pm

    The two sisters definitely need to speak with one another, voice on voice, and resolve their issues. The poster should stay out of it completely. Phone calls or letters aren’t that expensive.

    The only issue I have with the poster’s Mom’s comments is the reference to a past loss of hers (however painful it was/is for her). Death is not a competition. My mom recently died, and it rankled me when someone would tell me about their loved ones who died. I know other people have experienced loss in their lives. But it really did not make me feel any better to hear about someone else’s loss. I just needed to grieve and a sincere “I’m sorry” was a lot better than someone trying to compare their loss to mine.

  • BamaGirl October 12, 2011, 8:04 pm

    JS – Sometimes “I’m praying for you” also means ” I am praying that God will help ease your suffering, in anyway possible”. I am so sorry for your loss. I cannot image the pain.

  • Cat October 12, 2011, 8:39 pm

    I had a woman come up to me at my mother’s wake and tell me I was unChristian for crying at a death. I pointed out that the shortest sentence in the Bible is, “Jesus wept.” He wept at the tomb of Lazarus although He had already said that Lazarus would awake from the dead. I believe He wept because His friend had died. I asked her if she thought she could out-Christian Christ.

    A Protestant friend was furious because, whenever a funeral passed, I made the sign of the cross (I’m Catholic) and said the prayer for the dead, “May his/her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” She said that, if she was in a funeral procession she saw me do that, she’d stop and tell me off. She never said why she was so offended at my prayer for the dead. Even if I did not believe, I can’t see being outraged at someone else’s belief.

    I would let it go. You did nothing wrong. Your mother did nothing wrong. People who want to pick a fight will pick a fight over anything that is handy. Grief is not an excuse to be hateful.

  • Cat October 12, 2011, 8:52 pm

    I meant to add that the priest, who refused to bury the child in a Catholic cemetery because the child passed away before baptism, needs to return to seminary. As far as anyone knows, God has never revealed when the soul leaves the body.

    If left to that priest, the Good Thief on the cross would have been excluded from salvation as I don’t recall his being baptized- since there was no Christian baptism until Christ’s death. (John’s baptism was into repentence; Christian baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). He got promised salvation anyway.

  • Heather October 12, 2011, 9:25 pm

    I thought your Mother’s initial message was very nice. Please assure her that there was nothing wrong with what she said.

  • Lily G October 12, 2011, 9:37 pm

    I’m afraid this will be unpopular, but I have to represent the side of the mourners. Never ever tell someone mourning you know how they feel even if you phrase it as “a tiny fraction”. That is hugely insensitive. You cannot inhabit another’s grief. The OP’s mother has her own grief going back 30 years and no, that length of time is not unheard of or abnormal. BUT…The OP’s mother does NOT understand how her niece is feeling.
    In addition, you cannot offer your religious comfort to someone who doesn’t share it. That imposes your beliefs on their reaction; an action which can be resented for decades. No matter how well-intentioned or large the spirit of love in which the prayer is offered, they DO NOT want it.

    Anne, I recognize your mother meant well and intended nothing but support and love. However, when mourning dead children/close relatives especially, you cannot inject yourself into it. You have to respect the mourners’ position and make it about them. They are literally unreasonable with grief-they aren’t going to act rationally.
    I think the moderator has very good advice. Your aunt is going to understandably take offense where none is given. Maintain the relationship with your cousin and hope time dulls the pain. My sympathies.

  • Lily G October 12, 2011, 9:41 pm

    I forgot to complete the request: I would have to say I would be furious at receiving that message after my twins had died. I’m certain I would have overreacted, cried, thrown the phone across the room and screamed “Who does she think she is?”

    I hope I would also recognize my actions as over the top and forgiven your mother, taking her words in the spirit in which they were meant.

  • JS October 12, 2011, 10:10 pm

    Anne, thank you for chiming in. I hope your family has healed somewhat and is able to move past this.

    LS, that was uncalled for, and completely unsupported by the comments here.

  • Toni October 12, 2011, 10:45 pm

    I think auntie was mostly annoyed with the “I know you don’t share my faith” comment. It sounds condescending, and perhaps it was not the first time she had heard this from OP’s mother. That being said, it’s difficult to find the right words to say in these circumstances. And I also think it’s rather ridiculous that OP’s mother is afraid of e-mail, needs to write out what she’s going to say to her own sister, and uses her daughter as a go-between in a family dispute.

  • Katy October 12, 2011, 11:20 pm

    I recently gave birth to my second daughter. She had some complications after birth and wound up on a ventilator soon afterwards. She spent exactly a week (to the minute, I remember looking at the clock as I was leaving) in the NICU, and we had our fair share of ups and downs in that time frame. Neither her father nor I got much sleep, either while I was still in the hospital or after I was discharged, and while our situation was complicated by having a three year old, I know I was under a massive amount of stress. It’s hard not to see your baby lying there with a combination of ten tubes and wires in/on her and not feel stressed. Add to that the fact that the day I went into the hospital with complications to await my c-section my grandfather had a stroke and was given days, weeks at most.
    In the middle of all this a well-meaning friend called. I can’t for the life of me remember what she said to me, all I remember was saying some extremely nasty things to her, to the point where I drove her to hang up. I’ve since apologized a few dozen times, and she forgave me the first time and said she understood why I went off- that after having to be ‘strong’ and having to deal with all those emotions for, at that point, six days I was just driven to a breaking point.
    I can’t imagine where I would be had my daughter not made it, and I can’t imagine hearing the doctors have so much hope in the morning and losing my child at night. During my time in the NICU I got to know all the mothers and fathers in there, though we rarely said a word to each other. There’s just a look I could assume we all had, that we had to be strong but we were parents and worried out of our minds. And there were plenty of grandparents in there who were under similar strains.
    While I think Aunt owed OP’s mother an apology after the fact, I think the e-mail was sent at what would be an emotional time for anyone. I don’t think it should be the basis of their relationship from here on out. What would be best is for OP’s mother to talk to her sister and express her feelings of how hurt she was by the response. Running from the problem isn’t going to solve it.
    And, for @K, my parents lost their first daughter hours after her birth 30 years ago. She had a fairly common name, and I can still see the pain on their faces when they hear that name. At what point is mourning the loss of someone for years acceptable? Or is there a cutoff after which point it’s supposed to stop hurting? Please don’t make assumptions about people’s grief.

  • Maryann October 12, 2011, 11:29 pm

    @Anne: Then your mother is utterly, completely, and totally exonerated, since she was praying for a life and not a soul. I can’t think of anything more appropriate for someone who is religious than to pray for the life of an endangered baby. I hope your mom knows this, and your aunt comes to her senses. Grief can do funny things to people, but your aunt really has taken too many liberties.

  • Leah October 13, 2011, 2:31 am

    Saying “I know you don’t share my faith, but I’m praying for you” can be easily interpreted as being holier-than-thou or critical, even if it is said with the best of intentions. Yes, it would have been more gracious for your aunt to forgive your mother’s presumably unintentional dig, but it’s not fair to expect someone who is grieving to be the bigger person.

  • PrincessSim October 13, 2011, 2:45 am

    I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child, but I think it would be the hardest thing any parent would ever have to go through.

    For those of who who have lost a child, please accept my condolences.

    For those of who who say that a miscarriage is no big deal, I want to whack you upside the head.

    I have no interest in having my own children, however I almost lost my mother earlier this year. If the feelings I felt are even 1% of what a parent feels when they lose a child, I don’t know how I would cope without losing my mind.

  • ellesee October 13, 2011, 2:49 am

    I think I would have been more upset at the OP’s mother for saying “It’s not the same, but I do know a tiny fraction of what S is feeling.”

    Um, NO. Wrong thing to say. Even if she had the same experience as S, never make it about yourself!

    And then combined with “I know you don’t share my faith, but I’m praying for you all” the whole message kinda seems like a “me” fest even thought that is not the intention. And in some cases, it could be misconstrued as “I’m praying for you heathens to be saved”……as I’ve been told many times.
    So yeah, I think I’d be offended….but I’d make a mental mark of who not to invite to future gatherings. I think OP’s mom had her heart in the right place….but the whole thing just ended up being a messy accident with emotions running high.

    While I do think the aunt and mom are being dramatic, I think there is some background between them regarding religion that caused the aunt to snap like that.

  • Edhla October 13, 2011, 3:27 am

    What Leslie Holman-Anderson said.

    Firstly: I’m sure your mother had only good intentions. But the road to h- yes. That.

    I am a Christian, but I’ve long since learned that if I’m going to pray for a non-Christian, I just do it, I don’t tell them so. I don’t think my lack of telling people I’m praying for them invalidates the prayer in any way. Announcing you are praying for someone can be and often is taken as smug and self-righteous at worst, and a delusional waste of time at best. Many Christians use prayer (or saying they will pray) as a stand-alone cop out to do anything else to help (though it’s clear in this case that your mother could not have done anything more to help.)

    There is also the type of Christian who uses tragedies like this to proselytize the people around them and that may also have been what your Aunt was reacting to.

    “Thoughts” is a lot safer than “prayers” when not everyone is on the same religious page. “You are in my thoughts” rather than “you are in my prayers” (even if they are.) If the person you are praying for isn’t religious, then “prayers” is clearly not a better option than “thoughts” and, as I said above, there’s a lot of baggage attached to an expression like that.

  • Edhla October 13, 2011, 3:34 am

    Oh, and sorry, I forgot: to me the part that had the most potential to cause offence was your mother’s mention of her miscarriage.

    I have never had a miscarriage but I’m sure if I ever did, I’d never really get over it. And I’m not kidding about that. However, I don’t understand why people need to compare tragedies the way your mother did. No, a miscarriage 30 years ago is not anything CLOSE to what your cousin must have been going through at that very time, and to my way of thinking your mother should never have brought it up just then. It could very well be seen as one-upping- something people do in misguided attempts to empathise. I had a friend who had sex with her boyfriend which she later regretted and then called “rape”- and she told another girl we knew, who had been gang-raped at the age of ten in a racially based kidnapping incident, that she “understood how you felt because I got raped too.”

    One of the most important things to not say to someone who is suffering is that you “know how they feel.” You don’t, and they may well take that honest attempt a kindess badly.

  • Lilya October 13, 2011, 4:26 am

    @Jennifer: What?! What is he talking about, Catholic cemeteries have (or at least they used to have) a section reserved for unbaptized infants. Besides, what happened to “suffer little children to come to me”?

    This isn’t exactly on topic, but I couldn’t help but notice some commenters mentioned being upset about the “I know what you feel because I too lost my X”. Yet in the comments we often find other people’s own stories or experience-based responses.
    I don’t think it’s an attempt to make another person’s loss turn into a contest. It’s just that when a person is suffering, we don’t know how to reach them, what to say. “I’m sorry for your loss” might be enough to them, but to us it can feel inadequate. If we bring up our own loss, it’s just to try and find some common ground, to show that we truly mean what we say because we’ve been where they are now.
    Unnecessary? Probably. Malicious? Not always. Let’s face it, “it’s all about me” people aren’t exactly subtle. Or likely to stop at that.

  • lkb October 13, 2011, 5:54 am

    I’ve seen a couple of references here about seemingly mistaken beliefs on what the Catholic Church teaches on the fate of babies lost to miscarriage. The Admin’s comments referred to Purgatory and at least one other post referred to their experiences in this situation.

    To clarify: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.” (CCC 1261)

    I am sorry for the person who referred to a priest (presumably Catholic) who refused to bury a child who was not Baptized. FWIW, anyone can baptize, especially in cases like this in which the person is near death. You pour water over the forehead of the person, and say “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. Ideally it is better to have the baptism performed by a priest or deacon, but this is allowed. (And yes, if the baby survives, there is a similar ceremony the Catholic Church offers so the family is not “cheated” out of the more festive Baptism most families enjoy.) The priest mentioned earlier seems to have been mistaken or the family misunderstood.

    Didn’t mean to hijack the thread. Just wanted to clarify.

  • Mabel October 13, 2011, 6:54 am

    I know the aunt was upset, but this seems excessive, to hold a grudge that long. I simply don’t understand why she would do that. And I didn’t see anything offensive in the message the OP’s mother sent. Regardless of another poster’s saying it can sometimes seem “smug” when someone says they’ll pray for you, the aunt knew that her sister was religious. She should have realized at some point that it wasn’t meant that way. I hope they settle their differences, because religion isn’t worth fighting about. It’s like politics–you agree to disagree, and to harbor resentment against someone’s heartfelt message of condolence in this manner seems more destructive than anything else.

  • Melnick October 13, 2011, 8:09 am

    I think your Mom sounds like a gentle soul. I don’t think there was anything offensive about what she said and that it truly came from a place of genuine love and affection. Offering a prayer was your mother’s way of saying that she felt helpless and wanted to do the only thing she could do to try to help from such a distance. Saying “I know you don’t share my faith” was her way of trying to show her sister that she wasn’t forcing the religious side on her but she was still trying to do something in the only way she knew how. I know many non-religious people who have asked me to pray for them in their time of need. I also think the statement about knowing a tiny fraction of the grief was Mom’s way of saying that she was empathising with the depth of grief whilst acknowledging at the same time that the rawness and depth of grief was far greater for her neice and her husband. It doesn’t sound like she’s trying to make it about her.

    I had a friend who lost a baby and the absolute worst thing well-meaning people kept saying to her was that it was God’s plan or that “he was in a better place now”. She is deeply Christian but there is something that feels like a kick in the guts when someone implies that a baby is better off being out of their parents arms. (Obviously not the case here).

    I have experienced my own grief before, though not to do with the death of a child, but it was the thing in life that I was most afraid of. There are absolutely no words that anyone can speak that can make it better. The only thing that I found comforting was people that sat with their arms around me and cried with me. It felt like they were sharing my pain and grief. If I was to say anything to someone in the depths of grief, it would be something along the lines of “This really sucks and it isn’t fair. Know that I’m crying with you and hurting with you. I love you”.

    With regards to the miscarriage – I think the way you feel about a miscarriage is somewhat aligned with when you think of that pregnancy as being a baby person. The loss of a baby is the loss of all the hopes and dreams that went with that baby. My mother-in-law had a miscarriage nearly 30 years. She didn’t know she was pregnant and hadn’t wanted anymore children. She only discovered she was pregnant when she was miscarrying and to this day it still upsets her. I’ve talked to other people who are relieved to miscarry because they believe that it was an unhealthy body and the baby will come back to them in a healthy body. I think it is destructive to tell someone if, how or how long they should grieve over a miscarriage.

    As for not calling the sister, I can totally identify with your mother. I am a very soft and sensitive soul. Whilst I will deal with most situations and people head on, there are 2 or 3 people that are extremely close to me that I can’t seem to make myself deal with. I cannot predict how they will react and think that it can make things far worse to confront those people. I feel like they would end the relationship altogether in a moment of anger or escalate the situation and it would kill me – the stress would be far worse than I was already experiencing. I wish I was the type of person who didn’t feel things deeply and take it all to heart but it is what makes me who I am and is why I care so deeply about the people in my life and why people tend to lean into me in their times of need. Most people don’t realise how sensitive I am – only my husband (and immediately family) who has to wipe away the rivers of tears. I don’t think it makes your Mom a coward or a drama queen – just someone who knows the personality she is and the personality she is dealing with and who deeply values the relationship and is trying to make it better without making it worse. Sometimes you have to wait until someone well and truly calms down before they can begin to see the truth of a situation. Keeping the lines of communication open and making it easy for them to make their way back to you is always a good strategy when you don’t know what else to do – it’s far better than deliberately ignoring someone or cutting them off. Big hugs to your Mama. The sun will shine again. 🙂

  • Caros October 13, 2011, 8:14 am

    “It’s not the same, but I do know a tiny fraction of what S is feeling.”

    There are some negative reactions to this, I think there is another viewpoint to be considered.

    It isn’t about ‘making it all about her/me’ or whomever.

    I was in a serious car accident with a close friend, R. We were both passengers & the driver was killed, the accidently was entirely someone elses fault and incredibly traumatic.

    R and I both took great comfort in the time we were able to spend together through our physical recovery & ever since. We both knew that we didn’t have to explain how or what we were feeling to each other, it was known and understood in a way that those around us (who had never been through such an experience) could not reach, however hard they tried. At our worst, I knew I didn’t have to explain to R (nor he to me) why we did or said whatever we did. My mother was diagnosed with cancer within a few months of the accident (now fully clear and living well). She and I have the closest relationship between my siblings and she’s said how upset that I didn’t offer her the support she thought I should/could. I’ve explained to her since that, at the time, I barely had enough energy to make it through every day physically, let alone have enough energy left for emotions. She didn’t understand (& still doesn’t) but R did.

    A few years later, my boss’s daughter had meningitis as a teenager. She, thankfully, survived but my boss couldn’t understand why she behaved as she did in the months of her recovery. From my own experiences I could explain what she might be experiencing and I think it helped him understand the situation a little more.

    It’s not about ‘making it about me’, it’s about being able to show empathy at a level of understanding closer than others around you. Hence the ‘but I do know a tiny fraction of what S is feeling’. She’s not claiming anything more than being able to provide/share that unspoken understanding between people through a similar experience.

  • Jojo October 13, 2011, 8:24 am

    How wonderful that the cousin is going to have a lovely little girl in her arms soon. It seems like OP’s family have had a very traumatic time and while no one will ever stop mourning for the children they’ve tragically lost, now is perhaps the moment to embrace the present.
    If a year of trying to placate the aunt hasn’t received any response, OP’s mother is just going to have to leave her to come round in her own time. Meanwhile, she could try out some ‘silver surfer’ courses and get out into the world some more as it seems she really needs a boost in self confidence where modern technology is concerned. The OP really has to push her mother to do this and send her own emails as becoming involved in the middle of communicating with warring relatives does nothing but complicate matters.
    From the outside it does look like the whole family need to be encouraged to grasp the moment rather than to continue creating laborious co-dependent scenarios that involve past tragedy and unfounded fear of the new.

  • Aje October 13, 2011, 8:30 am

    Bad circumstances do not give anyone the excuse to act indecently. They do explain why a person might do so, but if you happen to do something wrong out of anger or grief, you are responsable for making it up to that person afterwards… by apologizing.

  • Wendy October 13, 2011, 10:11 am

    I think, whatever the intentions were and how the words were taken is one thing…the biggest issue I see here is the Aunt still apparently holding a grudge all this time later when her daughter and son and law have done their best to move on and mend fences. It’s one thing to lash out in grief to even the most well intended message, it’s completely another thing to continue to act with venom a year later. What is done is done. We’ve all done or said things at difficult times that we’d like to kick ourselves for later, or were taken the wrong way…it’s the nature of being human. My family often says, “I’ll pray for you, if that’s okay.” Or we just say, “We’re thinking of you, tell us what we can do for you.” But people grieving often take the most innocent statements badly. I know I’ve done it, and later felt terrible about it. Holding a grudge this long…wow.

    I would guess there’s more going on in the mind of the Aunt than this one thing…someone said they thought it was a result of build up between Aunt’s perceiving a “holier-than-thou” attitude…and there may be even more, but we don’t have nearly enough information to judge. I feel bad for Anne’s mom who did what she thought was right at the time and sincerely meant it with all the love and best wishes she could muster. But she did what was right–she apologized for giving offense. It’s Aunt’s responsibility now to accept it or not. But if she refuses to forgive, the only person she’s really hurting here is herself.

    Best wishes for the new baby!

  • Javin October 13, 2011, 10:18 am

    I can kind of see things from the aunt’s point of view here. I was raised Roman Catholic, and even considered going into the seminary at a young age. After nearly a decade of religious research, I am now a staunch agnostic. My family, of course, are still practicing Catholics, and on more than one occasion I have received an “I’ll pray for you” message that was NOT meant in a heartfelt and warm manner, but rather used as a snide “we’re better than you because you’re no longer Catholic” tone. After some time, it does begin to grate.

    While I’ve no doubt that the OP’s mother meant absolutely nothing of the sort with her message, it is precisely because of this that you should keep religion out of conversation when you specifically know that the other person does not follow the same one you do. The statement, “I know you’re not my religion, but…” needs only the SLIGHTEST inflection, possibly even caused by the OP’s mom’s own grief, to sound condescending. I can see how, if the message was construed as condescending (particularly depending on past experiences) during such an awful time of grief that emotions could blow so far out of proportion that the aunt may never be convinced that the message was meant otherwise.

    When you know someone is not the same religion as you, the time to bring it up is not during a time of grief.

  • Jennifer October 13, 2011, 10:36 am

    i lost a child years ago and what i discovered is that not many people know what to say to hopefully help the parents to understand that yes this does happen and that you still have people who care. parents dont want to hear condolences they want their child and the best thing that i got told myself was by my sister who said ” i am here if you need to talk” she made sure that the support was there and that i knew that i wasnt alone.

  • A.J. October 13, 2011, 10:56 am

    This is why I always tell people that “I’ll be thinking about them” instead of “praying” because you never know if the person is going to take offense to that.

    As for someone taking offense about the OP’s mom mentioning her own miscarriage and how she somewhat knew how she felt, then I’m afraid I’ve done this too, and like the OP’s mom, out of a place of sympathy/empathy and not trying to “make everything about me.”

    I went through a very devastating (to me) happening in my life. When it was going on, my friends and family were very sympathetic (which I appreciated at the time and still do) but they couldn’t completely understand because they hadn’t been through it. But when I met other people who had been through the same thing or some degree of it, it meant something more to me because they got it. They had been there. And they have gotten through it. And sometimes that’s what you need to see/hear- someone has been there in some way, they can understand in a visceral way what you are going through, and they have gotten through it.

    So I don’t see OP’s mom as making it “all about her,” I see her as trying to express comfort.

  • AthenaC October 13, 2011, 10:56 am

    @lkb – Thanks for clarifying. Your post was perfectly on-topic, so you’re not hijacking. And even if you were, what’s the problem? There’s only so many permutations of “X was rude, X wasn’t rude” you can have before the thread gets boring. Discussing tangential topics keeps it fresh. Plus, one only hijacks successfully at the consent of the other posters who reply.

  • Goldie October 13, 2011, 11:02 am

    I am utterly, completely non-religious, and I do not see anything wrong with the OP’s mother’s letter. I find it very thoughtful, and the acknowledgment that not all people share the same faith very open-minded.

    I think the aunt needs to be left alone for the time being. As long as the OP and her family remain in touch with the cousin (which is great!), the aunt will contact them when she’s good and ready. A year may not have been enough for her to recover from her loss and re-evaluate what happened between her and her sister.

  • Smiling Charmer October 13, 2011, 11:06 am

    To K,

    Please don’t think you’re waaaaaaaaaaaayy right about what you assume about people you’ve never laid eyes on in your life. This is waaaaaaaaaaayy pretentious, don’t you think? Besides, nobody can “mesure” one’s amount of grief.

  • Samantha October 13, 2011, 11:27 am

    The only case in which that might have been bothersome would have been if OP’s mother had said the “I know you don’t share my faith, but…” part in a condescending ‘I’m better than you and can deal with this better than you because of this’ tone. I’ve heard it from family a few times while dealing with sadness and while my response was always to simply end the conversation, give it a week and then forget it, I could understand an angry reaction. That being said, the rest of OP’s mother’s message certainly doesn’t go along with that kind of tone and thus I’d agree that it was just anger born out of sadness and perhaps a bit of misunderstanding.

  • shostet October 13, 2011, 12:01 pm

    I thought I was shostet, but now I think I must be Edhla, because she said exactly what I was thinking. I have the same reaction to someone telling me they are praying for me. If you are, fine, but you don’t have to tell me. And don’t ask my permission either. If you want to do it, do it. It doesn’t make the prayer any more successful, as far as I know, if you tell others you are praying. If you feel the need to tell me you are doing it, it seems to me like you are asking me to congratulate you.

    I also feel, and this is strictly from personal experience with people around me so does not apply to everyone in the world who ever prays for another person, that “praying” often takes the place of “doing.” If I were in dire straits, I’d much rather someone offer tangible (IMHO) help than to just pray for me.

  • Calli Arcale October 13, 2011, 1:54 pm

    I usually go with “my thoughts and prayers are with you” or some variation, because it sort of covers the bases. For people I’m close to, I would say more, of course. If they’re not religious, I won’t belabor the religion aspect — the idea is to show sympathy, which does have its own comfort. For friends or family, I’d also want them to know that if they need to talk, my ears are available.

    Regarding bringing up one’s own comparable experiences . . . I think it’s okay to do that. Yes, it can be misinterpreted, but so can anything. I’d use it as a lead in to “and if you need someone to talk to, or even just to sit with, I’m available”. It can be helpful to share with someone who has been through the same thing. That’s the whole point of support groups, after all. But it has to be an open invitation, with no pressure. If they’re not ready to share, they’re not ready to share.

    My grandfather’s relationship with my grandmother began when he asked her out on a date — and they ended up not going on the date because, while she finished getting ready, he talked to her father and discovered that they’d fought on the same ground — grandpa was in WWII, great-grandpa was in WWI. By the time my grandma came down, they had maps out and were looking to see where they’d each been. The date ended up being the two men reminiscing about something nobody else in their families could relate to — war. When you’re ready to share, it can be difficult to find the words to do so. In those circumstances, it can be helpful to talk to someone who has been there, because then you don’t need to find the words — they already know.

    Regarding an appropriate length of time to mourn anything . . . . The Queen Mother, who passed away not terribly long ago, had mourned the death of her husband, King George VI, for fifty years before following him to the grave. She was asked if the grief got better over time, and replied, “It never gets better. But you get better at it.”

  • KimD October 13, 2011, 2:17 pm

    I do think it is wrong to say to anyone at anytime and especially at a death/illness “I know what you are feeling”. It is apparent that the mother meant no harm but she should have learned in her life that that is not the right thing to say.

    The praying doesn’t bother me as much, I am not religious though.

    For the future, one should learn to say “I am so sorry for your loss, whatever you need I am here for you ” and let people tell you if they want to cry on your shoulder, yell their anger at you, give them space to be alone, etc.

  • Allie October 13, 2011, 4:12 pm

    Your poor mom. I feel so bad for her because I have at least some understanding of how terrible she is feeling. I construed her message to mean “I don’t want to offend you by saying I’ll be praying for you all,” and I can’t see anything wrong in her message, hard as I try. I hope that is a comfort to her. I suspect her sister was just looking for trouble. Perhaps anger is easier to deal with than grief.

  • Cami October 13, 2011, 4:28 pm

    In re Roman Catholic belief: While I do not know what the Roman Catholic church currently espouses in re unbaptized infants and heaven, I DO remember quite clearly what I was taught by priests and nuns approx 40 years ago. We were taught that they stayed in limbo forever. I remember it quite clearly, because since it seemed horribly unfair, I questioned the nun about it and she became quite angry with me. So angry that she yelled and then left to bring in the head priest. He proceeded to grab me by the arm and haul me over to the window. It was a very brisk fall day, with the wind whipping the trees and the leaves blowing all over. He told me that if a baby dies without being baptized, that they were like the leaves in the air — floating through limbo — but unlike the leaves, the babies would float “forevvvvvvvvvvvvvvver… Make sure you get your babies baptized immediately or else God will punish them for your failures.”

    My dh grew up many hours away from me in a different state and is several years older, but he was taught similarly, although without the visual that haunted my nightmares for many years.

  • Bint October 13, 2011, 5:07 pm

    As far as I read it, the mother didn’t send an email. Didn’t the OP say she rang up and left that message on the answerphone?

    I have to say I’d be really upset to have someone leave that on my phone at such a time. The presumption of knowing what I’m feeling, and the need to say ‘I know you don’t share my faith but’. Now is not the time to mention any religion or yourself.

    That said, yes, the Aunt went well OTT and even if the mother could have done it better, it doesn’t excuse her nasty response. I don’t think her grief excuses it either, actually. It’s a horrible thing to say to someone and she owes the mother an apology. Nobody is there to be our emotional punching bag, no matter what happens. We should all strive to keep that self-control.

    I have no religion at all. That said, why be offended that someone religious is praying for me? It’s a nice thing to do. I don’t believe in their god but I believe in the power of their positive thoughts, however that’s channelled.

  • grumpy_otter October 13, 2011, 5:11 pm

    @ Cat

    Thanks a lot for stating:

    “I asked her if she thought she could out-Christian Christ.”

    I now have to clean the soda off my keyboard and monitor screen because I sprayed it all out my mouth when I read your remark. That is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard! 🙂

  • anonymous October 13, 2011, 5:22 pm

    Lily G – while I am sure some mourners share your feelings, I have to say that you can’t speak for everyone. I tend to agree with your assertion that “I know how you feel” is not a good thing to say to a grieving person, although the way the OP’s mother phrased it, I don’t think it was that bad.

    However, I can’t agree with this:

    “In addition, you cannot offer your religious comfort to someone who doesn’t share it. That imposes your beliefs on their reaction; an action which can be resented for decades. No matter how well-intentioned or large the spirit of love in which the prayer is offered, they DO NOT want it.”

    Err, I’m agnostic/secular, but if a religious friend of mine (I have many friends of many faiths) offers me comfort in a time of pain that references their religion, I DO feel comforted – not because we believe in the same deity/deities, but comforted knowing that the friend is there for me and expressing it in the way they best know how or that feels appropriate to them. I don’t feel that such an action imposes their beliefs on me or the situation – they’re sharing, not forcing. As for ‘they DO NOT want it’ – well, I am sure some people don’t and I speak only for myself here, but while I would not say I actively want people to pray for me, I will say that it doesn’t bother me. I can’t say I “DO NOT want it”.

    Don’t presume that all people have the same reaction you do to people who try to show love/sympathy through a religion you don’t share. Not everyone agrees with you. No blanket statements about what people do and do not want, please.

  • Caros October 13, 2011, 5:29 pm


    It’s not ‘I know what you are feeling’, it’s more ‘I understand what it’s like to go through this experience’. Empathy!

  • Tanz October 13, 2011, 6:59 pm

    @ Caros: Six years ago when my twins were born they ended up spending a couple of weeks in the neonatal unit due to failure to thrive (my milk was late coming in and they weren’t feeding well). They were my first babies, it was right on Xmas (a big deal in our family) and I felt personally responsible for their condition. I was feeling horribly stressed and upset and didn’t want to see anyone.

    Fast forward a couple of years and my SIL has a very premature baby, who ends up spending a lot of time in the NICU. After that experience she came and apologised to me for thinking I was ‘overly dramatic’ in my reactions when my twins were in hospital – because now she had been in a similar (albeit more serious) situation than mine she suddenly understood why I’d felt the way I did. And still later when she’d admitted to having times when it all got too much and she’d wanted to just walk away I was able to empathise – again, because I had been in a similar situation I knew what that feeling was like.

    While I agree it’s not good to make someone else’s misery ‘all about you’ there is a real place for empathy from someone who has been there.

  • KTB October 13, 2011, 7:29 pm

    @ Jennifer: Your aunt needs to get in touch with her Bishop -even if it was a long time ago, that priest may still be active-, and let him know that the priest is giving scandal to the faithful. (I know hearing that would make *me* despair of God’s mercy.) It’s pretty serious that he would say such a thing, and a terrible breach of his pastoral role. My deepest sympathies. 🙁

    @ Cami
    Continuing the Limbo discussion: Limbo’s not in the Catechism now, and it never was. (The Catholic Church never actually changes doctrine, you know! ^.^ ) It was a long-standing theological thought experiment. I can’t imagine what people felt thinking it *was* true, that their babies were forever denied heaven because they weren’t baptized. The leadership of the past 40 years has a lot to answer for…

  • Edhla October 13, 2011, 8:56 pm

    Caros- but that’s just the point. No matter how similar in outward fact your own experience is to another persons, you aren’t them. So you don’t and can’t know what they are feeling. You may know what it feels like for YOU to undergo a tragedy like that. You may know how it feels for YOU to lose a child, but every human being is profoundly different, and nobody can truly, completely share another person’s experience or pain (even if they had the SAME experience, they will react and feel differently because they are different people). To say you can truly know how another is feeling is wrong, and many people find it insulting or self-centred.

    I really think that if the mother wanted to express that she thought she knew what the cousin was going through (or part thereof) her timing was spectacularly bad. The last thing the aunt or cousin needed to hear just then was about the mother’s miscarriage. That is perhaps something she could have brought up later in the family’s grief period, when the pain and urgency was not so raw. I can fully understand the aunt sending such a grief-stricken message and being enraged by a response which, to her, was full of her sister talking about her religion and her own 30-year-old experiences, instead of being centred upon the cousin and her family.

  • Baglady October 14, 2011, 1:02 am

    I cried when I read this post, because I’ve been there. No, I never lost a child, born or unborn, but I have been blindsided by an angry reprimand when I had no idea I’d done/said anything wrong. I’m in my 50s and still tear up remembering such incidents 10, 20, 30 or more years ago.

    I think when it comes to consoling the grieving, people are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is dismissed as insincere. “I went through something similar so I understand” is countered by “No, you don’t!” In the case of OP’s mom and sister, mom’s sincere effort to offer comfort in a way that was meaningful to her — with disclaimer acknowledging the family’s non-religiousness — was met with a verbal femaledogslap.

    Maybe mom’s wording was clumsy. But so are most people’s efforts to console the grieving. Many of us want to offer something more than “I’m sorry.” But because nerves are so raw, even the most well-meaning words can be misinterpreted and sting. This does *not* give mourners a license to be rude and lash out. They need to accept the condolences graciously and remind themselves that Mr./Ms. Clumsy Consoler meant well.

  • wolfgirl October 14, 2011, 5:34 am

    Yeah, I have to agree with Cami, my mum was raised RC, and was deeply traumatised by being told in no uncertain terms by the nuns that unbaptised babies WILL go to limbo, forever. She also got told that they could be saved though, if people prayed for their lost souls. So she remembers, age 5, staying up really late at night kneeling by her bed, crying and praying to try to save all of the lost babies! Then she realised she she didn’t really buy it, and has been…something, not Cathoic but not an athiest…ever since. @ KTB, maybe it was never an official doctrine then, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people grew up being told that! It’s good that it’s no longer being taught, if that’s not what the church holds.

    But… @ lkb’s clarifiaction, v intersting to read that. However, I’m not all that comforted! It’s saying (as I see it) that basically the unbaptised babies are PROBABLY in limbo, and PRETTY MUCH they are screwed, unless the deity feels like being extra-super merciful! Things like, “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” and “…allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.” ….so not too reassuring, still says they need to be baptised or they’re screwed as far as I can tell?! I’m not trying to be inflammatory and I may be reading it wrong, just seems like they’re saying ‘well, those unbaptised babies, not a lot of hope for them really…but you never know, they might get lucky!’ I just don’t see how it’s NOT saying that only baptised souls can get into heaven, therefore unbaptised babies cannot? @lkb, could you please clarify if the Catholi church holds that unbaptised people (babies, adults whoever) CAN actually be buried in Cathlic graveyards, and/or can go to heaven? I thought it still stood that they could not? Is it more an exception made for unbaptised newborns babies, as innocents, or something?
    I’m honestly just interested, no offence is intended! 🙂

  • Kimberly October 14, 2011, 7:15 am

    Response to OP’s second post…….

    Aunt does not answer phone calls from your mother, so you say email is the only form of communication.

    Sorry, no it is not. Your mother can actually write a letter and send it to aunt via snail mail. This has been done for a long time, I do believe. And without no involvement what so ever with you.

    Than, your mom has done her part and all that she can do on her end to apologize. Ball is now in aunt’s court as to what type of relationship she wants with her sister.

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