Thursday, September 28, 2017

Grief without God

While I don't focus much on it in my writing, nor am I extremely outspoken about it in my every day life, I do not believe in god.  I am what you could classify as an agnostic atheist, meaning although I can't claim to know for sure, I am not inclined to believe there is a god.   I would also consider myself a Humanist, which is less about belief in the supernatural and more about faith in humanity and our responsibility to our fellow humans.  

I came to my beliefs really over the course of my lifetime.  I think all people search for meaning in their lives, and I was never one to find it in religion.  It never made sense to me.  I had too many questions and not enough answers.  I was never angry or upset with god - I just never felt like the concept of god fit in with who I am.     

Over and over, I see confusion regarding how atheists function as people.  How can they be a good person without religion?  How can they find meaning in a life without god?  I've already written a post about the misconceptions others have towards non-believers and a post about how I feel about the phrase "God's Plan".  Yet somehow, I have yet to write about atheism in how it relates to the main point of this blog - grief.  So, here you go.  
This is that post. 

Recently, I read an article that claimed the difference between how an atheist grieves and how a Christian grieves is that a Christian "grieves with hope" and that those without god "sorrow without hope."  I've seen this same mistaken idea in many places throughout the online universe.   I, by no means, "sorrow without hope".   Just because my hope doesn't come in the form of faith or belief in god, doesn't mean it isn't there.  

In the darkness of grief, we look for light - any light - to help guide us through. This is universal.   We all seek out ways to bring peace to a broken heart.  For some people, prayer brings peace.  Holding on to their faith in god and the belief someone loves them and guides them through the dark is comforting. God is both the buoy and the lighthouse in an angry ocean.   I understand this mindset, but I don't follow it.  So, what's my light in the dark?  What keeps me, and any other non-believer, afloat?   Honestly, I think that answer is very different for everyone.   At the beginning, I don't really know how anyone gets through that absolute shocking pain - we just do.  All of us, with or without god, broken to our very core, go into survival mode and for the longest time, we are alive but not living.  We eat, we sleep, we cry.  We feel empty and lifeless.  It's when we reach that moment of wanting to live again - of wanting to try to feel something more than blinding pain -  where the differences in grief manifest.

As a non-believer, I did not find comfort in faith in god.  I didn't shun it, it just wasn't part of my thought process.   A month after Kenley died, my first real act of healing took place when I volunteered for the charity that supplied her memory box.   I spent time with other women who had lost babies and I created bracelets to wrap around the wrists of teddy bears.  I helped pack the memory boxes with important items to help parents memorialize their child who will never come home.  This afternoon was the first step in trying to make meaning out of what had happened.  

For me, my hope comes not in the form of religion, but in action. My hope is that I can bring positive change to my life through the things that I do.  When I DO something to make a difference in the world around me, I feel connected to her.  I feel like I am making her death mean something. Grief is work.  Anyone who says it's not has never done it.   I worked hard to arrive at the place where I am now, and the road is long and treacherous.  So, I do whatever I can to make an impact in her name.  I volunteer.  I write.  I carry out Random Acts of Kindness.  I give presentations.  I attend Walks of Remembrance.  I run.  I do whatever I can to bring some light into my darkness and to walk this path with as much strength and grace as I can muster.  

Obviously, taking action isn't unique to non-believers.  I think most grieving parents, religious or not, seek out a way to honor their child.  I have many Christian friends who head charities, run support groups, or write blogs and articles.  The only difference between what they do as believers and what atheists do is that they do it while believing in god.  Their charity may have a religious theme.  Their support group may pray before meeting.  Their blog may reference their faith.  But, the purpose and the end result is the same.  Our children are remembered and our hearts find some peace.  

I think many people may think atheists grieve without hope because we lack a belief in the afterlife, therefore we have no hope of seeing our children again.  Everyone has their own way of coping with the finality of death.  For me, endings are comforting.  When I was in elementary school, I remember being terrified of the concept of eternal life - even one in paradise.  I imagined this beautiful expanse of pink, like a sun setting into infinity, and my stomach would drop and tingle in fear as I thought about how that would go on forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.... so I rarely allowed myself to think about it.  As I grew into my mindset as an atheist, the idea of life ending at death actually settles me.   I imagine it being like the time before we were born; we are conscious of nothing and so nothing matters to us.  For me, I feel that knowing I won't see Kenley again is easier than thinking I might.  I'm not hanging my feelings on something that won't happen until the end of my life, and I'm not having to envision her somewhere without me.  I mean, I would do anything I could to have her in my arms again, obviously.  But, that's not the cards I've been dealt, so I play the best I can with the ones I have.

A popular piece of writing in the atheist community regarding death is called "You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral" by Aaron Freeman.  

"You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly."

While religion has never really made sense to me, science always has.  I love the fact that energy can't be created or destroyed - only changed in form.  I love thinking about how all of our atoms once came from the belly of the beginnings of the universe, swirling in a cosmic soup that would one day become galaxies - and how, long after our consciousness has ended, those same atoms will find their way back into the stars.   Right now, the body of my child is in the form of ashes in a pink ceramic urn.  Millions of years from now, when Mother Earth has breathed her last breath and our Red Giant sun engulfs our planet, my baby's atoms, along with mine, will return to the universe - and to each other.  To me, that is beautiful.  

Despite what some people may think, Christians and Atheists don't really grieve all that differently.  We all love and miss our children terribly and we all do what we can to help ourselves get through our day.  We all need hope and, if we are lucky, we all find it in something.  Maybe it's found in the belief in heaven and maybe it's found in the power of stardust.  Either way, we are all just humans doing the best we can not to hurt as we live our lives on this spinning sphere.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Kenley Ran

My half marathon weekend is over.   Kenley Ran!  My official time was 3 hours, 22 minutes, 48 seconds.    I have already signed up for a 10 mile race in two weeks to help me qualify for a higher corral next year because I am apparently a runner now.  Who knew?

Friday, February 24
Our weekend started Friday morning.   Mike got home from work (ah...the joys of working nights!) and we headed to Orlando around 8:30.   We arrived at Port Orleans Riverside Resort and found my parents' room so Mike could sleep since we couldn't officially check in until 3.  Even though I am fairly local,  I love staying on Disney property. Disney does such an excellent job maintaining a sense of relaxation and fantasy in their resorts.   Our building looked just like the mansions in the New Orleans Garden District.   

While Mike slept, we went to the Expo to register and look around.  


Arriving at the Expo, I was immediately overwhelmed.  It was enormous and full of people - not to mention this was the first official moment of Kenley Running.  I teared up several times before we even got inside a building.   In order to register, we entered  gymnasium sized room where the entire length of a wall consisted of registration booths divided by bib number.  I was 13655, which put me in corral 0 - two corrals from the end, unsurprising for a first race.  
To get to the vendors, we had to walk out of the giant registration building and into an even more giant building next door.   

The place was swarming with people and there was a literal buzz in the air.  Booths snaked up and down the expansive room.  There were vendors selling compression socks, hairbands, protein snacks, earbuds, running skirts, shoe inserts, race tiaras - you name it.  If it was associated with either running or princesses, it was there.  And it was amazing!   

As we walked down one aisle, my mom pointed to a booth to my left and said "There's Jeff Galloway."  I looked over and there he was - the man in my ear for the last eleven months.   We walked over to meet him.  I told him about Kenley - about why I run and about how he has helped me accomplish what I always thought to be impossible.   He told me how running really helps with hard emotions like grief and he said he was proud of me for persisting.   "You're doing it!" he said with a smile and a hug.   Really, he is the nicest man. 

I left the expo with a green sparkly headband, some new earbuds for my strangely small earholes, and a new grasp on just how close I really was to my goal.  

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting settled in to the hotel and getting organized for my sister's Florida baby shower that evening.  

Saturday, February 25: Kenley's Birthday
We all wore our specially made Mickey ears to commemorate the occasion.  

We woke up bright and early to start our day at the Be Our Guest restaurant at the Magic Kingdom.  Knowing how coveted and hard to get these reservations are, my sister made them in October.  Because of them, we were allowed to enter the park before opening, which was pretty awesome.  There's nothing quite like having Main Street mostly to yourself.   We ate a hearty breakfast of meats, cheese, and pastries and headed off to try to ride the Seven Dwarves Mine Train before the crowd.    As we were walking to the entrance of the coaster, what looked like a giant tour group came racing around the corner and slid into the line before we could get there.   It was a giant snake of people that seemed to have no end - and we immediately realized we had missed our window.  The park had opened and the crowd had arrived.  The wait time jumped from 5 minutes to 90 in a matter of seconds. So, we hopped across to the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh instead.   

Our day was full of family, food, and fun - mostly because of my sister's meticulous planning skills.   We ate lunch at the Crystal Palace and Piper had a blast meeting her favorite characters from the Hundred Acre Woods.


Towards the end of the day, I felt the familiar twinges around my eyes that signaled a migraine.  I am prone to them anyway, but I always get one the day after Kenley's birthday.  I suppose my body must have known I couldn't have one on race day, so my yearly migraine came early.   I didn't get to go to dinner with everyone else.   I tried, but the restaurant was too loud and I knew I wouldn't make it.   So, while my family ate dinner, I laid in my hotel bed, trying to keep myself from spinning into oblivion.  Around 10pm, I had slept enough of it off in order to stand upright and I gathered my things together for the race.  I laid everything out in the bathroom so when I started getting ready at 3:15, I wouldn't wake up Mike and Piper, and I went back to bed, hoping the last traces of it would be gone in time.  

Sunday, February 26:  Race Day!
In case you didn't know, 3:15 isn't even the butt-crack of dawn.  It's more like the small of the back of dawn. It's early!   I woke up feeling a little fuzzy headed with some migraine residue still clinging to the back of my eyes, but I could tell it would fade away as I got myself moving. I put on my race outfit and laced up my shoes.  I straightened my lace charms with Kenley's pictures on them, grabbed the oatmeal I had made myself with the coffee maker, took a puff of my inhaler, and out the door I went.   
My mom and brother-in-law were running too, so I met them at their rooms to walk to the bus. My sister was supposed to run, but got pregnant almost immediately after registering in July, so that was a no-go.  Instead, she and her belly headed to Main Street to cheer us on.

There were over 24,000 runners registered for the Princess Half, so the traffic to get everyone there was pretty intense.  Our resort is almost directly next door to EPCOT, yet the bus ride took a good 30 minutes.  Stepping off the bus, I could immediately see just how popular this race is.  

We found our corral - and wouldn't you know it - it was marked with a pink balloon.   Well, hello there, little one!  


Corral A was released first, followed by all the rest.   With each corral release, they shot off fireworks, which served their purpose of jazzing everyone up even more.  As each corral was released, the crowd moved up, and we inched closer to the start line.   Finally, it was time for Corral O to go.   My heart beat frantically in my chest.  I fumbled around to get my music started and my phone into my flipbelt in time.  It had been an hour since the first corral left the gate, so the sun was starting to rise and the sky was changing from purple to pink to blue.  It was just after 6:30 when the announcer screamed to Corral O, "Rrrruuuunnnners get rrrrreeeaaadyyyy!".   Fireworks exploded over the glowing pink start line and we were off.   Kenley was running!


The size of the crowd was enormous.   Tutus were everywhere - and everyone was within elbow distance of everyone else.  As we got further from the start, it thinned out a little in places, but not entirely.   There were times when I was supposed to be running, but couldn't because the crowd around me was too thick.   Although that was frustrating, it was still an amazing race.   Each mile marker consisted of a rectangle about 8 feet high and 3 feet wide with a Disney character on the front.  Inside, there must have been a speaker because all of them played songs related to the character.   Mile Marker 4 was Peter Pan, so I made sure to stop and get a photo.

All along the course were character stops and photo ops.   From Jack Sparrow to Malificent to the Genie from Aladdin, there were plenty of opportunities to interact with a Disney icon.   I didn't stop at any of them.  The lines weren't super long, but I also knew I wasn't super fast and I wanted to finish on time.   (maybe next year though).   

The course ran from EPCOT up to the Magic Kingdom, through the park and around the castle, and back to EPCOT.   My sister was on the corner of Main Street just as we entered Magic Kindgom, holding up a #RunKenleyRun sign and ringing a cowbell.  

My mom and I got a few quick photos in front of the castle before we were on our way out of the park and back down to EPCOT.  

I had expected the race to be extremely emotional.  I was worried I wouldn't be able to run because I'd be crying so hard.  But, honestly, I was just in the zone.  I listened to my music.  I talked to my mom.  I walked.  I ran.  I took in everything around the course.  I had a great time.   There's so much going on at a Disney race, you can't help but have fun.  Sure, there were moments when the magnitude of what I was doing hit me right in the face, when my heart swelled to wrap itself around the place she is missing, and when my love for her was so great, I felt like she was radiating out of me.  But, the amazing part was - none of it was sad.   I wasn't sad once - at least not in the sense of what I have been.  Clearly, sadness comes with loss - but in the three hours and twenty two minutes I was running for her, I felt so many more emotions than sadness.   I felt the joy of being her mother, the pride in accomplishing a goal in her memory, the excitement of running my very first half marathon, the support of those I knew were tracking me.   I felt the most complete I have felt in four years.  I almost felt whole again.

The last mile or so was hard.   I had to walk more intervals than I ran.   As we looped back into EPCOT and passed Mile Marker 12, I felt so much relief I was almost there.   We circled around Spaceship Earth, down to the World Showcase, and back again.  At 13 miles, we passed a gospel choir.  Almost there!   I turned the final corner and there it was - the finish line flanked by grandstands full of cheering friends and family.   

A year of training - a year of taking my non-runner self out on runs 3 times a week - a year of researching interval training and running nutrition - a year of shelling out hundreds of dollars for workout clothes, shoes, arch support inserts - a year of focusing on challenging myself in the name of my little girl  - had all come down to this moment.   My moment.  Her moment.  OUR moment.   I crossed the finish line with my hands in the air and tears in my eyes.  

I looked over to the stands to see a small crowd of people in green #runkenleyrun shirts and I waved at my family.   Following the crowd, I walked over to collect my medal - a gold bell with a rose in the middle to go along with the Beauty and the Beast theme - and a box of post-race snacks.  My mom and I walked around through the runner's section and into the area to meet family where we met up with Mike and Piper, my dad, my sister and her husband, and my friend Nanci who had come to watch me cross the finish line.   I felt victorious.   And exhausted.

We all went back to the hotel for baths and naps.   Once we were clean and rested, we spent the afternoon at EPCOT.  I wore my t-shirt and medal with pride - as did many other runners.   

For a lot of people, this weekend was a fun-run, something they do every year with their friends.   For me, this weekend was both the start of a new tradition and the end of a way to think about my daughter.  Since the day she was born, an emptiness surrounded her memory.  I carried her for her entire life and I left the hospital without her.  It often felt like I left her there.  For four years, that hospital was where I held her memory.   I only knew her outside of me inside those walls, where she was still and silent in my arms - and so it's been so hard to separate Kenley from her death.   Thoughts of her were memories of me holding her in that hospital, of me crying and empty and broken.   Even in my writing and actions in the months and years after have been focused on stillbirth - on death.  For four years, the focus has been on the fact my baby died.  And, oh, how that is so very draining.  

This weekend (and the year leading up to it) changed that focus.   I worked hard for a year to push my body to do something amazing.  I worked hard for a year to transition Kenley's memory from a hospital room to a finish line.  And I did it.   She isn't still and cold in a bassinet.   She is alive in my beating heart.  She flows in and out of me with my breath.  She travels miles and miles on the soles of my shoes.  She is no longer something my body failed to do - but something it achieved.   She is an accomplishment, a victory.

I will always struggle with grief because this is the journey child loss sends you on.   I will always miss her and I will always love her.  I will always, always wonder who she should have been.   But, I will no longer let her memory be encased in death.   As long as I'm living, my triumph she'll be.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Run Kenley Run Playlist #8: Reason to Believe

The week before her birthday is a morbid countdown for me.   Even though I have tried really hard this year to make February more positive, I still can't escape this.   I can't stop myself from remembering - from reliving.   

I was swollen and my blood pressure was high.  I had contractions for days, but I didn't know it.   She was twisting herself into oblivion, but I didn't know it.  Work threw me a baby shower and I felt her move for what would be the last time.   I spent the day before her birthday wrapping teal and green ribbon around the base of her crib, but she was already gone.  

This week brings me back to that hard, raw pain.   This week forces me to remember the noise of my own screams and the silence of where hers should have been.   I thought maybe running this half marathon would somehow distract me enough where it wouldn't hurt so much, but I was wrong.  The last week in February will always be my own personal Hell Week.  I suppose the only difference this year is I have some sort of personal success to look forward to. The anticipation of that achievement has to carry me through. 

This week is when I need my strength the most.  It's the week where I am holding all the ropes I have with all of my might to keep myself from shattering. I can feel myself breaking apart inside.  I can feel the holes where she is missing opening up even wider, the walls of my heart weakening around them.  As I tumble through this week, I am constantly on the verge of tears, perched precariously upon the edge of a spiral into darkness.   Granted, I get better at holding myself together as each year passes,  but the point remains I still have to.  That will not change.  

The desperation in this song reiterates how I feel in trying to power through this week - how I will feel every final week of February until my life runs out of them.     

Just one more breath, I beg you please
Just one more step, my knees are weak
My heart is sturdy but it needs you to survive
My heart is sturdy but it needs you
Breathe, don't you want to breathe
I know that you are strong enough to handle what I need
My capillaries scream, there's nothing left to feed on
My body needs a reason to cross that line
Will you carry me there one more time?