Surviving the Death of My Son After the Death of My Faith

Courtesy of The New York Times | By Amber Scorah | Illustration by Isabel Seliger | Originally Published 05.31.2019 | Posted 07.30.2019

Several years after leaving my religion, I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life.

What I had not prepared myself for was death. Grief without faith. Which is to say, death without hope.

Religion was born for this. When my father died, I was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. I was 18 years old. I was sad. But I wasn’t that sad, because I believed what my religion had taught me: that death was of no great consequence, as long as we remained faithful. God would soon destroy all of the non-Jehovah’s Witnesses at Armageddon, my father would be brought back to life, and we would live forever on a “paradise Earth.”

But then I left my religion behind. I moved to New York and built a new life. I found ways to earn money. I had relationships. I learned not to think that every thunderclap outside my window was Armageddon. And I wrestled with my spirituality — mourning, in a sense, the loss of the peace of mind faith had given me. I had felt so wholly deceived by religion, I saw no more worth in ancient explanations, in every old answer. I tried hard to make sense of a life without belief.

Seven years passed, and I felt that I had done the best someone could hope to. I was O.K. I felt happy again.

In classical mythology and literature, seven years is an appropriate period of mourning. Maybe that was why the desire to create life began to gnaw at me. My grief over the loss of my belief system had run its course, and I was renewed, full of love for life, which felt even more precious now that I knew it would not go on forever.

When my son was born, and I sat nursing him in the night, I was delighted to find that all residue of my bereavement was gone. Life seemed limitless again, endless, continuing on in him. To have a child was perhaps a means of capturing that immortality I had lost. I no longer worried that I was getting older, because each day forward now would be with him, watching him grow. I would die first, and that made him immortal, for me. I would not see his end.

And then my baby died.

My son was almost 4 months old when he stopped breathing at day care. It was his first day there, the first time I had left his side. Neither the doctors nor investigators could tell us why it happened. Thus he became a story in a newspaper, big black letters in The New York Post, followed by tiny letters in paragraphs that spelled out sentences that twisted off the page and down onto the subway floor and into hell itself. That is, if there was a hell.

Days passed, days in which nonsensically I lived while my son did not. I lived on drugs because the only day I could survive was one that was blurry and floated by untethered from life without my son. And slowly, over these days, came letters, like dispatches from another dimension, from people all over the country. They landed on my doorstep and on my computer screen. Words from names I did not know, telling me how to survive this, like the strangers in the ancient books had done, telling me that my son was in heaven, that he would come back, or I would meet him again one day, that he was watching over me, that though gone, he was not truly gone.

Each word of hope or faith I read seemed absurd, like a fairy tale. The mothers of kidnapped children know in their bones when their child is somewhere, out there, alive. My bones knew that mine was not.

I was moved by these words from strangers. And I wanted to believe these messengers who told me my son lives or will live again. Perhaps these were the people we in my old religion called prophets and apostles — people who dispatched words of hope to those in distress.

But though they were sincere, none of what they said was true. There is no heaven, no door at the end of my life that I will find my boy behind, no paradise Earth. He simply had ceased to exist.

I suspect that these people rushed to save me because, deep down, somewhere unacknowledged, they too knew the truth. We all know that there is something desperately sad that we have to protect one another from. Our stomachs know it, our spines know it. Our humanity doesn’t want to let us believe that this is all there is, that a child can just disappear. And that is why these strangers cared so much about a stranger like me.

What I had not anticipated about the cost of losing my faith was that it would no longer be possible to deceive myself. I could no longer make a pact with any higher being. No hours of service could convince a God that I deserved to have this child again. Whatever I had done to deserve him once, I was not worthy of him twice.

I am not saying there is no God, but I am saying no God would do this to someone.

My family and friends from my old life knew about what happened to my son. Though they never met him, they read newspapers. A couple of them reached out to me after he died. But they had already shunned me as an apostate for my unbelief, and I know about their belief, so the conversations were awkward and over quickly. I was keenly aware that they walked away certain that they would be the ones to hold my son after Judgment Day, because I would not be there. They would look after him and tell him about his tragic lost mother, who gave him up because she could no longer believe. I know this is what they think, because I would have thought the same.

If I could believe even a little again, perhaps it would happen to me, like it does to other people. Their dead come alive, appearing at bedsides on dark nights, or as voices in the wind. These voices tell the grieving ones that they forgive them, that they love them, that they are somewhere else, they exist, and all is not nothingness.

If belief were a choice, I might choose it. But it’s not. I don’t trade in certainty anymore. If there is something more, it’s not something we know. If we can’t even grasp how it is that we got here, how can we know with any certainty where, if anywhere, we go when we die?

I know my mourning for my son will not end in seven years. I will mourn him forever. Or rather, not forever — until I die. This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.

But death without hope also makes one acutely grateful for life, sensitive to it. In the absence of my son, I felt the presence of love all around me, from these strangers and friends alike. And then came my son’s little sister, with a smile and fingers just like his.

Asked about death once, Confucius answered, simply, “We haven’t yet finished studying life, so why delve into the question of death?” The question of my son’s death — the mystery of it, why he vanished — remains without answer. And so I ask the questions of life: What force grew this little child? How did those limbs form themselves from nothing inside of me? Why did I have the power to make him, but not to bring him back? Why are the things he saw on this planet so beautiful? Why did his eyes look at me the way they did? Where did love like this come from?

I will never know who my child would have been, but I know his love. If there is a God, this is what he gave me.

Amber Scorah is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life,” from which this essay is adapted.

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