Siri Abrahamson and her daughter, Elsa, on the Regent’s Canal towpath near their local church, St John the Evangelist in Islington, north London (Photo: Justin Portess)
In the midst of a grey, damp winter, at the end of a healthy and normal pregnancy, our second child, a daughter, dies at birth. Despite 20 minutes of attempted resuscitation in the delivery room, she never draws breath outside my body. The neo-natal consultant has tears in his eyes when he comes up to the bedside where my husband and I are clutching each other’s hands in disbelief. “I am so sorry. We couldn’t save her.”
Our shock is complete. There was no indication this would happen. When we are asked if we would like our baby blessed, we say yes, in a haze. We are willing to grasp at any straws to try to numb this pain. The hospital’s Catholic priest turns up shortly thereafter. I can’t remember asking for a Catholic priest, but perhaps we had. Neither my husband nor I are Catholic, though my mother is.
The priest gets our names wrong, yet his prayer offers unexpected solace. He leaves us with a rosary. That night, and for many more nights to come, I sleep with it around my neck.
When it comes to arranging the funeral there are three available options – a Church of England service, a Catholic service or a non-religious ceremony. I ask my husband, an agnostic, if we can have a Catholic service and he says yes.
There are many formalities around the death of even a stillborn baby. One of the hardest things we have to do is visit our local register office to register Elspeth’s death. As we wait our turn, we are surrounded by parents with newborn babies, there to register the birth of their child. When we finally leave, we go for a cold walk through a small park on the grounds of what used to be a cemetery. Nearby is a Catholic church and we go in and light a candle and say a prayer for Elspeth. I imagine that the flickering flame is our daughter communicating back to us. Soon this becomes a ritual. Whenever we go on one of our ambling, aimless, grief-stricken walks, my husband and I always seem to end up passing a Catholic church. We go inside, light a candle and say a prayer. Sometimes we simply sit in silence and cry. A month after Elspeth’s death the funeral takes place in a crematorium in north London.
It is another cold and grey winter’s day. In accordance with our wishes, only a handful of friends and family are attending the service, and the heartache of everyone present is palpable. My husband and I have dreaded the service, being so close to our baby’s cold body again, the finality of what we are about to experience. When Elspeth’s coffin turns up, in a hearse delayed by morning rush-hour traffic, it is so small. My husband is encouraged to carry it inside. Standing in the front row of the crematorium’s chapel with our older daughter, I watch him walk inside, his face and body contorted with sobs. We know few words of the prayers said by the priest, but the service is beautiful and more meaningful than we had dared hope. Just as we walk outside, the sun breaks through the clouds for the first time in weeks.
Grief comes in waves. Some days are easy and we feel grateful. Grateful to have each other, and grateful to have our lovely two-year-old daughter who is too young to understand what has happened yet who shows incredible tenderness and affection just when we need it the most. But often sorrow comes and knocks us over and drags us down into the darkest hole of despair. We have no answers. Partly because the investigation into Elspeth’s death drags on, partly because there is no way to make sense of the death of a child. We do not have the framework of religion to help us with our thoughts and feelings.
My husband was baptised in the Church of England but grew up an avowed agnostic. My mother is a Polish Catholic and my father a Swedish Protestant.
I was baptised Protestant but intermittently attended Catholic church and Sunday school growing up. When I was 15 years old, I decided I wanted to covert to Catholicism, but the weekly classes I was asked to attend in the presence of a priest and people three times my age dampened my enthusiasm. For the next 20 years I remained a Protestant who would, haphazardly, or in times of need, seek out Catholic churches to try to find peace in.
As a busy, young, professional couple with a multitude of social engagements, my boyfriend and I gave religion little consideration. When we decided to get married it was obvious that anything other than a civil ceremony would be hypocrisy. But when our first daughter, Elsa, was born my husband said he was happy for her to be baptised, if it was what I wanted. We vaguely talked about it but never got around to organising anything.
Then Elspeth died. In the aftermath it seemed like God was stretching out his hand to us – our baby’s blessing in hospital, the way we kept ending up praying in various Catholic churches around London, the peaceful funeral. It felt like the Catholic faith was choosing us, rather than the inverse. Or maybe we had always been on this path, in our own separate ways, without realising where we were heading. I brought up conversion first, but was not surprised when my husband admitted to feeling exactly the same way. We had walked by our local Catholic church, St John the Evangelist in Islington, many times as it was on the way to our toddler’s nursery. Yet the first time we stepped inside was two weeks after Elspeth’s death. It was midweek and the church was empty. The vestibule, its boards crowded with printed and handwritten notices, testified to a bustling and vibrant community. The interior of the church was cool and calm and welcoming. We lit a candle, said a prayer for Elspeth and left.
One Sunday shortly after the funeral my husband suggested we go to Mass. Feeling like interlopers, we nervously made our way to our first joint Mass. I think we both had an irrational fear that someone would point a finger at us and say: “Hang on! Who are you? Are you even Catholics?” The reality was different. Though we had no idea what to say or when to say it, when to kneel and when to stand, we were drawn in and felt welcome from the first moment. In large part this was due to the warm and charismatic priest, Fr Howard James, whom we saw and heard for the first time that day. As we remained seated while almost everyone else went up to receive the Eucharist, we knew we would be back.
Throughout the summer, we continued attending Mass at our local church. Without fail, we lit a candle and said a prayer for Elspeth afterwards. As the grief over her death continued to ebb and flow we grew to depend on our weekly hour in church. It was a space in which we were reminded not to be scared of death, to forgive ourselves, to forgive others, to show love in all things. On the many occasions when bitterness threatened to seep into my soul, there was inevitably a prayer or a reading from the Bible that offered solace and helped steer me towards lighter thoughts.
Autumn came. I fell pregnant, and was in equal measure ecstatic at having a baby and terrified at the possibility of losing another child. Going to Sunday Mass had become a habit. My husband and I still wished we could partake fully and receive the Eucharist and so had signed up for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which adults are gradually introduced to the Catholic faith and way of life. Last year a record 891 adults took part in the RCIA in London alone. Our first Monday evening class had close to 20 participants, aged between 25 and 65, though the majority were, like my husband and I, in their 30s. There were three Catechists, lay people trained to instruct others in the ways of the faith, to guide and help us. As the weeks passed we grew into a tight-knit group, prone to laughter and to an openness that I had never encountered elsewhere.
As the months progressed, we took part in several ceremonies that make up what the Church calls the “Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates”. This spring, my husband and I observed Lent for the first time ever. We read, prayed and, among other things, stopped watching television. The Lenten period, which coincided with me entering my third trimester of pregnancy, ended up being an incredibly peaceful yet intensely spiritual time. Without television to distract us in the evenings and with a focus on faith, we found ourselves having some of the best conversations of our marriage. When it was finally time to be received into the church during the Easter Vigil we were both as excited as we had been before our wedding, or the birth of our first child.
In the candle-lit church on Holy Saturday we stepped up to the altar in the company of 17 of our RCIA friends, plus our sponsors or godparents. As Fr Howard said the words and performed the rituals that meant that we were now Catholics most of us had tears rolling down our cheeks.
The Easter Vigil Mass went on until late. My husband and I walked home through the unusually balmy April night, feeling more at peace than we had for years, perhaps ever. Certainly since Elspeth’s death 15 months earlier.
A friend once asked whether we had had grief counselling. We have not, bar one session offered by our hospital. But the path that our life has taken since that grey January day 18 months ago has provided enormous comfort.
I wish more than anything that it hadn’t taken the death of my child to make me discover my faith. Nothing can give us back our daughter or erase the sorrow in our hearts. Being received into the Catholic Church is clearly not a cosmic consolation prize. But in the space of two amazing months I became a Catholic and gave birth to a gorgeous baby boy. Both felt like happy new beginnings.