Pregnancy and Loss

February 15, 2010

14 min read


In case of a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of a new baby, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Here's how to cope.

Dear Rebbetzin,

My precious daughter carried a perfect little 'angel' for exactly nine months. Two days after due date, she suddenly did not feel life and upon rushing to the hospital, was told that the baby had died.

Why oh why, does my child have to suffer this immeasurable pain? I understand the 'mystical' side here and that they were chosen to carry this soul, but my pain, as a mother, watching my precious daughter give birth, knowing that this 'angel' was no longer alive, is so indescribably painful, that for months I thought I could never wake up again.

My daughter did everything so perfectly throughout her pregnancy. Never for one moment did we imagine that anything like this would happen. During her entire pregnancy, I prayed for this baby to be born healthy and well. What good were all my fervent prayers?

Since there is no funeral, no shiva and no Kaddish, how does one actually 'mourn' for this loss? I felt that there was no conclusion to the grief – it just went on and on with nothing to console me. To any woman who has carried a child for nine months with all the trials and discomfort, to suddenly be 'empty' with nothing – how much more painful can anything be in this world?


Rebbetzin Feige replies:

Your pain is palpable, real, and totally understandable, especially to those of us who have shared the agonizing experience of losing a baby at or prior to birth.

Intellectual, religious, and Kabbalistic insight don't assuage the pain or speak directly to the bleeding heart. The Mishnah so wisely advises: "Do not try to comfort the mourner, as long as the deceased is still before him." There are no arguments, rationales, or theories that can address suffering and pain which are emotional expressions of the heart. The heart and mind deal in totally different currencies.

The wound is too fresh and raw. What reason cannot do, time will eventually accomplish.

Nonetheless, borrowing from the verse in the Shema: "these words shall be placed upon your heart" – a commentary suggests that it would have been better articulated if we were charged to "place the words within your heart." There are times, such as a grievous loss, that our hearts are not open or ready to absorb words of reason. The wound is too fresh and too raw. This thought is captured by the wise Yiddish adage: "What mind and reason cannot do, time will eventually accomplish." And when time has exercised its healing effect, the words that we were unable to relate to – that we had placed "upon" our hearts – will then penetrate, be heard, and support the healing process.

Realms of Eternity

For the duration of the nine months of pregnancy, a woman has the unparalleled privilege of carrying and nurturing new life within her. She feels alive and creative. The death of the newborn, whether prior to or at the time of birth is a heartbreaking and grotesque betrayal of the primal maternal instinct. Death and sadness are the very antithesis of the life and joy she legitimately anticipated bringing into the world.

The Jewish mystical tradition informs that every soul enters this world with a mission. The context and challenges of a person's life provide the necessary tools to discharge the raison d'etre of this individual. Our definition of what is "good" or "bad" in life conforms to our finite vision and limited experience in the here and now. The Kabbalistic view, in contrast, encompasses past, present, and future – both our temporal world and the supernal realms of eternity. The "full picture" is not within our human grasp. In the framework of ultimate reality, this little soul might have completed its journey, its mission in its brief nine months sojourn in-utero.

Your daughter, perhaps paradoxically, precisely because she was not blessed with the joys of raising this child, provided a totally loving and selfless environment for this soul to finish its work and achieve its eternal peace. In this vein, the definition of "life" is expanded. Providing the eternal peace and serenity to a soul whose life's objective has thus been completed can certainly, from a spiritual prospective, be seen as a conferral of "life" of the highest order.

God's ways are inscrutable, beyond our comprehension.

God's ways are inscrutable, beyond our comprehension. But it is a fundamental principle of our faith that He knows what He is doing. There is consolation in the certainty that this was not a meaningless fate – nor that it was an arbitrary occurrence. There is purpose and meaning to everything that happens.

This brings to mind the classic exchange between Sir Bertrand Russell and a cleric. Russell commented, "I cannot believe in a God in whose world a child cries out in pain." To which the cleric responded, "As for me, I cannot believe in a world in which a child cries out in pain and there is no God to justify it."

You describe so beautifully your children's excited anticipation and attendant religious ceremonies, juxtaposed by the subsequent poignant pain of loss and deprivation. Your description resounds with that age-old and ever-prevalent question of "why them?" Why do the righteous have to suffer?

The Talmud tells us that this very question was presented to God by Moses, whose prophetic powers are unrivaled in history. The text relates that the Almighty answered Moses with the words, "No man can look upon my face and live," meaning that no mortal can comprehend God's just but unfathomable governance of the world. Ultimately, only God, who has the master plan for the destiny of humankind, can answer that question.

As for us, we have to do our thing – choose to celebrate the good in life, attempting day by day to get a longer glimpse of the sun shining, and closer bonding with spouse, parents, family, and friends.

Mourning Rituals

There are many questions about the provisions in Jewish law – halacha – and Jewish practice attending the loss of a baby prior, during, or following birth.

The rituals of shiva – the 7-day mourning period, eulogy, public burial, Kaddish, Yizkor, and gravestone unveiling are not observed for a baby who did not reach the age of 30 days. Two explanatory points are in order:

(1) The soul that has not survived the 30 days in this world is certainly of no less significance. However, their soul is not seen as having had a presence in the social and communal parameters of conventional existence. The above rituals are seen as public manifestations directly related to the impact on the community and society, and since this child did not have an existence, presence, or role within these parameters, rituals such as these would be superfluous and inappropriate.

(2) One must not see this as a reflection on the preciousness of this soul. This soul, as mentioned before, completed its mission, and while its existence is not acknowledged in a public modality, it is celebrated in the place it will forever occupy – in the hearts and minds of the parents of whom it was an integral part, and by the Almighty from whose essence it was hewn.

To benefit the little soul, parents have dedicated learning, acts of charity, and self-improvement.

We must remember that our culture gives undue attention and importance to what is public, but for Jews the private and the personal has always been the domain venerated and respected as being the more authentic. I have known parents who in lieu of public ceremonies and in a desire to benefit this little soul, have dedicated learning, acts of charity, and the assumption of self-improvement modalities.

One rabbi and teacher, upon the loss of his own baby, painstakingly developed a comprehensive, Torah-based curriculum for grieving parents. He has presented this to hundreds of families who have received this desperately-needed guidance and comfort based on wisdom and expertise. Perhaps, he suggested, this was the contribution, the gift that his child's loss had brought to the world. Without the loss, he said, none of this would have happened.

It must be noted that the absence of a public ritual may leave friends and family at a loss as how to respond. It does not however, relieve them from extending expression of sympathy and caring – a card, a call, an offer of assistance, etc. We dare not allow the bereaved to feel shunned and abandoned in their time of grief.

Dealing with Death

There is the cultural and generational gap between grieving practices of today and yesteryear. In both Europe and America, death was always very much an everyday, hands-on part of life. Infant mortality was very high and in an effort to encourage moving on with their lives, members of the burial society would unceremoniously remove the miscarried and stillborn from the home and bring them to proper burial. Since they had a healthy way of dealing with death, rituals and ceremonies did not seem to be necessary.

In our culture, there is an illusion perpetrated that if we are lucky, death does not have to be a part of life. Hence we have a tangible discomfort with the concept of death. We seek to keep it at a distance. It is kept sterile and anesthetized, and perhaps it is this discomfort that necessitates rituals for psychological closure.

A fetus born with a recognizable human form should be given a name before being buried.

Common practice recommended by grief counselors in hospitals everywhere suggests seeing and holding the deceased baby. Though picture taking provides a sterile image of the soul that was, some may find it therapeutic. For some, these practices lend realty and confirm at an emotional level that the nine months of gestation did indeed produce a real baby. Other rituals, seen as acts of possible closure, if deemed helpful, are not objectionable. It would however, be advisable to seek the guidance of a qualified rabbi.

There are many customs regarding naming the baby before burial. A fetus born with a recognizable human form should be given a name before being buried. Some suggest choosing a name that one would not use in the future for other children. Others suggest names that are expressive of the themes of consolation (Nechama) or mercy (Rachamim). Yet others have the custom of naming this child with a name they would hope to give in the future, but modified at that time by an additional name.

Lessons of the Sages

My friend Judy, who lost a baby at birth, sought the advice of a renowned sage. He inquired about her family and asked her how many children she had. She responded that she had 2 sons, ages 3 and 6, but that she had also had a daughter, Esther, who would have now been 8 years old. The sage gently but very sternly and empathetically corrected her. "No," he said, "Esther would never have been 8 years old. She wasn't meant to live or have a presence in this world."

As hard as we try, it is difficult for us to disabuse ourselves of the illusion, the mistaken notion that these, our babies, were unrealized and unactualized potential. Coming to terms with the certainty that they were not meant to be, spares us the torturous self-blaming trips we subject ourselves to. The "if-only" trips: if only I'd had a better doctor, if only hadn't exerted myself, if only I had prayed more, if only I had been a better person, etc.

While positive steps toward self-improvement are always beneficial, blaming yourself and others is counterproductive and totally off the mark.

Rabbi Moses Feinstein, of blessed memory, a revered halachic authority of the past half century, unequivocally states in his responsa that all that issues from the union between husband and wife, while unviable in this world, will be united with their mother in the future, with the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, in consoling one of his students who had just buried his oldest child, told him that the merit of his family, in being the crucible through which this soul found its peace, would make possible blessings for the entire family that were heretofore obstructed and could not have been possible. The student reports that indeed the child born thereafter was very special and that many other unexplainable and remarkable shifts occurred in his extended family shortly thereafter. The merit of being the vehicle for enabling the rectification of a soul, painful though it was, was rewarded. It opened doors of joy for many.

My daughter Yocheved lives in Manchester, England. Over the years, I was privileged to hear about and on one occasion to meet the saintly Rosh Yeshiva of Manchester, Rabbi Segal. He was that enviable combination of extraordinary Torah knowledge and a human being of magnificent proportions. His humility was legendary. He was accessible to all, and people flocked from everywhere to seek his wise counsel. He was vital up to the last moments of his life, and upon his passing, they found that he had left instructions declining burial in Israel or other desirable family plots. He requested to be buried in the lot reserved for and among the miscarried, stillborn, and very young departed children.

It seemed that his purpose was twofold. The first was that these were the purest and most exalted of souls and he sought the privilege of making his eternal rest among them. The second was that Rabbi Segal wanted to assure the mothers who had not had the opportunity or the joy to care for these children, that he would care for them until they would be reunited with their families at the time to come.

Never Quite The Same

Some practical notes are in order. The postpartum condition of weight gain and hormone fluctuation can be challenging even in the best of times, but certainly when there is no baby to love and care for. There is no compensatory factor, only the negative effects of pregnancy. In recognition of this, the family needs to be especially sensitive, understanding, and patient with the process of recovery.

Your daughter needs to help herself by actively seeking ways to promote her own well-being; a vacation with her husband, new scenery, exercise, a class she has been wanting to take, reading, writing, meditation. Constructive pursuits will give her something of a growth mode that will have been born and nurtured in a time that has been punctuated by death and loss. She needs to know that her roller coaster emotions are normal and will abate with time and eventual healing.

Finally, while no one deliberately seeks adversity, there is a profound well of sensitivity, creativity, and wisdom that only deep pain can excavate from the recesses of our being. We are never quite the same. What we have endured and overcome makes us bigger, stronger, and wiser. A secular writer echoes this very sentiment when he asks: "Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?"

Though there were times when we thought we would not survive the pain, we find out that situations such as these can bring us closer to God and closer to our loved ones. And we realize that we are resilient and equal to life despite – or perhaps even because of – its pitfalls.

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