Losing a Pregnancy

Jewish Understandings and Rituals

This Jewish miscarriage and infertility ritual proved powerful for those involved. I vividly remember miscarrying during the first week of my rabbinical training. Fearful of being put out of the program if I started out by missing classes, I clenched my teeth, gobbled pain pills, and slipped out to the bathroom as needed. According to our local gynecologist, 10 to 15% of established pregnancies result in miscarriage, usually in the first trimester. “It’s not your fault,” he told us. “You don’t smoke or drink. This is nature’s way, literally, of aborting its mistakes. Most miscarriages are of fetuses that could not have survived in this world. Half of all miscarriages are due to the chromosomal abnormalities. Actually, 40 to 50% of conceptions don’t take and the mother just thinks she got her period. Your next pregnancy should, statistically speaking, be just fine.”

I found little comfort in hearing his assessment and was too stunned at the time, having birthed two healthy boys already, to be able to formulate a question. Could he not have empathized with our disappointment? Or inquired what impact this would have on our lives? Or advised that me it would take some time to pass the remaining fetal-support material in my uterus and that I should consider staying home for a day or two?

At school, in a file cabinet labeled “Creative Liturgy,” I discovered a menopause ritual, but nothing was there yet for miscarriage. One of my student pulpit's congregants miscarried early in her pregnancy for the fourth time, and later that same week a neighbor’s twins, conceived after several miscarriages, were declared still-born, fetal death at just over twenty weeks. These couples came to talk, cry, express anguish and devastation, and to rail against the unfairness. One of the women had a sister who had just given birth to a healthy boy. She could not bring herself to visit, to watch the baby, her first nephew, thrive. Who else could she tell, she asked? Who would understand her jealousy and rage?

There needed to be a way to reduce their isolation, to honor their suffering, to do what Judaism usually does so well, facilitate the support, inner-strength and faith it takes to one day transcend the greatest of challenges.

I met with the women, and their spouses. One, whom we’ll call her Sandy, took a pillow off the couch and sat down on the floor like a mourner. Immediately the other three did the same.

• Sensing it would be appropriate, I lowered the lights, lit some candles, and spoke briefly. “Anticipating a birth, here are the presents I had bought for each of you. Little board books for babies now addressed as donations to the local center for abused women and children. You share a common grief; I’m glad you agreed to meet one another.

• Without prompting, each told his or her story; Sandy’s partner, Bill, chose to go first. He spoke of the call he received at work, his race to the hospital, the look on Sandy’s face when she received the news that all of her amniotic fluid had disappeared; the rush to sign forms to induce labor for the twins. Sandy told of her labor, the days and weeks afterward when she was in shock, enraged, and grieving. Her inability to focus at work or while driving, the flashbacks.

• The other woman, Ellen, pulled a photo from a fetal ultrasound out of her pocket book and spoke to it about her dreams of creating a family beyond coupledom.

• Nate, Ellen’s husband, could not speak; his hands shook, his broken heart was written across his body, eyes, and mouth.

• I had gathered traditional texts that might help or might be irrelevant--who could know in advance? I read aloud the verse describing how Aaron, Moses’ brother and high priest of the Israelites, was silent when his sons died in front of him. “What is his silence?” I asked. The silent father took out his wallet and showed pictures of his parents, grandparents, and himself. He put the picture of himself into the flame. “If I cannot give them grandchildren, what am I?” He whispered. “If I cannot give Ellen a child, what am I?” he bellowed, then wept.

• Ellen reached over and, from the remains of the disappearing photograph, rubbed ashes onto her forehead and his and took him into her arms. They rocked and wept together. Slowly, into the silence, the other couple rubbed ashes on their foreheads and held one another. We simply sat in silence for a long while.

• I asked, “What is the prayer of your heart?” Hannah, from the Torah, had the audacity to ask for what she wanted in the Temple without the proscribed sacrificial animal rites. She just entered and whispered the prayer of her heart. Such a new paradigm was Hannah’s prayer that it is widely cited as the origin of temple-based personal prayer in Judaism. I also read several more rebellious pieces full of anger at G*d, one by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and another by Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. Then, meeting the eyes of each person present, I asked again: “What is the prayer of your heart?”

• Ellen, spoke: “My prayer is to become a parent. This has been hard, so very hard. Surely there is a soul meant for us to raise?”

• Sandy put her hand on her husband’s heart: “My prayer is for the courage to adopt a child and for the child we find to thrive and appreciate the love we have to give.”

• Nate: “My prayer is to stop replaying the hospital scenes in my head, to see Ellen’s smile return and her laughter filling our home again so that we can go out, qualify, and find children to raise.”

• Bill was silent and we waited. “My prayer is to reach full acceptance of what has happened to us. It is good not to feel so alone in this; we were hurting each other in our grief. I thank Ellen and Nate for being so forthcoming. I thought my pain was unique, which was unhealthy really. I can almost imagine a future now.”

• “May I give you a blessing?” I asked. All four nodded, stood up, and spontaneously joined hands. “May you be blessed to speak of your experience in the community. The shock and trauma you have experienced, the isolation and grief, may no others feel alone while coping with life. In Psalms we read that even after the devastation of the Babylonian exile, they prayed for ‘those who sow in tears to reap in joy.’ May your harvest come to you, even if it is not the harvest you expected, but still a good and satisfying harvest. May we all move forward into life with compassion for those we see pushing a stroller with a child inside, for we know not the pain that lurks in anyone’s life, or what toll may have been taken en route to their moments of joy. May you long enjoy life in each other’s arms.

• Ameyn!

• “Wait!” Bill called out. “A cup of wine please.”

• Stymied, I hesitated; it seemed an over-the-top thought. “A cup of wine please.”

• Easy enough to take down the Kiddush cup and decanter of sacramental wine. Filling it to the brim, Bill held it high and said: “As we who blessed and drank from the cup of blessing at our wedding ceremonies, so may we be blessed to find the healthiest way to create the families for which we yearn.”

• Everyone: Ameyn.

The above is a good example of spontaneous ritual in the hands of a trained facilitator. Note: Not all seminaries train their clergy in creative ritual, inquire of your rabbi rather than assuming this falls within his/her comfort level. The staff at Reclaiming Judaism is available to assist when needed. Please also see my book Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life.