By Yamin Levy
It’s been fifteen years since Confronting the Loss of a Baby was published, and a lifetime of births, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and the usual ups and downs of family life. Too many people continue to need the book, the calls and letters flowing at a steady pace.
Ari Goldman, professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, noted that writing a book is like putting a letter in a bottle and sending it out to sea. Over the years I have heard so many stories of lives shattered by the most unnatural of losses. The stories find me in the most unusual ways.
Two years ago I was having coffee with a therapist who works at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. We were discussing a paper she was writing on infant loss, and as I was leaving, a young woman who overheard parts of our conversation stopped me and asked if she could share her story. While all stories are, of course, different, all are similar in the most fundamental ways: the pain of coming home with arms aching to hold a newborn, the despair of a promise unfulfilled, the utter shock of one of life’s most aberrant circumstances and, of course, a marriage facing the unexpected while one’s world is sent into abandoned turmoil. I listen and listen.
It’s been twenty-one years since Nechama died, and when I’m not wearing my author hat, I—like the rest of us members of this not-so-exclusive club—wonder what this experience has been all about. It took my mother over thirty years—and my loss—to talk about her own experience of losing a newborn. She never knew her baby’s sex, height, weight, complexion or feel. Then it was believed that the mother would be best served if all the evidence of a birth were discarded. My experience was very different. My wife and I held our baby, and kept evidence of her birth and life. And yet my narrative is not so dissimilar to my mother’s. I still ask myself what happened. Our pregnancy had gone as expected. Labor kicked in, and things seemed to be moving in the right direction. It is those moments after the birth that remain a blur. That my wife and I brought a life into this world and she died is mind-altering. That my wife suffered a great deal remains a source of personal responsibility. A baby’s death upsets the natural order of life. How do we channel our grief? Where is everyone? How could it be that my experience, like that of so many, was one of isolation and foggy loneliness?
What—if anything—has changed since I wrote Confronting the Loss of a Baby? I wrote the book for a number of reasons, one of which was because I felt that within Judaism there was no spiritual and ritual response to our loss. What we sought was not found in the context of our tradition. I felt isolated from Judaism, halachah and the Jewish people. There was no funeral service. At the cemetery only the caretaker, my father-in-law and I buried my baby. I remember with a degree of resentment how I stood by the tiny grave while my father-in-law placed the little casket in the ground. There were no shivah calls, no Kaddish—it was as if the loss never occurred in the context of a community, a tradition, a faith.
That our community continues to keep this kind of loss and the grief associated with it secret is tragic. That our religious professionals still do not fully recognize the magnitude of the loss is a source of great frustration. As recently as last month I heard from a couple whose loss is shrouded in silence. I think of the young Chassidic couple who came to me in secrecy. Their parents, rebbe and community could not know that they sought out the support of an outsider. They were told to forget their loss and move on. They were fed the usual narrative of a perfect soul whose work in this world was completed and how they were blessed to be the vessel of this elevated spirit. They must be happy, they were told, and feel hallowed, having been chosen by the Almighty to carry such a soul. “More children will come and the sadness will go away.” It is no wonder that they were miserable; it is no wonder they were questioning the foundation of their faith. How could they possibly feel whole when the message they are receiving from those closest to them is that their pain and grief are not real?
Jewish laws of mourning are recognized as an anchor and a source of comfort and healing for the bereaved. Halachah, however, dictates that one does not mourn the loss of a baby less than thirty days old. I had always hoped that the recommendations I made in the book would afford mourners a spiritual outlet for their grief. Despite the numerous reprints of the book, it seems as if our community and religious leaders don’t fully understand the nature of the grief and have not yet learned how to respond appropriately. It saddens me that young couples continue to feel the need to suppress their grief because we have not provided a safe space as a conduit for mourners and the community. Without such a space the mourner’s loss is not validated even by those closest to them.
I understand the difficulty of associating death with the smallest and most vulnerable. Babies represent life and are not supposed to die. The absurdity of it all repels sympathizers and, in so doing, the isolation of the bereaved grows denser. While there has been some progress in the Jewish community, it is mostly in the nonobservant sectors.
Two years ago my wife and I were the keynote speakers at a conference sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York for clergy called “A Loss Worthy of Grief: Jewish Approaches to Bringing Comfort after Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Neonatal Death.” The Orthodox community was poorly represented.
All journeys begin with small steps. Ten years ago I was invited to give a session to graduating rabbis at Yeshiva University. I spoke about the impact the loss of a baby has, not only on the parents but also on the siblings, grandparents and community. As the session was coming to an end, a young man spoke up. “Permit me to add,” he said, “about the impact this loss has on one’s students.” As it turns out, I was this young man’s seventh grade rebbe at the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, New Jersey, when Nechama died. He recalled how the students observed that I was absent from davening on that overcast January morning. The entire seventh grade class planned a celebration for the next day. Some would bring chips, others soda, some would decorate the room while others prepared divrei Torah. Instead of “mazal tovs,” however, there was a great deal of silence.
There was a time that I acted like a zealot when it came to speaking about my loss. People would ask me how many children I had and I would include Nechama in the list. It was as if I was carrying a bullhorn—who cared if it made some uncomfortable? Today I am much more restrained. Was I avoiding my own grief by expecting the world to listen? Could I find no other way to nurse a wound that doesn’t heal? I’m still learning and seeking answers. Maybe I have to find meaning in the silence.
Rabbi Yamin Levy is the rabbi of Beth Hadassah Synagogue in Great Neck /Kings Point, New York, and head of the Long Island Hebrew Academy. Rabbi Levy is the founder and director of the Maimonides Heritage Center in Tiberias, Israel.
Listen to Rabbi Yamin Levy discuss infant loss at ou.org/lossofbaby.