by Keren David
The loss of a baby
Our son Daniel, our second child, died in February 1998, inexplicably at 38 weeks gestation. His death was confirmed after he stopped moving, and he was born the following morning. In November 1999 we had our third child, another little boy called Judah.
The first days
I can’t emphasise enough the sense of total shock that takes over, making one feel almost as if this isn’t happening – it cannot be real. I felt an absolute need to hang on to reality, to who I was – and to experience fully what was happening to me. It’s a difficult thing to do, because the instinct of many people around you, including those who love you best, is to protect you. Unfortunately this adds to a sense of isolation, as if no one really understands the enormity of one’s loss – and they want to take it away from you.
There’s also a feeling of real isolation because no one else has the same relationship with your baby as you have, not even the baby’s father. This can cause a real rift between a couple, and make the woman feel even more isolated. If no one else from the family sees the baby there can be a feeling that no one is interested in him, no one wants to know him. Because these deaths are so often taboo, people are so scared of the emotions around them, I feared my baby would be an invisible loss.
The fear is also enormous, of the idea of living one’s life after this has happened. I wondered if I would have the strength to survive it. Actually one of the most useful pieces of advice in the early weeks was that I had to work hard at not being brave. The kind of strength that one summons up in the early weeks, just to get through, is not always what is needed later on.
There is also great guilt – towards the baby, and any negative feelings one had about the pregnancy, towards one’s partner and parents at having caused them such pain and sorrow. It’s hard for other people to acknowledge this guilt because everyone assumes that the baby was desperately wanted and already loved (in fact in our case the pregnancy was unplanned and we felt extremely ambivalent about it) Because everyone is feeling so sorry for the woman, no one is able to acknowledge that she is feeling guilty herself, so that adds to the terrible loneliness. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a mother of a stillborn child who didn’t feel a terrible feeling of guilt and responsibility.
Some people feel an enormous loss of faith – there can be no God if this can happen. I never felt that because I realised how utterly solipsistic it was, but I also felt that I faced a time of great turmoil in which I would have to stop taking things for granted that I had before. It’s a cliché, but I really felt as if my life had been turned upside down, and I would have to examine every aspect of my personal philosophy. Again this is a frightening and lonely feeling, which leaves you feeling very vulnerable.
I think it’s also a very important point for the religious authorities to understand and take on board, because it can leave a void which one needs to fill, and if you already feel at all alienated from Judaism or the Jewish community then one might look to another religion. The iconography of Christianity is very attractive to mourning parents (in fact sometimes I feel that now I ‘get’ Christianity’s appeal, whilst of course having no interest in becoming a Christian) and if one is in the non-Jewish world I found there was no shortage of well-meaning Christians coming forward with texts, prayers and offers of support. One Jewish bereaved mother I met talked about how she would go to her local church as a place just to sit..because she didn’t feel that her synagogue would be open and available to her. Other people might be attracted by the New Age philosophies which are very much on offer. It is honestly a time when you start considering almost anything.
At the beginning we felt so utterly angry at the inexplicable loss of our son, that any idea of acceptance was obscene. If I had seen a prayer at that stage suggesting that I should accept this I would have thrown it across the room. So I suppose a prayer at that time needed to be a statement of support – that Hashem is there with you, mourns your baby’s loss of life, cares for him and feels his death is important, understands all the bad feelings that come with this event and will help you make sense of it in the future. You can survive and you can somehow bring good out of this most terrible event. Your baby’s life was not for nothing.
The next pregnancy
This is a very difficult time, especially as many people get pregnant right away, without having a chance to mourn their baby (we waited a year, which was about right). It’s important to remain very positive, focussed on the present and on the new baby – but that can feel like a betrayal of the baby one has lost.
Again, the people around one can be insensitive to this ambivalence and want you to concentrate solely on the current pregnancy. Some will talk as if there is no question that everything will be alright this time (even health professionals), which made me feel angry, alone, and that my experience and the loss of my baby was being denied.
For the year before I got pregnant again I shunned the company of pregnant women and small babies, now suddenly I had become one of the women that I tried to avoid. All kinds of events that should have been happy and exciting, like shopping for newborn clothes, or ordering birth announcement cards (unavoidable in Holland) became completely bittersweet. Of course there was huge fear of the period of late pregnancy and the birth, and a lot of painful memories were triggered.
I found a lot of comfort in the story of Chanucah, as my new baby was due on the first day. The miracle of the lamp seemed to symbolise the miracle of a successful pregnancy, and the triumph of hope and persistence over despair.
A prayer which acknowledged these feelings, of hope and joy despite the sorrow and acknowledgment of loss would have been useful. It was also important to remember that this new baby is a separate soul – not a replacement, or even a comforter, but a new person in his or her own right.
As the years go on
Over the years, and with a lot of pain, thought and work, we have come to accept the loss of our baby and learn to live with it. He has taught us an enormous amount about our own lives and had as much influence on our family as either of our living children. He has brought us strength, some wisdom, compassion and hope, and given all of our lives new meaning and direction. As his parents we very much see our job as living Daniel’s life for him, and achieving our own potentials as we would have wished for him.
We have been lucky though; many people suffer marriage breakdown and persistent depression after losing a baby.
But there are still many times when we feel the pain of his loss, and that other people do not understand or remember as we do…sometimes several times a day I have to cope with comments or situations that would have had me in tears (Someone might ask :”Do you think you’ll go for number three?” Or I might just walk past the classroom at my daughter’s school where Daniel could have been a pupil) I can cope now, and I think one gets used to these situations, but the acceptance is never total and the feeling of wrongness never goes away. You accept that you can’t expect everyone to be completely sensitive all of the time – and often when people are trying to be sensitive they say the most insensitive things! – but a prayer could help with the patience one needs at these times, and also reminds one that good things have come out of all the pain – and may yet come.
One very difficult thing to grapple with is the idea that one’s body has done harm or brought death, where there should be life. In some ways one needs a great deal of prayer to both heal and forgive oneself, something I am still working on. Some women seem to go on to have several other pregnancies to feel better about their own bodies.
Not being a very religious person I can’t say I have found many texts that helped me, although several prayers and psalms are included in a book I was sent “Confronting the loss of a baby’ by Rabbi Yamin Levy.
I did find comforting an extract from Isaiah, chapter 49, verses 13-16 and we had engraved on Daniel’s grave a line from it :’I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands’ In fact the whole book of Isaiah seems to me to be full of the strong feelings of loss and desolation that I experienced.
I also gained a lot of strength and insight from a piece written by a rebbetzin who suffered a cot death, ‘We Will Get Better, We Must Get Better’ by Rookie Billet, in a book called Jewish Insights in Death and Mourning (ed Jack Riemer, Schocken Books, 1995 pp285 -297)
Some people get very angry and upset that one is not required to sit shiva for a baby who dies aged under a month. I must say I found this an extremely compassionate aspect of halacha – there was nothing to stop us sitting shiva had we wanted to, but I would have found it impossible to be with a lot of people at that time. (I don’t know, however, how I will feel when I have to sit shiva in the future) Also I was recovering from the birth and in a lot of pain.
The funeral was short and simple and extremely private, and although I didn’t find any great comfort in it, it felt about right. Again, other people want a much bigger funeral, but that would have felt wrong to us. The most important thing was finding Rabbi Davis (from Chigwell) to conduct the stone-setting. He and his wife lost their daughter, and they were wonderfully compassionate people who supported us and understood the complexity of our feelings as we approached the first anniversary of Daniel’s loss – which is possibly the worst of all times.
I wish I had asked him for a copy of what he said at the stone-setting, but I will never forget the feeling of love and support there for us – not only from our family and friends (we made it invitation only, so it was really just people who had been very involved in our support) but also – even as a not very religious person – a feeling of over-whelming spiritual uplift. The comfort of this memory has been very important to me, in some of the difficult months that followed, especially when we left England so soon afterwards.
Rabbi Davis suggested creating a ritual that reminds us of Daniel every week, by lighting an extra candle for shabbat. He also suggested that bereaved parents have a special responsibility to care for and support orphans.
When Daniel died, our daughter Phoebe was only 19 months old. Many people said to us that it must be a comfort that she would no nothing about it. This was so wrong. Phoebe understood so much, and wondered about so much more. At first it was very hard to talk to her about what had happened, as she – and I – did not have the vocabulary to do so. But as she has got older I have been very aware of what a big impact this has had on her, and how important it has been to be able to talk about it and explain as far as I could in an appropriate way for her age. It was helpful for her to come to the stone-setting, and she has asked to have Daniel’s picture hanging in her bedroom. In some ways it is an even harder concept for Judah to grasp, as he did not live through Daniel’s death.
This article was first printed in The Jewish Chronicle on August 14th, 1998. Reprinted with permission from the author.