What makes this phenomenon different from all other?
July 3, 2011 1 Comment
Orthodox Judaism is a communal, public religion. While many critical and core observances of daily life are in the home (the Seder, taharat hamishpaha, etc), and the de facto center of the communal life is the Synagogue, the key milestones and transition points are observed communally. By this I mean birth, death, transitions to adulthood, marriage – all these and more are celebrated publicly. The community is there with us enjoying our happiness at a birth, and the custom is for folks to pitch in to help the new parents. The community mourns with us in shiva, and again, folks pitch in to visit, and provide both food and comfort. The prayer books contain formulas to guide the bewildered person who is new at this through the process, and for the most part, they work pretty well. Pretty much any triumph or tragedy is cause for either comfort or public congratulations, with one exception.
Miscarriage is entirely unlike any of the other events.
See, when someone dies, everyone knows what to say – there is a formal grieving period, and the mourner has specific practices which are designed to steadily ease him or her back into the world, and slowly allow him or her to function again. Folks help out, even those people who don’t know you very well: lots of people rise to the occasion, and demonstrate the best of what humanity can be.
But miscarriage is entirely private – no announcement, no formal prayers, and no opportunity for those who have been through this to offer those pieces of wisdom they’ve gained via experience. Instead, you merely get to suffer inside, while putting on a brave face for the world. Whispered conversations in the corner of the room are the closest to received wisdom which is provided, and acquaintances are left to wonder why you’ve gotten so snippy all of a sudden.
This topic is quite near to my heart: we learned that Sarah was pregnant the day after she got up from sitting shiva for her father. Obviously then, we’re on a roller-coaster of emotions – grief for the loss of a good man far too young, but exhilaration at the possibility of becoming parents: this is something we’ve wanted for a long time, but the timing was wholly unexpected.
About three weeks after that, we were just about to start telling more than our parents, and we learned that the embryo had died some weeks before, and that this was a miscarriage.
So now, here we are nearing the end of Sarah’s shloshim (thirty days) for her father, and lots of folks are coming up to us saying things like “Things getting better now, right?” and we’re left with no reply – instead of the joy we had before, the lingering taste of the swallowed reply is bile and ash.
In talking to friends individually, we’ve found that the number of women with children who have had miscarriages is something just barely under “most of them.” Several of our very close friends have had several, and we had had no idea! Apparently roughly 25-33% of pregnancies are miscarried, and it is overwhelmingly likely that most women who ever attempt to have children will experience a miscarriage. And of course, there isn’t any ritual to help them through it.
The lack of ritual, I suspect, dates from a time when infant mortality was high – there is no shiva for an infant who dies before thirty days of life, for instance – so perhaps in the past, people were less attached to pregnancy (and of course, before any of the modern testing methods, women would have taken a lot longer to realize they were pregnant). But times have changed.
So I believe that this is an area where modern thinking should be applied – there needs to be an organized communal support system for women who have miscarriages. My intention, as President of the National Capital Mikvah, is to take this on as a project and try to create a systematic support structure that would provide women in this position with support from others who have been through this. Of course, their husbands are going through it too, and I know that my pain and anxiety have been quite real and debilitating. The most valuable thing anyone said to me was one particular man at Kesher Israel who has several children told me about his experience when his wife miscarried on their first pregnancy, and he really got it – that this is a loss which doesn’t ever completely heal: all you can do is keep living life as best you can, and it becomes less immediate. But he still teared up when he talked about his experience, and in that moment I truly felt understood.
I hope that those reading this don’t ever have to go through the pain of miscarriage. If you do, hopefully by then there will be more communal support in place to ease you through it, but it’s worth knowing that other people out there have experienced this, and it’s okay to ask for help.