Confronting the Loss of a Baby: A Personal and Jewish Perspective

By Rabbi Yamin Levy
Ktav Publishing
Hoboken. N.J., 1998
156 pages

Reviewed by Yael Greenblatt

“Death gives man the opportunity to display greatness and to act heroically; to build even though he knows that he will not live to enjoy the sight of the magnificent edifice in whose construction he is engaged, to plant even though he does not expect to eat the fruit,…” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Paradoxically, the impetus for personal change and growth may sometimes arise out of life experiences beyond our control. Many who suffer the loss of a loved one have commented that the loss was a defining event in their reevaluation of self and sense of purpose in the world. Rabbi Levy’s decision to discuss, research and write about his particular loss will undoubtedly benefit many in the Jewish community who share a similar experience. Through this practical and sensitive book, he offers both the grieving and those attempting to provide support some basic halachic information and helpful pointers regarding the emotional journey of loss, grief and its integration into the individual and collective experience.

Jewish mourning rituals such as shivah, keriah and Kaddish provide a mourner the opportunity to verbally and physically concretize grief. However, halachah makes few demands on the mourner for a baby who is less than 30 days old, and this leaves the surviving relatives with few options for expression of their pain. Without this formal structure for mourning, the loss of a baby through miscarriage or stillbirth is often seen as a loss that should quickly be buried in the psyche of the survivors. According to this view, since the family could not have had a relationship with the unborn child, mourning is unnecessary.

Rabbi Levy questions this perception and elaborates on the significance of the loss of hopes and dreams. From the moment of conception, parents begin to incorporate their unborn child into the fabric of their future lives. A tragic loss of this nature forces parents to grapple with feelings of guilt alternating with the more frightening revelation of absolute lack of control over life’s events. The struggle for some glimpse of why can be very powerful. Parents, children and grandparents need to acknowledge their loss and have their grief and questions validated by friends, family and rabbis.

Friends and acquaintances of the bereaved often wonder what they could possibly do to be helpful in the face of such loss. Levy emphasizes the importance of presence and indication of caring, and discourages the use of statements such as, “It’s better this way than a prolonged illness,” or “At least you have other children.” Communicating a quiet sense of caring and striving to be supportive in any way needed is often more helpful to the mourner than trying to explain his/her loss. Resolution of grief is a slow process that should be respected and encouraged.

This book contains moving personal accounts and case examples that illustrate how individuals have struggled with and ultimately integrated loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth. By doing so, it normalizes the grief process for readers who may not have had the experience of validation of these feelings. In this situation, as in others when one experiences the death of a dream, mourning the loss of one’s hopes for the future is crucial to moving on.

In an informal study that Levy conducted of rabbis across Jewish denominational lines, he found that few recognized the serious nature of this loss, and most believed mourning should be minimized. Levy proposes that the concept of a “Voluntary Mourner” (cited by the Rema) can be applied to this situation. The Rema states, “If a person chooses to be stringent on himself and mourn for someone for whom he is not required to mourn, he should not be prevented from doing so“ (See Rabbi Moshe Isserles’ Gloss to Shulchan Aruch Y.D., 374:6). Levy encourages rabbis to help grieving parents to mourn in the way they need to. He suggests they be encouraged to name their child if they wish to and engage in mourning rituals that they feel would help to address their grief.

Halachic and psychological aspects of mourning the loss of a baby addressed in this book are presented in a fluid, overlapping style. When a baby dies, quick decisions must be made. It therefore seems that it may have been more helpful to potential users to separate the sections so that the book can be used as a quick reference guide for those halachic questions, giving them time to read the psychological and experiential portions at a time of leisure.

Rabbi Levy’s open, sensitive and empathetic style of writing, as well as the depth of his thought and research, offer a source of comfort and support to those in mourning, and for the rabbi, counselor or friend — a glimpse into the journey of a loss.

Ms. Greenblatt works as a clinical social worker.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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