Six months before I got my first job in the rabbinate, my wife and I lost our first pregnancy. Due to complications which spanned about a month, our twenty-week-old fetus, which we had watched grow with such joy and anticipation, died.
With the exception of our marriage and a few other lesser bright spots, the few years before the miscarriage had not been kind to me. They had been filled with disappointment and a lack of progress, and the loss of a pregnancy—which had brought with it the inherent promise of new beginnings—was a stunning blow. I spent many months immersed in depression, barely responsive to the world around me.
Jewish law requires that a fetus at that stage of development be buried, but not in the same way as a regular funeral. There is no funeral or shivah, and the parents need not be present. Unlike a regular Jewish funeral, there is no obligation to rush the proceedings. The funeral home picks up the fetus and customarily names him or her, and then buries the fetus in a small grave in a location often unknown to the parents. It’s a very quiet process.
We were not close to our synagogue rabbi and did not have someone else to take care of the logistics. This meant that shortly after the miscarriage, while tending to a recovering wife and coping with my own brokenness, I was also busy on the phone trying to find a funeral home to deal with this on a graduate student’s stipend.
True to Jewish law, but certainly lacking in empathy, the funeral home we enlisted took a few days to pick up the fetus. This meant the hospital kept calling me to inform me that they would soon dispose of the fetus, and I, in turn, then had to follow up with the funeral home. I was too numb to care while it was happening, but during the recovery period it would stand out amongst the indignities of the whole process.
Six months later we moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I began my first official job in the rabbinate. Our move to Harrisburg was an opportunity to begin anew, to leave behind our old life and its painful memories—most prominently the miscarriage—and forge a new life.
Some months later we had a healthy child, and slowly we moved on from the crushing loss of the miscarriage. My schedule changed from a largely academic and reflective one to the hectic life of a congregational rabbi, and that largely brought to an end my ruminating on this experience. The miscarriage had seemed to fade away.
Fade is the wrong word. The memory still stings, but I have a better perspective. When it first happened, the miscarriage was the main memory we shared in our marriage, our only experience of pregnancy and children. Now it is a significant one, but one of many others. We have shared many other experiences together and have other memories of our children to occupy the stage along with the miscarriage.
Some years into my rabbinate, after burying many older people who had led full lives, I received the call that a young couple had lost a fetus, also at twenty weeks. Having not been involved in my own child’s burial, I was not familiar with the details of what needed to happen and had to consult with a rabbinical expert.
Soon I found myself doing for someone else what had been done for me years earlier. The funeral home I work with has far higher standards and picked up the fetus right away. On a rainy day I went together with one of the funeral directors and we dug a small grave and placed the fetus inside. I named him, recited a brief prayer and we buried him in that anonymous grave—just the funeral director and myself. The parents did not know any details, in keeping with tradition.
Then I stood there and cried. I cried for the fetus, who would never live, never see life with all its grandeur and opportunity and complexity, all its joys and all its hardships. I cried for the parents, for their great pain, which I knew about. I cried for all the suffering of so many people, for the losses that every life experiences.
And I cried for myself. I cried for the child I had never buried, the child whose grave I would never stand on and cry, the child whose name I didn’t even know. I cried because now I had done the same service for another family, I had repaid the favor to someone else in need.
And I marveled, because Jewish tradition has given us a wise, if painful, framework to process miscarriage. Standing at that anonymous grave all those years later, I knew something I could never have imagined back when I experienced my own loss: that despite the searing pain of that miscarriage, it was wise that I had been encouraged not to name my child and bury her, but to move on—to have more children, to build a family, to build a synagogue. One can get stuck in loss, but Judaism encourages us to see that there can and must be life afterwards.
As I buried another family’s dreams, I knew I had passed along the message to someone else: go forth and build. Don’t get mired in this tragedy, when the world holds such potential. And still I cried: for me, for my wife, for the parents, for the terrible losses of so many.
Rabbi Elisha Friedman serves as the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his family.