Judaism and Infant Death - A Community of One by Anna Kolodner
Volume 3 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1989 | Tishrei, 5750)
Eight years have passed since the birth and death of my infant son. The anniversary of his death is an event I comfortably commemorate alone. It is no longer discussed or shared or perhaps even remembered by family and friends. I have made peace with his death and mark my remembrance with a yearly visit to his grave.
There was no reason to think that this year would in any way be different. Yet a passing dinner conversation with some new friends evoked feelings I had assumed were long buried. These friends shared with me the story of a friend, a single Jewish woman, who after much careful and thoughtful consideration had joyfully decided to have a baby. She rearranged a complex professional life to comfortably allow her expectations of motherhood to flourish.
Unexpectedly, during the eighth month of her pregnancy, the baby died. Although she marked the baby's death with the informal support of friends and family, she found no place for her mourning within the confines of Jewish ritual. The lack of support and direction in marking her loss Jewishly was particularly disappointing.
The circumstances surrounding the death of her infant were different from mine, but the impact was not. Years have passed since my son's death, but apparently, the questions which face the Jewish community's response to infant death remain the same. Thus, my story is her story and needs to be told.
Named to Validate Existence
Early in June, 1981, I was told that the child I had carried for eight months had a fatal birth defect and would, at best, survive a few hours beyond birth. I prayed, I begged, and I bargained with G‑d for this horror to be a mistake. As the medical explanations were endlessly repeated, I began to acknowledge the inevitability of my baby's death. Oscar, the name my husband and I had joyously and jokingly given our unborn child, died during birth. I mention his name, because to give something a name validated its existence, and Oscar did exist.
There are no pictures of him, or stories of his life; only a box of little clothes he never wore. Yet, for eight months my child and I had shared a life. I loved him and had fallen in love with my dreams of his future. I had vividly imagined him sitting at our Passover seder in the spring. It seemed impossible that he would not be there.
As the reality that Oscar would not survive the birthing process seeped in, I sought the advice and support of a rabbi from a local shul. I quickly learned that infant death has no place in the Jewish community.
As a Jewish woman, a professional, and the child of concentration camp survivors, I was painfully aware of both the agony and necessity of mourning. I had been taught that as there is a Jewish way of life, there is also a Jewish way of death.
I knew the customs, beliefs, and practices of Jewish mourning observances were highly structured. They provide detailed prescriptions to lead mourners through the tenuousness and heartache which surrounds death. From the moment of death, through the funeral and the observance of shiva and the sheloshim, to the observance of yarzheit, Jewish ritual strives to provide consolation, to help mourners to express their pain, and to maintain the psychological integrity of the mourner.
Tradition Didn't Provide Comfort
Following Oscar's death, I naively assumed that these traditions, the traditions I had learned and practiced, would provide some comfort. Though, when I picked up the phone to call the rabbi, I felt uncertain and fearful. I reflected on the hours following the news that my baby had died. Few in my community of family and friends, who were largely Jewish, had even made reference to my baby as a child, my child, my son. No one asked if it was a boy or a girl. The quiet conversations which surrounded me spoke only of the baby I had lost. Suddenly, I recognized that my status had changed. I was no longer a mother to be or a mother. Only my heart knew a mother's grief at the loss of her child.
I began to think about a casket, the burial, and a headstone. I did not expect a funeral, yet did expect something, so I continued my pursuit of support. The Rabbi's response was clear, certain, and quiet. Perhaps if the words were spoken softly, their effects would be less devastating. The Rabbi was specific. Oscar had not survived the eight day period required to secure his legitimate place as a member of the Jewish historical precedent. Oscar ought to be buried,somewhere in an unmarked grave. Furthermore, he suggested that someone other than I should make the arrangements. All of this, I was told, would spare me pain and help me move forward.
It was clear that the Jewish way in death which embraces all of life, had exceptions. For a brief instant I wanted to justify or explain the meaning of Oscar's life. With a rage of conflicting emotions I thought, for eight short months of motherhood I was my son's community, a community of one, though no less meaningful, vibrant, or loving than any other. We had lived together, been sick together, gone on trips together, and in the end, we died together. My sadness precluded my response.
I was struck with anger and fear anger about the seemingly obvious antiquated thinking and sexism which was filling a gap in the tradition I so fully embraced, anger at the Rabbi's learned dispassionate prescription for infant death, and fearful that if I chose another path, I would violate Jewish law. Furthermore, friends and family seemed to tacitly agree that the Rabbi's suggestions were for the best. I called my father, a scholar of Jewish law, to seek confirmation of the Rabbi's view. He concurred. The Rabbi's suggestions were, in fact, the usual course of action. However, as my questions persisted, he conceded that tradition was not law, and my course could be my own.
With no official or informal community support, Oscar was buried in a plain casket, in a Jewish cemetery. Although I wanted a marker for his grave, I refrained. I suspected that even these small acts of remembrance were considered borderline insanity by the few who knew of them. I could no longer endure the slightest hint that my loss and my response to it was anything but legitimate. Therefore, I became self‑conscious of my grief and continued it only in private.
The solitary nature of my mourning and the lack of appropriate or acceptable ritual prolonged my pain and perpetuated my grief. Each of these responses was in part due to the failure of a Jewish tradition whose intent is to embrace life, even in death. It seemed ironic that historically Jews have responded to infant deaths by urging those affected to forget the past and look to the future. For Jews in particular, such admonitions have been imprudent, at best.
Easing the Pain
What would ease the pain? For those of us whose children die through stillbirth, miscarriage, or other causes of infant death, support and validation of our loss and its pain is crucial, for the death of a wished for child is more than the loss of a life. It is the loss of one's expectations. For some the solution is simple. It is bringing the mourners a meal, an act which recognizes the painful disruption of their lives. Perhaps, it is an act of remembrance, such as planting a tree in Israel. For others, the needs are greater and the solutions more complex. It seems to me that the existing Jewish observances of death are the place to begin. Jews today clearly vary in their degree and manner of religious and ritual observance, and the observance of death proves no exception. Therefore, ought not the mourners of infant death be afforded similar discretion? To discourage their mourning is to discredit their grief and to diminish their healing. The Jewish community needs to find a place in its heart and ritual to share these losses.
A final note. Three years after Oscar's death I ordered a tiny marker with the Star of David for his grave. Visiting his grave on the yahrzeit of his death provides me great comfort.
Anna Kolodner, Ph.D. lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.