stillbirth

On Choosing Between the Jewish or Western Way to Mourn a Stillbirth

A young woman is resting on a wall outside in the mist

On the 4th of February, I delivered a stillborn baby. Like so many women who have lived before me, I labored for hours, breathing and counting through contractions, howling and writhing like an animal, clenching and clawing my partner’s arm, and then finally delivering into this world a small, limp being with no heartbeat.

I know you want to stop reading now.

Who wants to dwell on the subject of dead babies? But I promise you that this is not a story just about tragedy. In the darkness of this loss I have seen many blessings, and gained many perspectives about love, parenting, family and spirituality that I want to share.

You’re still with me?

Good.

Here’s my story:

The Monday before I delivered, I attended my routine 26-week scan. It was a hot January day (it’s summer in Australia) and I arrived at the imaging center fifteen minutes late with my 3-year-old son in tow. I lay on the examination bed distractedly reading a picture book about trucks to my son. My primary objective was to keep him from attacking the bottle of ultrasound gel as they examined my bulging belly.

After five minutes she said to me, “I’m worried about your baby. It’s very small. It’s below the first percentile. I’ll call your obstetrician, but I think you should have an amniocentesis.”

Thus began a chain of events: my partner was called in; fluid was taken from my womb; we began to cancel work obligations. On Wednesday we visited my obstetrician, to discuss the first set of results from the amniocentesis.  With kindness and sensitivity he presented the various explanations for the growth restrictions – some were benign, but most were dire. More tests would be conducted to help us understand exactly what was wrong. I would be monitored carefully. I may need an early C-section.

I might need to terminate.

I might choose to terminate.

It was that last option that scared my partner and me the most.

We went home, crushed by the possibility that we may have to make a decision that we could regret for the rest of our lives. No matter which way we acted, we would be burdened by the knowledge that we could have been wrong: on the one hand that we ended a life that should not have ended, or on the other that we brought a life into the world that would suffer endlessly.

But we never had to make that decision. Because by Thursday morning the fluttering and jabs that I had felt since my tenth week of pregnancy ceased.

On Friday I reported this to my obstetrician, who recommended I attend the labor ward immediately.

The midwife–an angel named Jasmine–applied a heart monitor and heard nothing. Then a larger heart rate monitor, and heard nothing. She called in my obstetrician who conducted a scan on a basic ultrasound machine. Nothing was detected. They escorted me to the high resolution imaging centre, where a specialist ultrasonologist conducted a scan.

Ultrasound wand poised in the air, she paused. “How would you like me to share with you my findings?” she asked with reverence.

I hesitated, and then said, “We are assuming there is no heartbeat. Can you tell us as soon as you know?” In truth, I hadn’t yet drawn that conclusion, but at this point I was speaking from my gut, not from my brain.

After a few moments, the ultrasound technician said, “There is no heartbeat…  It’s a stillborn.”

Though I can’t remember my instant reaction, knowing me, I probably deployed my extremely dark sense of humor and made a joke. Then I remember that I slid to the floor and began to wail.  Deep staccato sobs poured out of my throat. It was primal. Raw. The waiting room was filled with women at various stages of pregnancy waiting to be scanned. I was the woman living their greatest nightmare.  How awful it must have been to hear my anguish. The attendants escorted me to a private room.  There were tissues, water and sympathetic words offered as my partner and I tried to orient ourselves.

My doctor then described what was in store for me over the next few days. Labor would be induced. I would deliver the dead baby.  I would have to recover. An autopsy would be conducted. We would have to arrange a burial.

Then we were “empowered” to make choices about what we wanted to do after I delivered. The midwife explained our options. Did we want to see the body? Did we have a name for the baby?  Did we want to hold her or hug her? Did we want to have the body photographed?  Did we want to have a funeral?

I was at a loss. How should I make sense of that being I would birth into the world, and then bury?  How would I relate to her? (It?)

To give birth to a stillborn is everyone’s nightmare. But it has been a reality for so many in our species, since we have existed. I was surprised to discover that it is more common to have a stillbirth than to lose a child to SIDS. In Australia, between five and six stillborn babies are delivered each day. In the United States, statistics are similar, though researchers believe they are underreported, and numbers are higher for minorities. In the Global South, stillbirth is tragically ubiquitous. For example 47 out of every 1000 deliveries result in still births in Pakistan, and 35 of every 1000 deliveries in Senegal.

We women have been birthing dead babies since humanity’s first baby was born. It’s just so normal. And yet, in Melbourne, Australia, 2017, I was at a loss as to how I should understand and interpret this event. Did I lose a child?  Was it a miscarriage? How do I relate to the body I was to birth?

I knew that from a Jewish perspective, I was not supposed to engage with the baby’s body beyond delivering it. She was considered a nefel or a fallen. Traditionally, the Chevra Kaddisha (Jewish burial society) would collect the body as soon as practicable, and whisk it away to bury it respectfully. I was not to mourn as one mourns the death of a loved one. There would be no funeral.  I could only conclude that, from a Jewish perspective, birthing a stillborn did not carry the same sort of significance or gravity as a regular death. Surely this meant that I shouldn’t regard this stillborn baby as a full and complete human being, or a child of mine.

On the other hand, the midwives and grief counsellors strongly advised I engage with the baby more actively. They anticipated a long grieving process, and that I would forever regard this loss as the loss of a child. Opportunities to bathe the body, take it home, and create a memory book replete with footprints and photos would help me honor that. I was welcome to do any or all of these things if I wanted, they promised.

But I feared that if I saw her body after I delivered, I would carry around an image of that dead baby in my imagination forever. Surely it would haunt me in my dreams for the rest of my life. If I touched my dead baby’s body, would I carry the sensation in my fingertips forever? Like Lady Macbeth who became obsessed with washing her hands of the blood of her murdered victims, would I become obsessed with the memory of these sensations?

I did not know how to understand what had happened, nor how to regard this being. Which culture offered the best approach? Western culture, which was apparently based on empirical evidence about psychology and grief, or the Jewish approach, which had withstood the test of time? Like so many who straddle these two worlds and identities, I did not know where to turn.

 Part two of this series, which was first published on Australian blog Jewish Women of Words, is here.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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