It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Holding my wife’s hand in the ultrasound room, we heard that rapid thump thump thump of newly created life. My wife was about 8 weeks pregnant with our next child. We left the room smiling and filled with a glow. I watched as my wife rested her hands gently on her abdomen. I smiled at her, and for the briefest of moments, felt a twinge of envy, knowing that I would never know our child as she would. It turned out, however, that life had other plans.
Within the following two weeks, my wife kept repeating to me that she felt something. She knew that there was something wrong with our child. Back to the ultrasound room we went, and, instead of that familiar and comforting sound of that thump thump thump, we heard silence, deafening silence. The life growing inside of her stopped growing; her cradle of life, my wife’s womb, now held lifelessness. The following week, after nurturing life for almost three months, my wife underwent a procedure, known as a “D&C”, to remove the silence.
There is so little in our literature, in our tradition, to guide the women who go through such tragedy, and less to offer wisdom to their partners on how to support in these moments of terrible loss. Over the ensuing weeks, I watched my wife mourn for the child we would never come to know. I sat silently as she would break out crying for no apparent reason, then run to hug our one and a half year-old son so tightly, and tell him how much she loved him. So often I wanted to say “something,” but I never knew the right words to say to her. What was I, a partner who could not carry life inside himself, who could never know life on that intimate of a level, what could I say besides that I grieved with her, and mourned with her.
But I’m a rabbi, aren’t I supposed to know what to do? I’ve been through chaplaincy rotations, studied the halakhot of mourning, pastored to people, shouldn’t I have been able to find something to comfort her? I soon realized that I was at a loss. There is almost nothing for a mourning of “the could have been.”
The Rav taught that the mourning of the intimate lives we know, this is aveilut hadashah – new mourning. This label has a double meaning for a situation such as this – it is new not simply because it is not the aveilut yeshanah of the Temple and ancient tragedies, but also because until very recently, Judaism has failed to recognize the need of the parents to mourn for what could have been.
My wife and I were experiencing a form of this aveilut hadashah, and even with the small collection of new material and liturgy, it felt so foreign. We didn’t discuss it in seminary, and it’s a small section of the rabbi’s manual. However, we are now living in a world where the marvels of medicine allow us to look at the fetus earlier than ever before, to hear the heartbeat of life sooner than ever before, and, we are having children later than any previous generation. Taken together, this is changing our understanding and attitudes of mourning for the loss of a life that could have been.
Standing nearly a year removed from this terrible moment, I cannot believe how completely unprepared I felt as a husband and a rabbi. It is time, I believe, that we begin to change our understanding of mourning beyond years 0 – 120. Unlike our ancestors, we live in a world where the hidden is not so hidden. Talking about and preparing our spiritual leaders, from rabbis-to-be to those already ordained, this too I believe is a part of our obligation as rabbis when we pastor. Our Mishnah, Niddah 5:3, goes so far as to say that a child one day old can be counted for mourning; perhaps it is time to take this halakhah one step further.
Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt serves Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, PA.