Supporting Jewish Families After Pregnancy Loss

It was a lovely summer day, July 29, 1985. I was married, a successful licensed psychologist and preparing for my OB exam less than two weeks from the due date of my first baby. And then, my world collapsed; there was no heartbeat. My baby girl had mysteriously died. When asked if I wanted to call someone, standing there in shock with my husband, the only person I could think to call for help was my Rabbi. I had never heard of stillbirth in a healthy woman. I was certain that anyone else would hold me responsible for my baby’s death, but my Rabbi would certainly be required to comfort me.

Later that night, our Rabbi came to our house not only with compassion, but with books and the names of another couple from our congregation who had suffered a full-term stillbirth six months before. If it weren’t for that couple, our Rabbi would not have been prepared to guide us. As a result of sharing my experience, other Jewish parents came forward talking about how isolated and unprotected they felt in the Jewish community. As part of my recovery, I integrated professional training about pregnancy loss into my career, and gradually evolved my practice to specialize in reproductive psychology.

Resources and best practices in perinatal bereavement are largely informed by a Christian understanding of death, leaving Jewish families lacking support.

Fast forward to 2015, when professional training in pregnancy loss continues to be absent from most curricula and community services are difficult to identify. More specifically, pregnancy loss and newborn death continue to be an invisible and isolating experience within the Minnesota Jewish Community. We place significant emphasis on having children and joyfully welcome each newborn into the community. But the many families who experience pregnancy loss or newborn death are left without skilled Jewish guidance. Our Rabbis have the necessary skills of pastoral care and ritual development, but lack specific knowledge about medical and psychological best practice, State of MN law, and proven strategies for supporting families who experience perinatal bereavement.

Because this life cycle event is invisible in congregational life, families may not even reach out to their rabbis for help in navigating the painful journey of perinatal bereavement. Unaffiliated families are left with no resource for information or support. As a result, Minnesota Jewish families must sort through the generic resources that are provided by their medical team and attempt to adapt them to their needs. Those resources and best practices in perinatal bereavement are largely informed by a Christian understanding of death, leaving Jewish families lacking support..

It is crucial to consider the phenomenon of early parental attachment and the impact in the Jewish community in light of the statistics on incidence of pregnancy and newborn loss:

  • 40-45% of conceptions do not progress to a sustainable pregnancy
  • 20-25% of known pregnancies do not result in live birth
  • 75% of women who miscarry consider the experience the loss of a “baby”

Jewish Organizations and Community Not Prepared to Assist Grieving Families

Minnesota State law requires that all fetal remains, regardless of gestational age, receive a proper and dignified burial in a designated burial location. This includes the earliest of miscarriages. Local hospitals have longstanding partnerships with Christian funeral homes and cemeteries to meet this requirement via group burial or group cremation with a Christian burial service.

Recently, Minnesota State law added a requirement that families be notified of the specific disposition arrangements that the hospital makes for early pregnancy losses. Jewish congregational and community leadership has been uninformed about these requirements and unprepared to routinely provide a Jewish funeral director and Jewish cemetery. As a result, Jewish families who may not otherwise have anticipated a need to make such arrangements learn that hospital default for early miscarriage involves partnerships with Christian cemeteries for ritual and burial. Jewish bereaved parents who seek support alongside non-Jewish bereaved parents experience a feeling of abandonment and isolation.

Making a Change 

This summer, anticipating the 30 year anniversary of the stillbirth of my first child, Shoshana, I determined that it was time to revisit my unmet mission—to shed light on the needs of Minnesota Jewish families who experience pregnancy loss and newborn death. Apparently, the timing was right. As a result of my efforts, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, Minnesota Cantorial Association and Hodroff-Epstein Funeral Homes are co-sponsoring the first ever Service of Comfort during National Pregnancy Loss Awareness Month this Sunday, October 25 at Adath Chesed Shel Emes Cemetery. All Minnesota Jewish families who have experienced a pregnancy loss or newborn death at any time, as well as any community members desiring to join in support, are invited to attend.

The upcoming Service of Comfort is the first step in bringing this life experience out of the shadows and honoring it with ritual that is rooted in Jewish practice and tradition. The Service of Comfort also represents the launch of a larger Minnesota Pregnancy Loss Initiative, the mission of which is to disseminate knowledge to community leadership, strengthen partnerships with the medical community and improve family access to expert support services already existing in the Jewish community.

For further information, please contact Rabbi Lynn Liberman, Community Chaplain, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul: [email protected]

Deb Rich, PhD. is a licensed psychologist with over 25 years of specialty experience in reproductive health psychology. She is the founder and director of Shoshana Center for Reproductive Health Psychology and MommaCare Training and Outreach. In addition to her clinical work, she provides interdisciplinary professional training, consultation and program development both locally and nationally. Dr. Rich currently serves on the board of the North American Society for Psychosocial Obstetrics and Gynecology, Minnesota Women in Psychology and Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota. She was a founding board member of the Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Alliance, and is a certified trainer and national faculty member of Resolve Through Sharing. Shoshana Center is named in memory of Dr. Rich’s first child, a daughter, who was stillborn in 1985. This experience profoundly shaped her work.