MOURNING A STILLBORN
Just recently my daughter-in-law's pregnant sister lost her baby to fetal demise. It seems that the umbilical cord got tangled. The baby was at 34 weeks and had to be taken by cesarean section. You should know that the young woman was at extremely high risk during this pregnancy and was hospitalized and being monitored for the past six weeks so there was incredible stress all along. Of course the couple is going to bury the baby. But they are also intent on sitting shivah. This absolutely breaks my heart. To add to the sadness of losing a baby after carrying it for so long under such stressful circumstances, sitting shivah in my mind seems an unbearable burden. I know shivah is supposed to help in the grieving process, with family and friends comforting the bereaved, usually talking about the value of the life lost. But this was an unborn baby whom no one got to know and whose life was highly anticipated to bring joy. Therefore the sadness of the couple's loss in my mind would only be deepened by sitting shivah and talking about it. Is sitting shivah then necessary? What does Jewish law say?
A Saddened Heart
Dear A Saddened Heart,
First of all, my condolences to you and to your family on what is most certainly a heart-wrenching loss. This could not have been easy on anyone, especially the parents.
You raise an important and emotional question about the appropriate response to loss, where the loss is not regarded, certainly from a Jewish perspective, as a human being. For centuries, no shivah would have been observed where a baby was stillborn. And to round out that picture, no shivah would have been observed if the baby was born alive but survived no more than 31 days. The tradition set limits as to when mourning is mandated given the frequency of neonatal death lest people find themselves in mourning repeatedly over their lifetime.
The advances in medical technology in modern times have significantly enhanced the viability of premature babies and have allowed us to save or treat the otherwise vulnerable, even in utero. Neonatal deaths have plummeted in western cultures, though when they do occur--as they inevitably will--the exceptional nature of the event makes the loss even more difficult to take. Moreover, mothers in the 21st century tend to have a much more intimate relationship with their fetus than mothers in the past. They have probably seen the baby on a sonogram, listened to the baby's heart beat, consulted with their doctor numerous times on the baby's health, etc. This is especially true of women involved in high risk pregnancies who have spent extended time in the hospital or frequently consulted their doctors.
All this points to the fact that sometimes, the baby is not, as you write, "an unborn baby whom no one got to know." In some cases, the baby has been very well known to the parents, rendering the loss particularly painful. And this is something we have to keep in mind.
Although I would discourage shivah, since the baby was not regarded as a human being at birth, I would nevertheless be hard-pressed to deny all forms of mourning if they would in anyway help the parents cope with so serious a loss. I might recommend having the family gather at someone's home following the funeral, encourage the parents to take some time off of work, welcome them at synagogue for prayer and maybe even for kaddish if they so chose. In other words, without creating a full-fledged shivah, it is important for family and the community to recognize and acknowledge the powerful loss of a fetus in its 34th week. I think naming such a baby would be a good thing to do. I think giving to tzedakah is even better to do, or planting a tree somewhere--the back yard?--in memory of the baby.
What might be a burden to one person could very well be a life-saver to another. We have to be careful to not project our own feelings or sentiments onto others. You bring up a case where we have to listen to the grieving parents and craft a ritual of healing specific to their loss and their needs.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
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