Reproductive loss, including miscarriage, infertility, and the loss of young children, weaves its path of destruction throughout the Torah. The first human parents, Adam and Eve, are rocked by the death of their younger son, Abel, who is killed by their first born Cain, the first child born to this world. Abraham, the first Jewish man, is coerced into giving his son Ishmael up, relinquishing his status as parent. Sarah, the first Jewish woman, is unable to conceive until the age of 90--and when she finds out, she belly laughs right into the face of God’s messenger. When her son is nearly murdered, her own death is hastened. The next generation sees Rebecca, who struggles through a pregnancy that leaves her begging for her life to all be over. Torah bears witness to families struggle through infertility, mourning grown children.
If you’re trying to figure out how reproductive loss fits into the arc of death and dying of our season, remember we just finished talking about preparing the dead for burial. Our next episode will be about burial. But these moments of our stories that are too...much, too big to tell, this is the work of this project. To lose a baby, or to feel grief after an abortion, or to be perpetually praying and working to get pregnant, these are the spaces of in betweenness, and of suffering without end. Between a “being” and “could have been,” as the rabbis grapple with (more on that soon.) Between grief and anticipation. Between the lines of stories that we tell out in the open.
Today, we’ll begin to hold the stories of reproductive loss, and the all the between-ness it brings. I’m Ariana Katz, and this is Kaddish.
So what is “reproductive loss”?
Obviously, in our traditional narrative, so many things can be reproductive loss. We talk a little bit about miscarriage, still birth, infertility, is a deep loss; SIDS, infant death, but also, right, the death of a toddler, the death of a child, the death of a child at any age, and then I think that it's important that we allow space for the non-traditional narratives. So people that have had a failed adoption – so many other ways that we see this loss. Like, people who have decided not to have children, didn't have children, and grieve the loss of what may have been.
These stories that sit in the doorway between life and death, or at the starting point of the circle of living and dying and living and dying. I offer you two episodes on this theme--next week we’ll hear from Naomi Leapheart, organizer, educator, and religious leader. This week, we begin with Jacqui Morton.
I'm Jacqui Morton. I'm a mom. I'm a writer and a doula and I've created this thing called Holding Our Space
Jacqui hasn’t been a doula her entire adult life. She was moved to it, and to the creation of the organization Holding Our Space, through her own experience of reproductive loss.
The pregnancy that I lost was one that happened very quickly. Once my husband and I thought that we might be ready for a second child, I– so, I had my first son in 2009, finished graduate school in 2011, and within probably months of finishing, I was pregnant for the second time. And so I was just like so surprised and shocked to have that happen so quickly that I almost felt that something might be wrong. I just didn't feel quite right in my pregnancy and couldn't put words to that feeling, but when I went for my first prenatal visit, which was at 9 weeks, everything looked fine to the midwife that I saw. The ultrasound looked fine.
Still, Jacqui was almost 35 years old, so the midwife recommended she also have some additional testing done.
I scheduled the ultrasound at the very end of my first trimester, and in that time I really bonded with my pregnancy, and we were at the beach with my almost 2-year-old and it was really a time of like, I think, trying to make everything okay but yet feeling like this sort of dread.
And then when we had the day of the ultrasound, the doctor saw large abnormalities.
We had genetic testing that day through the procedure known as CBS, which also carries its own risks of miscarriage.
But Jacqui didn't miscarry. She got the test results, and it turned out her baby had a genetic disorder called trisomy 18. Babies with trisomy 18 have severe physical and intellectual disabilities and, often, heart defects. Less than 10% survive a year.
At first I thought that this must be so rare, but really it's just that normally these pregnancies don't survive even that long. So we waited for some confirmation of the results, and we just did a lot of research and a lot of crying, and determined really that it wasn't a viable option for us to try to bring that baby into the world, and we terminated the pregnancy.
We terminated the pregnancy...I went to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. I say that because I think that it's a lot different now than it was then. I think they made some changes, but we did drive by the protesters.
Obviously the whole thing– I can’t say bizarre– the whole thing was just a nightmare. But then to realize that it didn't seem like I was able to find any real comfort through the actual procedure, and I regret that that became something that I grieved once I finally grieved.
This is pointing at an issue in the reproductive justice movement, where in the 70s to say that one could experience grief after an abortion was to sell out the movement--the fight for legal abortion coverage was so dire that to admit it’s difficulties on an individual would propel anti-choice activists to claim that people who had abortions always regretted them. But now we’re seeing more space were someone to say, “I am making this choice because it is the right choice and I am profoundly grief-stricken because of it.” I'd like to think there could be more opportunity to say every human being deserves the right to choose when and if and how to parent. That every person can be afforded resources to help parent children. But we’re afraid of what might come when we say we need spiritual resources to make the choice to terminate a pregnancy, that there is an emotional and spiritual life that can respond with relief, joy, grief, and need for comfort.
I think that giving people tools to deal with how they feel after an abortion is really important. Without that, this is guilt and shame and this is how you should feel – that's not okay. And then why can't we separate it from– why can't they go to church if that's where they need to go and receive the nourishment that their spirit needs after having an abortion, which was, like you say, the right choice for whatever circumstance that it was necessary, right? I don't understand why we can't just really trust in humanity in making these decisions for themselves and seeking whatever kind of spiritual follow-up they need to make.
I've come to know many people who have unfortunately lost babies– and even though this was an abortion and I went to basically an abortion clinic and had an abortion, I came to know her as a baby that I carried.
There are the moments of death, and the echoes that surround them, freeze them in time. Sometimes it takes years to process the grief of a reproductive loss.
It came in stages. And I think that it will continue, but again, I did get pregnant so quickly after that.
Grief comes and goes. It returns when we think it’s gone. These things was perhaps intensified by Jacqui’s next pregnancy, which both distracted her from her loss and reminded her of it at the same time.
His pregnancy was very challenging. In the beginning I moved through all the testing again, and they were concerned about something that they saw with his bodily development in my early ultrasound, so my pregnancy with William became another crisis time for me, and I think I put my grief aside completely,just focused on my anxiety – getting through, dealing with my anxiety is what I should say.
But I know I had moments of grief during that time, so I could call them very elusive, I think. Over time, my grief has become known to me as this sort of snail that coils back and pitches forward, and I can kind of let it sit there or do something to make it hurry away.
When her second child, William, turned 3, Jacqui realized that she had been ignoring her grief over her lost pregnancy for a while.
I had accessed some services. I go to therapy – I had gone to therapy, although I had stopped during the pregnancy. I went back very soon after, so I was in therapy my whole then-pregnancy with Will, but I never named it. So it was an abortion, it was a termination for medical reasons, it was the loss of a wanted pregnancy, it was a very unknown thing and, like, unspoken, and so I finally did some real processing of that. I had done some writing along the way – I had definitely done some writing; it was the only way to really get through. But then I finally gave her a name and found the words “my baby” and began to honor that life that just passed through my life, and then found ways to try to connect with others and create spaces that would have been safe for me, where I would have felt safe but never felt drawn to because there was no invitation for me.
Sari Wilson wrote the following on miscarriages for Mutha magazine just last month:
It’s an open secret how many women have had miscarriages. No one will tell you this, though, until you have one yourself. You find out your grandmother had a number of miscarriages. Your friends reveal that they have had one, two, three—or more—miscarriages. Your dental hygienist reveals, through her mask, that she has had multiple miscarriages. (You feel closer to her than anyone else in the world at that moment.) How could you not have known this? That the world is filled with this disappearance of possible futures?
Reproductive loss is something that is just built into our bones as people, of just, this is how we move forward, and so it feels weak, I mean, right? Sometimes I feel like silly, or, “Why are you even talking about that? You have two beautiful children.” And it's true, and so, but something inside me tells me that it's okay once in awhile to feel sad. And even if that's the moment in which I'm able to connect with somebody else that may have not had the message, that it's okay to feel sad even though you're raising your two beautiful children, right?
Yeah, because it's true, you have to be strong, and we say to each other, right? I mean, we give people that message: you have to be strong for this.
When we grieve the dead, we know the steps, which are often: funeral, burial, community brings a casserole dish, and into a year of mourning. When we grief the loss of a pregnancy, the rules are just different. What kind of funeral feels right for the family? What does communal mourning look like? Rabbinic law is full of debate on when life begins, be it after birth, or after 8 days, or at viability. Based on those opinions, how does that change the rituals afforded to parents? Losing a wanted pregnancy throws off all the rules about what to expect as a mourner, what to need out of ritual to mark it.
I have several rituals. It's been sort of part of my life. So, sometimes it's lighting a candle that’s specific for her. I gave her the name Nina – I wasn't sure I could name her because I hadn't met her, and I always wanted to name a girl Nina or Sylvia. So I named her Nina and gave her a middle name Rose, which is a great aunt I have, and I have some rose earrings that I wear sometimes in her honor. I try to do random acts of kindness while I am out in the world, and I do those things with my sons too. I do small rituals. It's really become– it never felt right to have a memorial or a ceremony.
I was raised Catholic, so in terms of my own faith, I didn't immediately see a way to do this in the traditional faith that I had understood, that had comforted me as a child. I was completely unsettled, and I had actually gone to a mass three days after my abortion. It was the 10th year on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and that was a really big loss for me, and he died in September 2001 of leukemia, actually.
Marking time unifies what feels like disparate and out of control moments in grief. Marking the days on the calendar, showing that time does in fact pass, but no it’s not been as long as it feels, no it’s not as immediate as it feels. Jacqui marks the dates of her pregnancy with Nina.
September 22 is the date of my anniversary, my loss anniversary, and March 31 is the date that was her expected due date, so usually on March 31, I will plant something outside, do some nice things in nature. I think you really need to figure out what works in your life and your, again, experience. So I didn't deliver this baby, I didn't hold her, I don't her have her buried somewhere, and it's just a quiet relationship that I have with her in my soul, I guess.
To say the mourner’s prayer, the mourner’s kaddish, one needs a quorum of at least 10 people. Of the specific set of prayers that one cannot recite without community, the mourner’s kaddish is one of them. Like Sari Wilson said, It’s an open secret how many women have had miscarriages. The need to mark loss at all necessitates a community holding us as we fall apart. But for an open secret like reproductive loss, it can be hard, near impossible, to find a community for a silent story.
I started to kind of be more awake. Of course it's a reproductive justice issue. I mean I became a doula after my own experiences anyway and then just found that people didn't have the right kind of spaces and wanted to try to create more of that. And I fully kind of articulated this when I applied for a grant from an organization called the Abortion Conversation Project. And then through talking with one of the board members while I was planning my proposal and working on it, it really became clear that what I wanted to create was a space for reproductive loss that would be inclusive of all types of grief, of all reproductive experiences.
And so Jacqui created Holding Our Space.
Holding Our Space really has come to feel like a space for feelings and just bringing that a little bit into our everyday world. So first I created a Tumblr page because I wanted to make a place on the Internet that’s sort of a little bit of an altar and to be kind of an artistic space for moments and thoughts and pictures and whatever.ONLINE ALTAR
Part of what Holding Our Space hosts online are poems and stories written by users who have experienced reproductive loss. It’s an online altar, it’s a writing into being. This is one of them:
This is for baby Sandy, the one who got away. Today you would’ve been old enough to drink, old enough to be finishing college, old enough to have a baby of your own. In so many ways it’s better that you’re not, but I still remember who you could’ve been.
With her grant, Jacqui was able to create a physical sanctuary for reproductive loss as well. She brought a community of mourners together in her hometown of [town?] for a several day long workshop.
In my own town in the suburbs, I found the spiritual center that used to be a church, and they were very open to my idea of wanting to create a community space over a couple of days for people to just be able to come and go and have activities that people could do and that just gave them a quiet moment and something to do with their hands or some space to just sit and cry. And we created an alter, we had candles for people to light, we made a mural on the wall from pretty flowers, and people just wrote various meaningful things to them – words and names and dates. And we held a, well, we started the two days with a yoga session and it was beautiful and it was led by another abortion doula and registered yoga teacher Brenda Hernandez – and she continues to do that class, restorative yoga for reproductive loss and infertility in the Boston area, so I'm going to say that and encourage people to check her out. And at the end of these two days, we held a ceremony and that was facilitated by Sarah Whedon and a full spectrum doula and pagan priestess, so part of what I had done was try to take input and create a space that would be welcoming of different experiences and backgrounds. And that's what we did in June.
My hope is that Holding Our Space could become representative of each community, so that in that way, it becomes an important space for the community to just come together around this [unclear] in a way that's non-secular and not exclusionary for people who want that connection or want to be able to say it out loud.
Right, because to not speak about loss as parents is doing a disservice to the children we go on to raise, and as a society, to not speak about loss is isn't honoring the experiences of every member of our society. I mean, think about– it's a connection point. We all lose. Reproductive loss is very common, but broader than that, right? This is what [unclear] need to do right now, but broader than that, this is about grief and space and validating our emotions as a people.
Reproductive loss is that silent story, that grief seemingly too big to bear sometimes. If grief is something we perpetually carry on our backs, sometimes heavier as we trudge through the winter, sometimes lighter, gently holding on as we dance and swirl, then reproductive loss is something we carry in our arms, hold between doorways, in the inbetween spaces.
In the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing an episode with Naomi Leapheart talking about reproductive loss as a queer issue, and about infertility in reproductive loss. In these days where many of us are kindling light to bring comfort and warmth in the coldness of winter, may these stories bring light to the grief stories we don’t always get to tell.
If you want to share your story of reproductive loss with the Kaddish community, you can call 240-KAD-DISH and for a listener episode.
As always, I am so grateful for all our listeners, and the brilliant Kaddish team.
I’m Ariana Katz, and this is Kaddish.
Thank you so much to:
Katie Briner and Ever Hanna
Tiny Victor, for the music
Alex Stern, fearless Kaddish Producer
This episode is dedicated to Nina, and all the memories that we hold gently in our arms.