Miscarriage and Loss During COVID-19

For most of us this year, we have missed the natural human psychosocial cues we give each other, which are the building blocks of empathy and awareness beyond the self.
May 3, 2021
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I realized if I didn’t tell anyone, no one would ever know.

I was three months pregnant when I started to miscarry. My pregnancy was too far along, and my symptoms were solely abdominal pain. Natural miscarriage was unlikely and not happening, so I needed to have a surgical D&C. I was relieved to hear the doctor say that because I was 12 weeks pregnant, this would be less psychologically traumatic for me.

This was not my first miscarriage. I had a surgical D&C at three months of pregnancy in my first pregnancy. Same situation, same sorrow and loss. And yet, this time is different. I have a wonderful, vibrant 21-month-old baby girl, whom my husband and I were blessed to have between these two miscarriages — Baruch HaShem — and, of course, a loving dog, Judy, whom we adopted right after my first miscarriage.

But this time was also different because I realized in the COVID/post-COVID limbo we are living in, if I didn’t tell anyone about my miscarriage, no one would find out. For those experiencing miscarriage, this is often the case because it is such an ambiguous loss, which can be painful, lonely and confusing. But somehow, the isolation felt even more heightened now.

With my first miscarriage and D&C, I chose to tell my entire congregation a week post-surgery —  from the bima while giving my Rosh Hashanah drasha. I did so because it was on my heart and soul, because I wanted my shul family to know and because I wanted to decrease the stigma. It was an excruciating time — vulnerable and heart-wrenching. I didn’t feel like myself for weeks. I didn’t want to go out or talk to anyone. But because I am pulpit clergy and it was the holiest time of the year, I decided to face my pain and try to humbly offer it up with love and hope. That’s part of our spiritual work at the Chagim.

Right now, though, we aren’t giving drashot. We aren’t even gathering as a full community. We are thrilled to be in the process of “reopening.” But even if I wasn’t clergy, even if I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with my whole shul, the intimate Shabbat meals, casual social gatherings and run-ins in the local grocery store are also not happening. If I don’t actively email, text, call and reach out at the exact moment when I am most inclined to curl up in a ball and hide, then my husband, small nuclear family and I will go at this largely alone.

For most of us this year, we have missed the natural human psychosocial cues we give each other, which are the building blocks of empathy and awareness beyond the self.

So, in what was an uncomfortable social move, I pushed myself to reach out. Why? Because  in addition to getting through the pandemic, I have several sick family members and have been juggling a lot as of late. So when I found out I was losing the pregnancy, I hit a point where I just couldn’t emotionally keep it together, responding “I’m great!” or even “Baruch Hashem” when others asked how I am. I realized that emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, what I needed was to be completely honest that I was in pain and not ok.

I realized that emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, what I needed was to be completely honest that I was in pain and not ok.

What surprised me was how good it felt to be held by friends, family, colleagues and community —- even virtually. Those I reached out to made sure we had food, childcare and felt seen and loved. One person sent me a long, moving set of miscarriage resources she gathered when she went through it (some of which she and I had exchanged before). When we could have been anonymous, invisible and alone, we weren’t — we aren’t. Our family, friends and shul community responded.

Now, I know this approach is not for everyone. I respect that we all cope differently, and that’s healthy. Some of us find comfort specifically in privacy. Even my husband and I deal with this event differently, which is significant because whatever I do impacts him. And I am immensely thankful to him for supporting me in my own response. I also recognize that given my position in a tight-knit Orthodox community in Los Angeles, I am uniquely blessed and seen in a way that is not a given for everyone. Having connected deeply with organizations like Yesh Tikva, Modern Loss and Mayyim Chayim before gave me an already open window.

But this experience has refreshed within me what community can be, why I am devoted to serving God and His people and why it’s imperative that we all reopen our communities with a wider eye toward inclusion.

If I’m being honest with myself, if I had not given that drasha about my first miscarriage three years ago at Rosh Hashanah, I don’t think I would have reached out this time, and I don’t think I would be writing about my recent miscarriage now. I wouldn’t have known who to turn to or that doing so would be helpful. I would have exclusively powered through, sobbed in intimate spaces and read articles and blog forums online (which certainly continues to be part of my mourning now). But my mourning probably would have been limited to that.

Not this time. This time (oh gosh, how I wish there wasn’t a “this time,”  but there is), I see my micro pain in the arena of macro pain. People who have experienced loss of all kinds —physical, psychological, temporal, as well as loss of expectations and normalcy — are with me in this. We’ve realized that if we don’t tell anyone, it’s a legitimate possibility no one will know… or, God forbid, ask… and respond.

I offer this vulnerable reflection as a prayer. We need community. And our definition of community as we continue reopening will demand that we be more vulnerable, more sensitive, more aware than ever. It comes from all sides — the one in need of comfort and the comforter. And one of the trickiest parts of this demand is that everyone will need something different, some private, some public, some verbal and some physical, some with space and some with closeness. Discerning and respecting the extent of what we each need is part of the endeavor.

When he mourned Sarah, Avraham focused on logistics (the burial Cave of Machpelah) and the future (Yitzhak marrying Rivka). When she was worried about her twins in her womb, Rivka cried out to God and shut out her family. When she was pained by her barrenness, Rachel needed to turn only to her most intimate partner (Yaakov) to share her anger, sorrow and hopelessness. When his sons died tragically, Aharon continued his Mishkan service and duties with his fellow kohanim but with a notable adjustment (not eating one of the offerings) and with silence. When he was heartbroken about not going into the Land of Israel, Moshe immediately worried about who would be our people’s future leader and how to empower that person, immersing himself in community and our future. Our ancestors dealt with struggle and loss in varied ways, as do we. To adapt the phrase “rising strong” from Brené Brown, applying this Torah wisdom to our present moment is part of “reopening strong.”

How? We pride ourselves on being inclusive, open, welcoming and committed to mitzvot, especially in seeing, responding and preempting the needs of the other and the stranger. And yet, this time in history is one in which it’s really hard and awkward to do so. For that reason, we genuinely have to ask the tough but holy questions about how we can do all of this informed by the lessons we lived, suffered through, lost in and sacrificed for this past year. We must foster what theologian Henri Nouwen termed a community of “wounded healers” — healing and connecting with the wisdom of our own woundedness.

For example, mental health awareness has consistently been a pillar of our shul mission (and my own personal spiritual work). And I am thrilled to see a commitment to it springing up across almost all Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, from gyms to clothing stores to billboards to shuls. It’s something everyone recognizes and even understands now. I am hopeful and elated to see what that awareness and decreasing of stigma create. But what will that look like six months from now, five years from now? Will we allow ourselves to be changed beyond our status quo? These are serious and honest questions that even the greatest mental health advocates among us (including myself) must ask.

As my husband and I stood in the check-in area in the surgical unit (which was his last physical stop with me because of COVID rules), we personally turned to each other, to God, to the future and to the soul of the baby we hope to one day bring back into this world. We sang Shalom Aleichem (as we did before our last D&C), singing each verse to our angel on this journey, wishing our baby’s soul shalom, the ability to come to us, blessing and a peaceful exit from this physical vessel. And we said Baruch Dayan HaEmet (thank you Rabbanit Leah Sarna for posting Peninei Halacha’s integration of this bracha into this moment!). And we held each other. This was all part of what we needed, and the process continues.

With any kind of loss, there is effort in how we care for ourselves and our loved ones, which necessitates that we think and feel in a broader way than we normally do — a way that is in tune with what will truly soothe ourselves and others.

I thank my family, friends, colleagues and B’nai David-Judea community. And I thank Hashem for giving me the strength to go against my instincts and hear my needs. I thank my husband for being the most generous and supportive partner I couldn’t even dream up in this life.

I write this because I don’t want you — in whatever your pain is — to be alone. And because I want our spiritual communities and beyond to recognize that our times call for a different, deeper, more vulnerable kind of community.

The truth is that much wisdom has been written by experts on the dynamics, psychology and theology of a vulnerable community as the antidote to disconnection. There’s a wealth of texts in our tradition and in others’ to support it.

Much more needs to be lived on it.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn is a member of the spiritual leadership at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles, and she is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.

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