Charity reaches out to families grieving stillborn or neonatal death

July 26, 2017
The Shainbergs’ memory box for their first son, who was stillborn in 2015. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

By the time Maytal Shainberg got home from the hospital, her baby’s room had been cleared out, the crib disassembled and the toys returned. Every sign of the firstborn son she had carried for 39 weeks — who emerged without a heartbeat — was gone.

But the pain didn’t go away, and neither did the diaper coupons that continued to arrive in the mail. While such tragedy is not unheard of, Maytal and her husband, David, found many members in their Orthodox community ill-prepared to respond. Orthodox Jewish law, it turns out, offers little ritual direction when it comes to mourning in such circumstances.

And so, in many ways, when it came to coping with their loss, the Shainbergs were on their own — socially, religiously and logistically. “We had to invent the process for ourselves,” David said recently over lunch with Maytal in their Beverlywood home. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

In December 2015, six months after their baby was stillborn, the couple launched Forever My Angel (forevermyangel.org), a charity that springs into action when a local Jewish family of any denomination experiences a stillbirth or a neonatal death. The organization primarily provides practical help, such as coordinating meal trains, running errands and dismantling baby furniture. Its website includes advice for offering appropriate condolences. (Don’t start with “At least,” it says.)

“It’s logistical support for people who want to grieve,” Maytal said, “and partly a Hail Mary to the community, [that] we need to start thinking about this differently and treating these people differently, and not making everyone feel like this is something that should be swept under the rug or be embarrassed about. Because it’s life.”

Although Judaism has a robust tradition when it comes to mourning the death of an immediate family member, the same practices are not required when an infant does not live 30 days after birth — the age at which a child becomes viable according to halachah, or Jewish law. So in the case of a stillbirth, for example, relatives need not tear clothing, sit shivah, or say Kaddish.

But there’s no rule forbidding those things, either, which places the situation in a gray area.

“You can certainly mourn but there are no rituals required for it,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “The halachah’s perspective is, let’s move on. Life didn’t happen here — let’s move on and try to create another life, if you will, that will be viable.”

That perspective, David Shainberg said, dates to a time when the infant mortality rate was significantly higher, women played a more domestic role in the household and Jewish populations often faced existential threats. “That’s been the M.O. for hundreds of years: push forward and get through it as fast as possible, wipe it under the rug” and try to conceive again, he said. “The world is different now, and I don’t know that halachah has evolved in this regard.”

Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue said the community often fails these families. But he said that the halachah’s job is to establish only a minimum legal set of parameters for grieving.

“It doesn’t legislate for a maximum set of emotion,” Weiss said, adding “there’s no reason that one cannot observe ritually or express ritually one’s feeling.”

A lack of prescribed practices for Orthodox families, on the other hand, could be helpful for those who don’t want to dwell on a pregnancy with an unsuccessful outcome. “What’s required is a sense of balance,” Weiss said. “A necessity to express the grief and a balance so that they’re able to go on in a healthy way.”

For Maytal, that means lighting a candle in memory of her son every Friday night. Still, the Shainbergs said that without a halachic framework to guide the community, people who would support a family after a stillbirth don’t know whether or how to step in.

Looking up resources in the wake of their own tragedy, the Shainbergs said they found numerous support groups. But there had been a void when it came to logistical services that helped them live day to day.

“The charity was a response to what I felt like I needed,” Maytal said. “What I really need is someone to return the baby gift I just got. Or someone to go to Whole Foods to get milk because I want coffee and I don’t have any more milk, and I can’t bring myself to get in the car and drive right now.”

As such, everything provided by the charity and its website is geared toward acts of service and easing some of the everyday stresses grieving families face, Forever My Angel aims to enable them to focus on the act of mourning. The charity helps families across the spectrum of Jewish religious affiliation.

To that effect, Forever My Angel volunteers baby-sit, walk dogs, mop floors and drive carpools. The organization, which relies on donations from the Shainbergs’ friends and family, also can offer financial coverage for the hospital stay and funeral. The website explains what a mother should expect physically in the aftermath. And advice about the proper way to offer condolences is designed to protect a suffering couple from further agony.

Maytal and David Shainberg — with their 1-year-old son, Isaiah. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

There also are concrete suggestions for the hospital stay: Transfer out of the labor and delivery unit; ask the hospital for a memory box; spend time with the baby; consider choosing a name for him or her. (The Shainbergs named their firstborn but keep it private.)

Rabbi Jason Weiner, head chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said he is consulted on a case of stillbirth or fetal demise about once every six weeks and said reactions vary. Sometimes, he said, a husband and wife will respond differently. “I don’t give blanket or cookie-cutter advice,” he said. “It depends on the situation. And it also depends on their questions. My goal with a patient is to learn about what it’s like to be them at that moment.”

Forever My Angel can put grieving couples in touch with others who actually do know the feeling. By building a network of Jewish families who have experienced a pregnancy with an unsuccessful outcome, the charity has at its disposal a chorus of voices that show it’s OK to talk about what happened.

Upon receiving a referral from hospital chaplains or through word of mouth, David said, “it’s pencils down at work” for the couple, who run the charity by themselves in addition to their day jobs. David, 35, works in private equity, and Maytal, 30, works in financial technology. The couple reaches out personally to each couple, offering first empathy, then assistance.

Lemor Greer was nearly 42 weeks pregnant in May 2016 when her firstborn son lost his heartbeat. Forever My Angel organized a meal train, covered the baby’s funeral, and paid for a year of therapy, and the Shainbergs visited the Greers on the Greers’ first day back from the hospital.

“It’s such a big help that they take away all of those tasks and leave you with to deal with the emotional stuff, which is really what you should be exerting your energy on,” said Shuki Greer, Lemor’s husband.

The support group has made it possible for the Shainbergs to help Jewish families beyond their volunteer network. They have provided contacts to families in New York and Israel.

“We want to pull back this veneer of embarrassment and secrecy,” David said. “You shouldn’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist and try to face as few people in the Jewish community as possible until you get pregnant again.”

Maytal has since given birth to her second child, Isaiah, who recently celebrated his first birthday. She currently is pregnant with a third child. Mother’s Day is still hard for her, she said. So is Yizkor, the memorial service that she is not required to attend.

“There should be two kids running [around] out there,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder. We’re second-time parents but having first-time experiences. I feel like this should be easier. I feel like we’ll feel this way forever.” 

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