November 21, 2018

Heartbreak and loss in the New Year

And because you have stayed this long
unrelenting, in the unrelenting world,
you know that time, though imperfect
is diligent, and wrestles down grief,

and that all things are born small
and grow large —
except grief, which is born large
and grows small.

— “Enduring” by Marcia Falk,
Yizkor section of “The Days Between”

Where does a story begin? Do I open with the highest point, an assurance that every sad story ends on a happy note? Perhaps it’s better to start from the lowest point, so you know the pathway can only rise up. Our son was stillborn on Aug. 26, 2014. Our daughters were born on Nov. 6, 2015.

Or, perhaps it should be reversed. Our daughters sleep side by side in their cribs. Their faces framed by lovies and WubbaNubs. Our son’s picture, along with his handprints and footprints taken on the day of his birth and death, are framed on the kitchen wall. This is our family. My husband, Michael. Our son, Jack, z’l. Our daughters Madeline and Eleanor.

Following the suicide of her sister, Rabbi Rachel Gartner wrote these words in anticipation of the High Holy Days: In the coming year, may we find that we can indeed bear our brokenness — however heavy — without being overcome by it. May we find that, despite our pain, we can experience moments of deep joy. Rachel wrote this prayer for herself, yet I’m certain it was meant for me. Dear God, help me breathe. Help me stand. Help me return someday to a life I recognize. 

 

Here is the lowest point. On Monday afternoon, Aug. 25, 2014, at a routine doctor’s appointment (one day short of 29 weeks), our doctor listened for a heartbeat and heard no sound. And just like that, our baby had died. Without explanation. Without warning. 

I practice saying again and again: It’s not your fault. There was nothing you could do. You did the best you could with the information that you had.

I daydream about visiting our doctor with a list in hand. “Here,” I will say, “please review these possible reasons for the death of our child and then tell me none of them are true.” A bereaved mother’s confession for the New Year: I worked too much. I didn’t count his kicks. I ate something contaminated. I stood too close to a cellphone tower. A spider bite. An allergic reaction. I forgot to read the next chapter in “What to Expect.” I didn’t know his equivalent fruit or vegetable.

The girls with a picture of their brother, Jack.

In the days after we announce his death, friends ask how they can help. “What can we bring? What can we say?” They tell me: “There are no words,” but I disagree. I tell them to remind me of two things again and again: You will get through this, and you will have a family someday. This won’t be our last chance. The final chapter has not been written.

One of my favorite pictures from the hospital is of Michael holding our son. My heart breaks for him: His dream of being a father began and ended so quickly. He held our son for five hours. He only had this one chance to whisper in his ear, to kiss him on the forehead, to hold his hand and examine his feet. Later on, Michael will tell me, “Holding my son was the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

And this is how I comfort myself, as my arms ache to hold my baby: You held him for 29 weeks, and when he was born, you held him close for another five hours before letting him go. He was loved and embraced every minute of that time. Twenty-nine weeks plus five hours. Every second of his life.

 

People talk about the “loss of a child,” but a child dies. What is lost is every moment in the life we imagined: the smiling picture in the hospital on the day of his birth; the email that my community of Temple Isaiah should have received announcing his birth (not his death); attending preschool; the walk to Overland Elementary. 

And here is the cruel compassion of grief. The first few weeks will not allow for the soul-crushing recognition of how much has been lost. It is only as the heaving cries begin to subside that one begins to realize how life has been irreversibly changed.

 

The Torah tells us that Moses, Miriam and the Israelites burst into song as the walls of water collapsed on their Egyptian pursuers. How did they know the words to sing? When did they compose their song? Was it an ancient prayer kept alive throughout the years of suffering? Was it a spark of light that disrupted the darkness, unexpectedly drawing poetry from a broken heart? 

This is how I imagine it. With heroic strength, they walked themselves out of Egypt. They carried those aspirational verses grasped in their fists, terrified they might never have the opportunity to say them aloud, yet unwilling to let them go. And then the moment came, and they had their song.

Tonight, Michael and I sing our daughters to sleep. Tomorrow, the journey continues.


Rabbi Dara Frimmer serves the community of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. She and her family are deeply grateful to the MISS Foundation for bereaved parents, and the support of their family, friends and community, who continue to accompany them on their journey.