Building Resilient Families and Communities
NechamaComfort Offers Support and Guidance to Parents After Pregnancy and Infant Loss
In 2009, Chaya Hott of Monsey, New York—then a young mother of two little girls—was told that it would be dangerous for her to conceive again due to a medical condition that occurred during her second pregnancy. Imagine her joy when, after ten long years of waiting and hoping, Chaya learned that it would be safe to expand her family.
Chaya became pregnant almost at once with her first perfect, little boy. As her due date drew nearer, she and her husband imagined his bris, debated who to name him after, and prepared their girls to welcome a little brother.
And then, without warning, it all went wrong.
One morning in March, as the rest of the country found itself suddenly thrown into chaos by a terrible new virus, Chaya’s world was turned upside down. At an early morning sonogram during her 35th week of pregnancy, she learned her son’s heart had stopped, without explanation.
For Chaya, the pain was unimaginable, the grief and guilt paralyzing. She felt like the only mother without a baby in the world.
Unfortunately, she is far from alone.
One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage; each year, there are more than 26,000 stillbirths in the United States alone. Yet the stigma and silence persist. Losses go unacknowledged, families are left to navigate their grief alone.
To combat this sense of isolation and private shame, President Ronald Reagan designated October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in 1988. Since then, many organizations have sprung up to help educate communities and support families struggling with miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss.
But for women like Chaya, an Orthodox Jew, the death of a baby is further complicated by its unique status in Jewish law. An infant who has not lived for 30 days isn’t considered to have lived at all; none of the traditional Jewish mourning customs, such as sitting shiva or reciting Kaddish or Yizkor, are instituted for such a loss. Customs that have become common practice in many communities instead can feel bewildering and traumatic to parents still grappling with the shock of learning their baby has passed away.
“We were told to leave everything to the chevra kadisha and were discouraged from naming her or burying her in a marked grave,” said Perel Hecht, who delivered a stillborn daughter at 37 weeks. “All of these decisions were being made literally while I was giving birth. In the panic of the moment there was no time to think about what I really wanted for her, and afterward it was too late.”
Reva Judas, of Teaneck, New Jersey, is all too familiar with this dilemma.
In 1987, Reva’s first child was born with a congenital heart defect that limited his life to just 12 hours after birth. “I was in shock, devastated,” Reva said. “My father is a rabbi, but this is something that was never covered in his training. The rest of our family, friends, and community—no one had ever experienced this before. They didn’t know what to say or do.”
Reva and her husband, Danny, were forced to navigate the difficult practical, spiritual, and emotional choices of how to name and bury their child alone. And in the months that followed, it felt like they mourned his death alone, too: their loss seemed virtually invisible to the world around them.
Determined that no other Jewish couple should suffer as she and Danny had, Reva founded NechamaComfort, an organization dedicated to supporting Jewish parents of all walks of life as they navigate the trauma of pregnancy and infant loss.
“Thirty-three years have passed since my son’s death, and still not enough people know what to do,” she said. “Rabbis don’t know where to turn when a congregant asks how to bury their stillborn child. Doctors and nurses still say, ‘Well, you can always try again.’ Friends keep silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.”
Now in its 20th year, NechamaComfort has counseled thousands of families, working individually with parents, and also offering support and guidance to members of the couple’s extended family and friends. Among many other services, the organization has helped bereaved parents advocate for their right to mourn their children in any way that brings them solace and organizes regular support groups where parents can share and gain strength from others who have suffered loss.
In addition, NechamaComfort actively works to educate communities about loss, offering professional training for rabbis, medical staff, mikvah attendants, and many others. “Communities can also be educated about how to embrace a suffering family and allow space for both the joys and sorrows of building a family,” said Reva.
That last has become especially important in the age of coronavirus, which adds even more layers of pain and difficulty to the experience of infant loss. For many women, COVID meant delivering miscarriages or stillborn children alone, without the support of a spouse or family member; for some, it has even meant enduring the trauma at home.
“The panic and anxiety that has always gone with pregnancy and infant loss was heightened,” said Reva. “For us, we had to stop and totally reimagine the way we operated. We weren’t being allowed in hospitals. Our contacts in other cities weren’t being allowed in hospitals.”
As in-person support groups and counseling became logistical impossibilities, NechamaComfort quickly pivoted to offering more services online. Since moving their support groups to Zoom, NechamaComfort has seen their reach expand as clients from around the world sign on to support each other every week. And to Reva’s surprise, the pandemic has created some positive change for suffering families, too.
“Coronavirus has started to change the world’s culture,” she said. “People are more familiar with unexpected loss these days. And because there is less pressure to socialize, it’s much easier for bereaved parents to opt out of gatherings that might have been stressful but unavoidable for them before.”
On October 25, as coronavirus continues to shape daily life, the organization will celebrate its annual dinner with a virtual event. The event, which will be livestreamed at www.nechamacomfortevent.com, will feature parents who have worked closely with NechamaComfort, and will launch a virtual memorial—an online site where bereaved parents will be able to celebrate their children’s lives by sharing pictures and stories about them.
“The support we offer and training we provide has impact beyond each immediate, devastating crisis,” said Reva. “Whether it’s how to talk to people after a tragedy, how to take care of yourself so you can care for others, or finding a way to put your loss into your life, we are teaching people how to become more resilient individuals, more resilient families, and more resilient communities. Those skills have never been more important than they are today.”