Felicia Palmer & Rabbi Daniel Brenner: Yom Kippur Sermon 2020 – Miscarriage

Rabbi Daniel: Gut Yuntif. I’ve asked my wife Felicia to join me on the bimah this morning for this sermon because, frankly, it felt wrong not to. Our topic this morning is a deeply personal story shared by us, and I felt it would be appropriate let her use her own voice instead of allowing me to co-opt it.

Felicia: We would just like to say before we start that this reflection might be painful and hard to hear for some, and we understand if at some point you need to turn your sound off and wait until we are done.

RD: Last year on Yom Kippur, I sat on the bimah and watched as we called up our normal groupings of Aliyot for the afternoon service. For the 2nd Aliyah, we invited up people who had a rough year, or went through a trying ordeal, and were looking for a new start in the new year.

F: Last year on Yom Kippur I was not here at CBB. I was serving for the second year as the Cantorial soloist of the Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community. Since the community and I had a brief history together, conversations were deeper than simply “nice to meet you” – instead, I received a lot of, “How have you been?” “What have you been up to?” “What’s new?”

F: I could share the milestones of the past year, like that I’d moved back to Santa Barbara after a year-long stint in Charlotte, North Carolina, that we had just bought a house, that we had gotten a puppy two weeks prior, but I couldn’t be fully honest. I wasn’t prepared to share my ongoing hurt.

RD: After being married for nearly three years, we made the decision that we were ready to start a family. We were exceptionally lucky, and conceived quickly. We were overjoyed, but following the unwritten rules of early pregnancy, we refrained from telling anyone except our parents and siblings. Judaism has its own traditions of not jinxing a pregnancy. Instead of wishing an expectant mother Mazel tov, celebrating her pregnancy, we cautiously say “may it come at a good time” b’sha’a tova. And although many expectant mothers choose to, it is also not traditional to have baby showers, as this too is seen as celebrating something that hasn’t fully happened yet. But still, it was exciting.

F: Telling our parents was a thrill. I think we were just as looking forward to them becoming grandparents as we were in becoming parents…. Books started arriving, we discussed which room would be the nursery, and daily “how are you feeling” check-ins came from our moms. I started brainstorming about how we were going to tell our friends, Daniel and I had a friendly bet going on whether it was a boy or a girl, and I kept on thinking about this little life growing within me that I had to protect, our tiny, special secret.

RD: The next week, we went into the Dr’s office, where we were told they were unable to detect a heartbeat. They said it was early, that there was a chance that we could come back in a couple weeks and they would then be able to find it. Two weeks of agony went by as we dreaded the words we would eventually hear. We had experienced a miscarriage.

F: Though we both stayed strong while meeting with the doctor, we couldn’t keep it together when we called our parents – telling family made the loss more real. I was grateful we only had a small circle to break the news to. Close family members had gone through the same thing, and they were able to bring us some comfort, but we felt exceptionally alone. I knew of a few others who had experienced a loss, but it had only come up in passing and I wasn’t confident it was a conversation they’d be willing to have with us. After discussing options, I choose to have a D & C, a medical operation to remove the non-viable fetus a few weeks before Rosh Hashana. I took Friday off from work for the procedure and returned on Monday trying to pretend nothing was different. But I had changed.

RD: It was all happening in her body. I felt very, outside the experience. Almost detached. I could offer her sympathy and support and love, but I could not experience the physical pain she endured. I could not share in that with her.

F: My body, helped along by the procedure, resiliently returned to “normal”. There was pain, but it subsided. But my body moved on without my mind, I had no emotional closure.

RD: We went through our period of wondering what had gone wrong. Did we do something that caused this? We thought we were extra careful. We even devolved to finger pointing, maybe if you had done this,

F: maybe if you hadn’t done that.

RD: We knew the conversation was pointless and toxic, but we engaged in it nonetheless, searching for some sort of meaning in the grief we were experiencing. But there was no meaning. Sometimes there just isn’t an answer but to live through the pain.

F: In reality, our suffering was one shared by tens of millions in this country. Miscarriages are a reality of trying to start a family. It is estimated that anywhere from 15-25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and many couples experience multiple in a row. In our present joy of expecting a child in the next few weeks, we are aware that while this time we have so far been successful, other friends who have been trying for months and years are still hurting. Even in writing this, we questioned whether we had the right to talk about miscarriage at all, since we had only suffered one. The whole experience opened our eyes to how much chance has to do with the start of life.

RD: Just getting pregnant is difficult. Only 30% of couples are successful in their first month of trying, that number decreases as time goes on. 10-15% of couples cannot naturally conceive children at all, and must turn to invitro fertilization treatments, surrogacy, or adoption. Despite this prevalence, this issue is something the Jewish community does not often talk about. The first commandment in the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply,” pru urvu, traditionally fulfilled by having at least one son and one daughter. There is a strong community pressure on couples to have children, particularly in the more observant communities. We Jews like to focus on the having kids, not as much the journey to getting there.

F: And still, our Torah reflects the struggle that many couples face trying to have children of their own. In the story of Eve, we learn that childbirth will be painful for women. Sarah, Rachel, and Leah all have trouble conceiving, turning instead to their handmaidens to birth the children that their husbands so desperately want. Rebecca and Isaac struggle too, Isaac crying out to God for help conceiving, and afterwards Rebecca seeking to understand the pain of her pregnancy. In our Haftarah from Rosh Hashanah, we find Chana so consumed by prayers to have a child that she comes across as drunk. Almost all of our major female figures in Torah face issues with having children. It is fair to think that if today 15-25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, the rates in biblical times may have been much higher.

RD: The frequency of miscarriage and infant mortality in ancient times likely dictated Jewish law’s response to the catastrophe. At first read, the halacha seems unempathetic, almost cruel. If a Jewish couple suffers a miscarriage, or if a baby is born but dies within the first 30 days of life, it is to be buried in a section of a Jewish cemetery reserved for such purpose, but with no formal prayers or service, and no headstone. The couple also is not meant to sit shiva or recite kaddish on the anniversary of death.

F: After further thinking about these strictures, it is probable they were to protect families who would experience this over and over as they attempted to start a family, particularly in times when medical knowledge was not what it is today. But for us, the lack of ritual or a formalized grieving process left us unfulfilled.

RD: Many Jews find a great comfort in the strict process Judaism offers for grieving the loss of a loved one. The restrictive shiva week, followed by 30 days of additional intense mourning, and finally the annual cycle of memory gives them a path forward. We did not need such a process, but we wanted something. And since Judaism had nothing to offer us, we did it ourselves. For us, that was going to Disneyland. That may seem trivial, but Disneyland holds a special place in our hearts and has been part of our relationship since our first week of dating. It was a meaningful choice we made, setting a date marking a return from grief. Our pain was still there, but lessened. It helped us go forward.

F: As time moved on, we became more comfortable sharing our experience with others. Everyone was sympathetic, but most didn’t quite know what to say. Medical professionals and others often said, “It’s only your first time trying? Don’t worry,” or “You’re young and healthy, you’ll be fine,” but I didn’t find that particularly helpful or comforting – instead, I internally questioned, “but what if we’re not?” What was helpful in our healing was hearing the words “Us too. We went through that as well.

This empathetic statement gave us more space to share openly. It wasn’t sympathy we needed, it was community.

RD: Last year on Yom Kippur I did not stand for the Aliyah. But I found comfort in the words Rabbi Cohen gave to those who had the courage to come up. He said that it takes immense strength to be willing to admit that you had a difficult year, that you need this Aliyah as part of your moving forward. He said There were probably many others in the room who felt similarly, but could not convince themselves to stand and receive the blessing. He said all of you standing here represent many others in our community as well, and through you they too will be blessed. I don’t believe Rabbi Cohen said these words for me, but they felt that way. Probably for others as well.

F: As telling our story became easier, it opened floodgates of questions from friends who were thinking about starting families. We started to feel obligated to share our experience, resources, options.

RD: This is why we are sharing this story with you today. This morning we offer ourselves as a resource for those who seek it while navigating the winding path towards parenthood. We hope sharing our story allows for greater openness on this topic that has been taboo for so long. Because sometimes you just need someone who has gone through what you are experiencing to talk to.

F: Because sometimes a mother to be just needs a woman to talk to.

RD: We do not want or need any sympathy or letters acknowledging the pain we must have felt. We want to stand here today and speak truths for those who have felt unbearable and unshareable pain, thinking they had to do it alone.

F: This is not just about miscarriage. Those who personally experienced, or whose close friend or family member has dealt with abuse, addiction, divorce, suicide, mental health issues, physical ailments, loss of a child, these are just a few entry points to pain and suffering that people often weather, not thinking they can ask for help. All are issues common in society, yet kept behind closed doors. We can benefit from each other’s experiences and empathy. We can open the door.

RD: God-willing, in two weeks I will be going on parental leave. During my absence, I will be spending time thinking about how we as Congregation B’nai B’rith can better be available to each other in our moments of suffering and pain. How to best utilize the tapestry of experiences our congregants have lived, and identify those willing to be an empathetic ear for another. This is not something I am going to be able to do on my own, so I’m asking those of you with experience working on these types of projects to help me. Let me know you are willing to help.

F: We hope that in some way we might inspire some of you to share your own stories of struggle and grief. It might be surprising how often you hear “us too, we also went through that as well.

RD: Sometimes life is mired and harsh. And feels like the pain will never end.

F: But we find strength when we can face it together.

RD: G’marchatima Tova

F: May you be sealed for goodness in the year to come.