Stillbirth and Neonatal Death

Some ideas addressing the spiritual needs of parents who suffer neonatal loss.

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2. The body should be buried in accordance with Jewish practice. The funeral should follow standard practice with appropriate readings of comfort in place of a eulogy. Parents should be encouraged to attend the funeral, as should family and close friends. The funeral should be held as soon as possible, although if the mother wants to attend, burial may be delayed until she recovers enough physical strength following the delivery to attend.

3. If the infant was not named prior to death, it is usually given a name at the grave. The name may be the one the parents intended to use for their child (although this might be difficult for the surviving grandparents whose own parents may have been remembered with this name), or they might choose a name like Menahem or Nehamah, names that indicate a desire for "comfort." There are two reasons for the naming: a) according to Jewish folk tradition, giving a name will enable parents to "find" their child in the world to come; and b) psychologists consider the prac­tice of naming to be an important help in healing the parents' grief.

4.  If the information gathered from an autopsy can help determine the advisability of future pregnancies for the couple or of treatment of diseases to which other chil­dren of the couple might be susceptible, it should be allowed, even encouraged.

5. A complete shiva should be observed, beginning with the meal of consolation and including daily prayer services for the mourners. Communal participation in the shiva makes real this loss and overcomes the tremendous isolation the parents feel. If things had turned out differently, the community would have been there for visit­ing the baby and welcoming it with Jewish birth rituals. The family whose newborn dies should not be denied its community. It is also extremely important, especially for the father, to allow permission to do nothing else but mourn during the shiva period.

6. The father and the mother should be treated equally as mourners. Both parents will react differently to the loss, [but] it is partic­ularly important for the father to recognize his loss, for it is no less real than the mother's. When the father is treated as a mourner, he is relieved of the burden of "being strong" for his wife. He has a specific set of ritual tasks to do that encourage him to confront the magnitude of his loss in all its dimensions.

7. In the case of infants born prematurely, there is still debate within the Law Committee on how to define "viability." Some, including Rabbi Dickstein, argue that between five months and thirty weeks the decision concerning mourning might be made by the local rabbi and the parents.

Certainly, there may be those who feel the centuries-old practice of not mourning a neonatal death could be more comforting than engaging in the whole ritual of Jewish bereavement. But for those who desperately need a vehicle for grief, this recent ruling allowing for the mourning of newborns is indeed a welcome development.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.