Navigate to Belief section

Mourning a Miscarriage

Remembering a Shavuot filled with anguish—and how my family’s loss is echoed in the holiday’s story

Yosef Lindell
June 07, 2024

We come into Shavuot counting the Omer. There are 49 days—seven weeks—from Exodus to Revelation, a gestational period marked at one end by our liberation from Egypt on Passover and at the other by our rebirth on Shavuot at the foot of Mount Sinai as God’s nation. Every night last year, my 9-year-old son and I recited the blessing on Sefirat HaOmer together, counting in mounting anticipation of the holiday that was arriving.

My wife and I were also counting weeks. At five weeks there was a line on a stick. At seven weeks there was a heartbeat that sounded like horses at a gallop. At 10 weeks and after there were genetic tests, which all came back normal. Around 14 weeks we told our parents, our two sons, and some of our friends that we were going to have another baby.

At 18 weeks there was no heartbeat anymore. The silence was deafening. Measurements showed the baby hadn’t grown in two weeks.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “There’s nothing you could have done differently. Miscarriages are devastating, but they happen all the time.”

Neither of us cried then. That came later. Instead, there was an urgent clinical matter to attend to. We’re told that after 18 weeks of pregnancy, the body isn’t likely to eject the fetus on its own, so my wife elected to have a D&E to remove it. (D&E stands for “dilation and evacuation,” which is why no one refers to it by anything but its acronym.)

The D&E did not go smoothly. A relatively rare complication caused my wife to lose a lot of blood, so we found ourselves staying overnight in a hospital maternity ward for observation a day before Shavuot. (Being in a maternity ward without a baby is a cruelty of its own.) Bereaved and scared, I found the waiting interminable. It seemed possible that I would end up spending my tikkun leil Shavuot—the nighttime vigil of Torah learning on the first night of the holiday—in the hospital; instead of a night immersed in Torah, with guest speakers, three kinds of cheesecake, and a waffle bar, the night would feature an unending parade of nurses, doctors, and blood draws for test after test. The only commonality would be that I wouldn’t sleep.

Mercifully, however, we were discharged just hours before the holiday began. Our community then sprang into action, as Jewish communities do, ensuring that we were well-provided for with meals, last-minute medication pickups, and a sympathetic ear. But the physical and mental anguish of a miscarriage does not readily fade.

In pregnancy time, 18 weeks is an eternity. By then, the toll it’s taken on the body is immense—the morning sickness, the mood swings, the fatigue. Although I didn’t personally experience any of these, I became attached to the fragile life blossoming inside my wife’s belly. You don’t want to plan, but you plan anyway, bolstered by statistics promising smooth sailing after the first trimester. Hopes and dreams come unbidden; expectations have a wily way of asserting themselves. My wife bought a new car seat so that she could get it on sale. I thought of names. A baby bump had begun to appear.

On the first day of Shavuot, I had a hard time praying. Instead, I imagined standing at Mount Sinai, the wild wail of the shofar filling the wasteland. God’s voice thundered amid the clefts and splinters of rock, telling me, and only me, “You shall not have a baby!” I hadn’t remembered that being one of the Ten Commandments.

And that’s when I realized that 40 days after Sinai, there was a sort of miscarriage as well. Instead of being reborn as a nation devoted to God, with two luchot—tablets—as a sign of the covenant, the Children of Israel ended up with thousands dead and a pair of riven stone tablets at the foot of the mountain.

In Deuteronomy (4:32-33), Moses recounts the Sinai experience: “Ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other: Has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of God speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?”

God’s revelation at Sinai was unprecedented and intoxicatingly all-consuming. But it left the nation traumatized and scarred. They could not bear to hear God’s voice again, but neither could they bear its absence. So when Moses ascended the mountain to receive the details of the Law, and then failed to return on time, the people ripped jewelry from their family members and made the Golden Calf, an idol born of a desperation that tried to recapture the rush of revelation.

Everyone knows what happened next. When Moses descended, he smashed God’s tablets to smithereens. He ground the Golden Calf into dust and made the violators drink it. He and the Levites stormed through the camp, killing the perpetrators as they went. Then Moses went back up the mountain to ask God for forgiveness. God’s first attempt at giving the Torah ended in a miscarriage of epically tragic proportions. Our national rebirth happened, but only months later, with a different set of luchot, and with a different mode of communication: God spoke to Moses, and Moses to Israel, but we did not hear from God directly again.

The splendor of Sinai is part of our national story, but so is the calamity in its aftermath. On Shavuot, we celebrate, as we should, the majesty of Revelation, and the intimacy of a nation together with its God. Sinai is our defining moment, a crucible that seared God so deeply into the Jewish consciousness that He isn’t easily dislodged. But the heat of that flame also led to disaster, to a people scarred by God’s voice, to a Golden Calf, to the broken tablets. As the Jewish calendar marches on, 40 days after Shavuot we come to the 17th of Tammuz, the day the luchot were broken. This fast day begins the Three Weeks, a period of mourning that culminates on Tisha B’Av, when many centuries after Sinai, the two Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. And then, eight weeks after that, comes the second chance—Yom Kippur—the day when, according to tradition, God forgave us for the Golden Calf and Moses carved a second set of tablets. But the trauma of the miscarriage at Sinai remains with us.

Fathers don’t often write about miscarriage. There are good reasons for this. I wasn’t pregnant. I didn’t miscarry. I didn’t spend months feeling physically ill and inadequate afterward. It’s hard to write about a trauma that isn’t entirely my own. Further, I (and many men) can have a hard time getting personal. I’ve written tens of thousands of words on at least a dozen topics in the last decade—from Torah to science fiction. Yet discarded drafts of this story litter my hard drive. I don’t find it easy to write about myself or my family.

But it’s important. It’s become a cliché to say that people don’t talk about miscarriage; it’s also true. There’s still stigma in the Jewish community and beyond. It’s hard to talk about something that happens silently, out of the public eye, where there’s no shiva or other formal mourning rites, nothing to mark the way a family has been upended. Because some friends and family already knew about our pregnancy, and because of the poorly timed hospital stay, our miscarriage was a little more public than most. Yet it’s still uncomfortable to reach out to others, and it’s even more uncomfortable to write about it.

I write so that other fathers and mothers know they don’t have to suffer alone. The rate of miscarriage doesn’t seem to have declined much over time; even in our modern age, it’s shockingly common, especially in the first trimester. (Second trimester miscarriages, however, are far more survivable for the mother than they used to be; as the obstetrician told my wife after the D&E, “100 years ago, you would have died,” which was awfully blunt, but true.) In the weeks that followed, as I shared our story, friends told me about losing pregnancies in the first trimester, in the second trimester, and even right before birth. Nearly every parent or parent-in-waiting has a story. Just as most people will at some point lose their parents, many people will at some point lose an unborn child. These griefs are common to the human experience and part of what makes us who we are.

I’m not sure that suffering makes you stronger. But I do know that the bad and the good are bound together. The Sages teach in the Talmud (Menachot 99a) that when the second set of tablets was placed in the Ark in the desert Tabernacle, the broken pieces of the first set were placed in there with them. This remarkable teaching suggests that not only was our national miscarriage never meant to be forgotten, but that we kept a reminder of it in the Holy of Holies. When we remember Sinai’s glory and grandeur, we also recall its shards and shivers, its splinters and its slivers. We carried those shattered tablets around the desert for 40 years, and then when we settled the Land of Israel, we laid them down in the Temple in Jerusalem, as close to God as anything on Earth can approach.

Trauma may not lead to a breakthrough in personal growth, yet it is self-defining—it is baggage that comes with you wherever you are going. And there’s some comfort in knowing that we will carry around the memory of our baby who will never be. Whatever happens next, she’s part of our story, too.

Yosef Lindell is a lawyer, writer, lecturer, and an editor at the Lehrhaus, an online forum for Jewish thought. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and two sons.