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Choosing Life

After giving birth to a stillborn baby, finding comfort in Jewish ritual and scripture

Kate McGee
December 09, 2019
Hannah Lock
Hannah Lock
Hannah Lock
Hannah Lock

I gave birth to a stillborn baby boy shortly before Rosh Hashanah. I was at the end of my second trimester, caught totally off guard when the midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat. After years of working as a chaplain for a labor-and-delivery unit at a hospital, I knew what would have to happen next: I would have to go through labor induction and give birth.

Faced with a task I absolutely did not want to complete, I clung to my husband, Avi, and swore and cracked jokes and made a list of things to hope for when the hospital ordeal was over. If I’d allowed the hospital chaplain to see me, they might have thought I was avoiding grief. But there’s no avoiding grief.

The windows of the delivery room had immovable blinds, so I labored for two days without seeing the sky. Avi and I called it “dark labor,” knowing the outcome but having to go through it all regardless.

We held our baby and named him. Then, not long after, we went home.

The next day, we faced the quiet together, numb. I turned to Avi and said, “I have this really strong feeling that now is the time to choose life. What’s the Torah passage about choosing life?”

I would hate it if anyone else told me to “choose life.” At that point, I didn’t have an idea of what choosing life could look like in a positive sense, only in terms of what I wanted to avoid; saying it to myself felt like saying “don’t let this grief erase you.” I’ve spent more than enough of my existence getting sucked out life’s exhaust pipe into a cloud of despair. I could not afford to wait passively for life to animate me. If I didn’t make an active choice I feared I would be pulled back into a wasteland that I had no desire to reenter.

The next day, our friend Daveeda visited. We cried together and we looked at the baby’s little handprints and footprints. We talked about choosing life, and Daveeda looked stunned: That passage had been in the previous day’s parsha, from Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. We read it together and wept.

The baby’s burial took place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A fine mist of rain touched us as we stepped carefully, skirting around the tiny gravemarkers. Red and brown leaves crumpled under our feet, with the soft green grass beneath them. The baby was buried under a tall maple tree, still green that day, whose leaves would later become his first blanket.

Avi and I had stayed up the night before choosing readings for the burial. I read from Isaiah: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. … I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together.”

Avi read from that passage of Devarim: “Life and death I set before you, the blessing and the curse, and you shall choose life so that you may live, you and your children.”

We faced this grief just over a year after my conversion.

My choosing Judaism in the first place was about choosing life. I’d admired Jewish practices long enough that I think I’d morphed my criteria for “what makes a good religion” to match up with them. My main criteria were: Does this religion serve human life, right here and right now? And, how do these practices help people to live? Since I’d set myself up to answer my own question, conversion to Judaism was inevitable. As a previously committed Catholic who even attended a Jesuit seminary, this made for a natural (extremely painful, protracted, filled with loss and strife) progression.

Jewish practices around death and grief were a big part of my choice to convert. Having walked with many people who were grieving, I was convinced this was a system that helped people to return to life. When I finally made the decision to convert, I was a multifaith chaplain in a community hospital. I saw death every day: in the emergency room after a resuscitation attempt; on the palliative care ward surrounded by comfort and love; in a quiet delivery room after a stillbirth. I often created the grief rituals that people longed for but had no access to. I sang at people’s deathbeds, I offered baby-naming rituals. The people who called on the chaplain needed something spiritual, but they also needed something to do. It often struck me that paperwork was the only ritual most people are reliably given after a death. Paperwork is not the work of healing.

The timing and tasks of Jewish grief, on the other hand, struck me as eminently reasonable. It seemed to me that there was a practical purpose for every step of the process, which ensures that the mourners are accompanied and supported as they return to life. There’s a reason why a minyan is required to say Kaddish.

Since our baby was under 30 days old, there was no halachic obligation to observe the traditional mourning practices. But rituals found us and held us, anyway. Our friends and family sat with us and fed us, and washed dishes while we took naps. The cemetery paid for the burial, shomrim sat with our baby’s little body before the grave could be dug, and the rabbi offered such a moving and powerful service at the gravesite that my father gave him a hug afterward.

It was comforting to have things we could do, and not to have to do them alone.

I grew up reading The Lives of the Saints—stories of Catholic men and women who lived holy lives—like an instruction manual. When I was a depressed adult struggling to want to live, that instruction manual made no sense anymore: neither suffering as a path to holiness, nor hoping for the life to come. It was this life I was fighting to hang on to.

So the phrase “choose life” still makes me instantly suspicious. It’s the kind of phrase that would have been delivered back then by a person who failed to understand me or my suffering. It’s even worse than, “Have you tried meditation?”

Years ago, when I was spending long afternoons deep in depression, staring blankly at my ceiling, I could not choose life. I could barely choose to put on pants. I couldn’t reach for any of my coping skills, or call the people I loved. Every aspect of my reality was gray, grinding and desolate.

Now that I am deep in grief rather than depression, I keep saying, “I feel so lucky!”—which is perverse, given the circumstances, but I do. I am living through a sorrow in which I can receive the love of my husband and of everyone around me. I have access to all my resources. I feel like myself: the saddest ever version of myself, but really myself nonetheless. I feel like I have every possible comfort, and people know how to show up for me. In grief, there are rituals, there are occasions. This does not happen with a mood episode. Nobody brings a casserole to a depression.

Grief after stillbirth is the least lonely catastrophic pain I’ve ever felt. I have a community. And so, when the Torah invited me to choose life, I could.

I did so because I urgently needed to push back against the meaninglessness of our baby’s death.

I began to see that “choosing life” was lifesaving: an act of defiance and a sacred duty.

This is what choosing life meant in the days after our loss: Avi and me fiercely clinging to each other and sobbing endlessly; really tasting the delicious brisket Avi’s mom brought across the country for me; walking through the woods as far as my obliterated strength would allow; sitting on a bench in the sun. Choosing life was in making meaning out of meaninglessness, in turning to the Torah for a sign. It was eating apples and honey, wishing for a year much sweeter than the waning days of 5779. It was laughing just as hard as we cried. It was holding my 3-week-old nephew and cherishing him, not knowing whether we would ever hold another baby of our own.

I was surprised that I was capable of any life at all.

We couldn’t go to shul at all for the holidays; I was too weak. A very different program of teshuva was unfolding for us, a different kind of invitation to turn back toward the source of goodness and life. When we walked down to the pond for tashlich, standing under a noble old dawn redwood, I clutched the bread in my hand and welled up with all the things I needed to release after our ordeal.

Every teshuva, every turning, was an act of defiantly choosing life. We turned toward every source of goodness we could find, in each other’s arms or in community. We turned away from the bleak and the meaningless and the soul-sucking and turned toward generosity and deliciousness and kindness and welcome and connection.

Every night in our bed, my beloved and I sing together a line from Hashkivenu: Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha: Spread over us your canopy of peace. The night we came home from the hospital I broke down sobbing because our baby would no longer be able to hear us singing.

Still, we had our canopy of peace.

I don’t think there is any very good answer to the question of “why bad things happen to good people,” and I certainly don’t accept “everything happens for a reason.” While I have a great tolerance for whatever floats other people’s boats, most of the usual justifications people make to preserve faith in the face of tragedy are not for me.

My own belief is that while horrible things happen, a powerful goodness is at work everywhere. The nurses and midwife and sisters and brothers and parents and cousins and friends and long-lost acquaintances held the posts of our canopy. There is an irresistible goodness all around us. The room is full. It’s not bleak at all.

Avi and I live next to one of our city’s biggest parks, which protects an ancient oak savannah sacred to local Indigenous peoples. As my strength returns, we have been exploring the park more, watching the autumn light filter through the overlapping leaves.

Both of my previous pregnancies had ended in early miscarriage, so I had never had the chance to feel the baby moving. In the weeks before our son died, I was feeling kicks and somersaults every day. It was an astonishing sensation, “quickening,” beginning to sense this little being in a more personal, less theoretical way. Quickening was the way I began to know our little person, and then he died. I fear his death will somehow erase that knowing.

More than once during my miserable pregnancy I said, “I can’t wait until someone other than me can carry this baby.” I did not foresee the moment in the silent hospital room when I would hand the little bundle to Avi, or that at that moment Avi would feel like a dad for the first time.

Our little baby weighed only one pound. He had such tiny perfect hands, long slender feet. I could not take in his face.

His life had yet to unfold, packed up in pleats like a miniature fan. We did not get the chance to hear his thoughts, or to hold his squirmy little hand. We lost a relationship that was all potential, full of imagining.

Standing under the canopy of leaves with the light filtering through, I find aliveness unknowable, improbably close, just within my reach.

Kate McGee is multifaith chaplain and psychotherapist supporting people who live with mental illness.