May 10, 2015, was the last day when all was great in the world. It was Mother’s Day, and my wife, Cheryl, was in school late. She was six months pregnant and I wanted to do something nice for her, so my son Gavi and I finger-painted pictures to give her when she got home. She loved them. Looking back on those pictures now, I have a sort of nostalgia for that night, when I was still oblivious to what would come.
The next night, in the middle of the night, Cheryl wasn’t feeling well, and we drove to the hospital near our home in Jerusalem. The doctor on call told us that everything looked fine. I went home to get a few hours of sleep and bring our son to nursery school the next morning, while Cheryl stayed overnight.
The next day we waited for about five hours to see our regular doctor. I was very busy at work and was trying to figure out how I would get everything done in time. But as soon as our doctor started the ultrasound, her face turned to stone, and I stopped worrying about work. Cheryl was in labor, and we were only at 23 weeks and three days. Our doctor called the OB ward to have my wife transferred right away. Cheryl was in shock. , o me it was all surreal, like watching a horrible scene in a movie unfold, yet I was in this movie, trying to figure out what came next. In the middle of this, I remembered that I was supposed to pick up my son soon. I called a friend to get Gavi and take care of him until I could figure out what was going on.
The doctors gave Cheryl drugs to hold off labor and steroids for the baby’s lungs. My wife would be on bed rest in the hospital until she gave birth—which, they told us, could be that same day, or could be in four more months.
The next day at the NICU, the outlook didn’t seem promising. If Cheryl gave birth within the next few days, we learned, the odds of survival were low—24 weeks is the minimum that’s typically required for survival. But even many who do survive have a low quality of life. We told the doctor that we wanted to give it a shot. We knew the chances were low, but when it’s your daughter, how can you not give it everything you have? I truly believe that G-d does miracles every day, so maybe there would be another one now.
I used to be a person who would plan things out in advance, but now, I had no clue when Cheryl would give birth. I prepared for her to be in the hospital for a few months and tried to figure out how I would make it work, between coming to the hospital every day, getting our son to and from nursery school, and being in my busiest time of the year at work. Our friends stepped up like never before. Right away we had people offer to sleep over with our son and help with whatever we needed. But still, the days were complicated and filled with stress.
On Thursday, two of Cheryl’s best friends came to visit with her so I could get a break for a few hours. I work for a private tour company, and we had about 900 people arriving two weeks later. My goal that day was just to get to the office to pass my work onto other people, but after I’d been in the office for about 15 minutes, my wife called. She was in labor.
Driving back to the hospital, I was expecting Cheryl to give birth and for our daughter—still two days shy of 24 weeks—to pass away shortly thereafter. By the time I arrived, things had calmed down a little bit. I had gone down to the synagogue inside the hospital to daven mincha and eat some lunch. I went outside to get some fresh air. As I was finishing my lunch, Cheryl’s friend called me. The baby was coming.
I ran back upstairs and they were rushing Cheryl down to the O.R. for a C-section. I stood outside the O.R. feeling helpless, praying to G-d to save my wife’s life and my daughter’s. I called my in-laws in New Jersey, and they immediately changed their airline tickets to fly right away. I called my parents in New York, but there really wasn’t much to say. After about half an hour, the doctors came running out, wheeling out our daughter inside an incubator. She only weighed 470 grams—about 1 pound. She looked like a regular baby—just really, really small.
As the amazing, almost angelic doctors and nurses set her up in the NICU, I stood back and took pictures. I didn’t know how long she would live and wanted to make sure we had pictures.
Normally mothers of babies in the NICU go to the maternity ward next to the NICU. Because it was full, they wanted to put Cheryl in a regular maternity ward, but I said absolutely not. Her baby was fighting for her life, and she’d be in a room with mothers who just had healthy babies? After a lot of fighting, I got her a room in the regular women’s ward. A few hours later, when Cheryl got back to her room, she wasn’t strong enough to visit the baby, so I gave her the tablet and video chatted with her from the NICU.
That night I let our friends know that Cheryl had given birth very early and that prayers were needed. People who I hadn’t spoken to in many years emailed me, saying that they had had preemies and offering advice for the NICU.
For the previous few nights our friend and cousin had slept at our house with our son. I was sleeping in the hospital, but would make sure to see him before he went to sleep, so he could have some sense of normalcy. On Friday, the baby was doing well and I had this calm feeling that everything would be OK. My in-laws would be landing before Shabbat, and we were going to be staying in the hotel by the hospital. I went home to pack up for Shabbat and brought Gavi to see Cheryl.
Cheryl and I visited the baby together. Walking into the NICU is walking into a different world. You wash your hands well and put on a protective gown, so as to not bring in any germs. There were beeps and noises, wires and screens, keeping the babies alive. When the door closes behind you, it’s as if nothing else exists outside that room. The only concern is your daughter living.
The doctors and nurses said our daughter was doing well. When we looked at her and spoke to her, we told her how her big brother, Gavi, couldn’t wait to meet her. I had a feeling of how fragile life is—how one week earlier we were a regular couple looking forward to growing our family.
My in-laws landed and got to the hospital right before Shabbat. I remember that before we ate dinner, I went to visit the baby and gave her a bracha. It is one of the most cherished memories I have from this time.
Cheryl and I had decided that we were going to name her on Shabbat. We didn’t know how long she would live, and she needed a name as soon as possible. I believe it was Rav Elimelech from Lezansk who spoke about how a person’s name is tied up with the soul and directly affects that person. In addition, when someone is named for a relative who passed away, that person’s soul becomes a part of their soul. You have ruach hakodesh (prophecy) when naming your children, and G-d guides you on the path. Gavi has three names, so we figured we’d give her three names, too.
The next morning before I went to shul, Cheryl told me to visit the baby before we named her. The doctors said that she had had a bad night and they weren’t sure she would survive another one like it. That shook me to my core. Friday had been a good day for her, when her body still thought it was in the womb. Now everything had changed.
I went to synagogue, nervous and scared. My soul was shaking. When I got up for my aliyah, my voice trembled as I made the blessing. After the aliyah they made the blessing and we named her. We named her Emuna Bracha Esther (Faith, Blessing, Hidden). People were wishing me mazal tov, but I almost didn’t want to hear it.
As I walked back to my seat, my face was pale. Two people asked me if I was OK. One person said he had had a few preemie babies. The other person said he was born 40 years earlier and weighed 1 kilo and now he had to lose 10 kilos. I think that was the only time I smiled that entire week.
It was Shabbat Mevorchim, the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh. I had always enjoyed the prayer we say for the new month. No matter what the previous month was, it’s a chance for a month of peace, health, life, blessing. When we daven this every month, we say it and mean it, but this month it was all too real. I could barely say the words.
My wife and I went to see Emuna. There was a baby next to us, and I had become friends with the mother. I remember she said to me, “Do you just cry all the time?” We said that we couldn’t stop crying. Just when we thought we had no tears left, more kept coming. That day felt like the longest day of our lives. All of the emotions were just overwhelming. Every time I davened, it was exhausting, pouring my heart out to G-d as if it was the most important prayer of my life. When your daughter is lying before you and you know it can all end in an instant, every wall inside you crumbles. You’re stripped down to your core, and there is nothing to hide behind. By the end of the day, we were physically and emotionally exhausted. We said that we hoped tomorrow would be easier because we didn’t know if we could go through a day like that again.
You can’t visit NICU until 11:30 a.m., so I went to work early. As soon as I got there, my wife called. The doctor and social worker wanted to meet with us. I drove back to the hospital and they told us the bad news: There was serious bleeding in our daughter’s brain. Best case scenario, if she survived, she would have a severe disability such as cerebral palsy, blindness, or deafness. They asked us if we wanted to give her minimal treatment or to give her every shot. How do you make that choice? Nothing in life prepares you for it. They said to try and decide in the next few days.
We spoke to our parents. We knew they were there for us but that their hearts, too, were breaking. We spoke to the former head of the NICU in Shaare Tzedek Hospital to understand the medical side of what we were dealing with. I called Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat and a family friend, who was very helpful in terms of understanding quality of life. He gave us clarity and told us that according to halacha and Jewish ethics, we could choose either way. One of the things he also said from the Talmud was when babies die, God personally takes care of them in heaven; it was a comforting and painful thing to digest.
I’d had hope on Friday that she would be the miracle baby, the one who makes it and defies the odds. By Sunday, it was clear that she wouldn’t be. Even in the best case scenario, what kind of life would she have? Would it be better if she didn’t survive? Would I be a horrible father for thinking that? How do you judge quality of life? With what potential disabilities is life worth living? We wanted to give our daughter the best shot to live, but was that the right thing?
On Monday morning, more bad news came in. The bleeding was worse and had spread to both parts of her brain. We visited Emuna many times during the day. We would talk to her, tell her stories, sing to her, say the Shema before she went to bed, and hold her hand. She was a real person and she was our daughter, and we were probably going to lose her. I was having flashbacks to ultrasounds when we saw her face. She was the one who was kicking and was going to be such a bright light, but now her light was starting to fade, even as each day’s davening grew more powerful than the day before.
Monday afternoon, it was time for Cheryl to be discharged from the hospital. It was with a heavy heart that we were going home without our baby. Right before we left, I had to go back upstairs, and I ran into my friend Idan. His son was in the NICU. He was born at 40 weeks but would need heart surgery a few days later. We had become friends over the previous days. When I saw him, I started telling him that we were going home and that Emuna probably wasn’t going to make it. At that point I collapsed in his arms and cried.
That night we spoke to professor Avraham Steinberg, an expert on medical ethics and halacha, and he said there was no coming back from this. We already knew it, but when you hear it from the expert, it takes away any little hope you had. On the one hand, it made it easier that we didn’t need to decide, but it also meant it was just a matter of time.
We came back to visit Emuna that night for a few hours, perhaps the most precious few hours we had with her. We just told her about the people in her life who loved her. We told her how Gavi was so excited to be a big brother and how they were going to have so much fun together. We sang to her, held her hand, and said the Shema with her before we left.
As we were walking out of the NICU, we saw a friend whose granddaughter was in the NICU, and we sat with her for a while. She told us that many years earlier, she had a late miscarriage and had to go through a full labor, and it was hell. We were fortunate to run into her. It was what we needed. We went home. It was hard being there while Emuna was still in the hospital.
The next morning was Rosh Chodesh, and saying the prayer of Hallel wasn’t easy. How can you say ze hayom asah Hashem, nagila venismicha vo (this is a day that G-d made, be happy and rejoice on it) when your daughter is barely hanging onto her life? My parents landed that morning and they got to our house around 8:30. We couldn’t go the NICU until 11:30, so we figured we had some time. A few minutes later, my phone rang, and it was the doctor. She said Emuna was deteriorating and she needed to know what kind of treatment to give. I told I would call her back in a few minutes.
Almost right away, before we could make a decision, she called back.
As we ran into the NICU, the doctor was waiting for us. After the past week of all of the uncertainty, emotions, and tears, there was no more hope. Only tears and shattered hearts. We spent some time with Emuna and then we said goodbye forever. It was May 19, 2015—Rosh Chodesh Sivan.
In Israel, when a baby dies, there are three options for burial. The Hevra Kadisha (burial society) can do it, and they will tell you where the grave is. Or the Hevra Kadisha can do it, and they won’t tell you the location of the grave; centuries ago, when miscarriages and still births were common, rabbis decided that babies less than 30 days old shouldn’t be mourned, and if families didn’t know where the grave was—the thinking went—it would be easier to move on quickly. With both of those options, the parents aren’t permitted to be at the burial. Alternatively, you can do it privately through the Yemenite Hevra Kadisha and be at the burial. Before Emuna was born, when we knew there was a good chance she wouldn’t make it, we decided to do it privately. Right before Cheryl gave birth, I had called ITIM, an organization in Israel that helps with religious freedoms. I told them the situation and that I wanted to be prepared because if she died, I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to deal with the details. The person on the phone gave me her cellphone number and told me it was a good thing I was calling to be prepared in case the worst happened.
When Emuna died, I spoke to the Yemenite Hevra Kadisha again and arranged everything. We set the burial for 4 p.m. on Har Hamenuchot, the main cemetery in Jerusalem. Then I went with my father to deal with the paperwork in the hospital and receive the death certificate. “Of all of the father-son moments,” I told him, “this was one I never imagined we would be doing together.”
A little while later, we went home without our baby.
There wasn’t much to do except wait. At 3:30 p.m. we got into the car and made our way to Har Hamenuchot—my wife, my parents, and myself. We met the Hevra Kadisha and followed them to the grave. We got out of the car and walked for a minute to the tiny grave, next to the other babies. We said goodbye and buried her in Jerusalem.
Halacha says that a baby less than 30 days old isn’t considered viable, and there is no traditional mourning at all. As there was no shiva, what were we supposed to do? Our hearts were broken, and we couldn’t go on like nothing happened. I went to synagogue with my dad. Even though I probably wouldn’t have said Kaddish for Emuna, I was already saying Kaddish for my great aunt—but when it was time for the prayer, my lips moved but the words barely came out.
The next day I went to synagogue, had lunch with my parents, and tried to pass the time. In the afternoon, my brother in New Jersey called to tell us his wife had given birth to a baby girl—about 24 hours after we buried our daughter. We had both known we would be having girls and I imagined that they would be best friends and do so many things together. I could only imagine what my parents were feeling. Within 24 hours, they buried one granddaughter while another one was born.
The next day was my birthday, though I wasn’t in the mood for celebrating. I went to work, because I needed to get out of the house. Some coworkers left a cupcake on my desk for me. The whole day felt like I was in a fog. That night, my wife wanted to do something nice for my birthday, so my son picked out Elmo cupcakes and they sang “Happy Birthday.” Amid all of my hellish feelings and emotions, my son was the only person who could get a smile from me.
That night, my parents flew home and we started getting ready for Shavuot. My yeshiva and Cheryl’s seminary had both told us that all of the learning on Shavuot would be in Emuna’s memory. In addition, one of our friends had the idea to have everyone learn one parsha, so the whole Torah could be learned in her memory. Our friends arranged to have people make food for us. Had the food not been there, we probably just wouldn’t have eaten.
A few days later, I went back to work, and reality started to hit again. My order of priorities were the physical and emotional well-being of my wife, making sure there was someone to take her outside every day, someone to pick up my son from nursery school and bring him home, someone to help her with him until I got home, my work, and last but not least, my emotional well-being. My goal was just to make it through. It wasn’t easy.
At work we had 17 groups coming that week, and I didn’t want everything to just fail, so I put in long hours. I should have just said at 5 p.m. that I was leaving, but I felt I had a responsibility, especially because my office had been amazing through everything. I knew it was a mistake, but it was also a nice escape and distraction from the hell of the previous two weeks.
Being the husband meant everything at home was falling on me, too. The mental pressure of the responsibility for my family was intense. I always had to be on, and give support to my wife and son to keep everything as normal as possible.
I had felt like I was heading toward a crash. After two weeks, I was exhausted mentally and physically. A few days later, I was in a car accident and everything just stopped.
I was driving to a hotel to bring some supplies to one of my groups when all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car heading toward me down a hill. There was no time to think or react. I instinctively closed my eyes and felt my body get smacked. He hit me from the side, in the front corner by the headlight. I opened my eyes and sat there without moving. I went into shock, trying to process what had happened. I got out of the car and saw the damage. My body started to shake and I called a coworker for someone to come help me. I wanted to call my wife, but I had to make sure she wasn’t alone when I called her. She took me to the doctor and they said I had whiplash and I went home to rest.
Up until that point I was somehow holding it together and getting everything done. Now my body and mind had shut down. I didn’t have the physical or mental energy to deal with anything that wasn’t necessary.
My wife and son were going to be traveling to New York without me the following week, and I was looking forward to it. I wanted to be with them but I needed some time just for me, not to have to worry about them and not have any other responsibility. Just some time for me, which I hadn’t had at all for the previous month. The night they flew to the States, it was hard saying goodbye but it was also a relief to be able to breathe.
I was flying a week later, but during those days I was alone in Israel, I could barely move. The previous month had caught up to me. We were going to be moving apartments six weeks later, and I wanted to pack before I left, but I just couldn’t get it together. I was moving in slow motion. I recently asked a coworker what I was like when I came back to work. She said at first I was more productive than I had ever been but after the accident, it was like I wasn’t there. I had checked out.
The shloshim (30 days from death) was coming up, the day before I was flying. It was hard to think a month had passed. I went to the Western Wall that night because, as my wife says, “it’s the one place where everything stays the same, except for me.” It was emotionally draining saying Kaddish there. The next day I went to the cemetery. A harsh reality was staring back at me. A huge hole in my heart that could never be filled.
That night, some friends came over to help pack up our apartment. When they saw me, they said I should rest. I guess I looked that bad. It took such a load off my mind knowing that most of my apartment was packed up. They really saved me. The next night I got on a plane to go the States for a few weeks, a trip that was desperately needed. We got a chance to go away for a few days, my brother-in-law got married, we had quality family time, and just had fun. It was what we needed.
In the months that followed things got better and worse. The loss became clearer and pain even sharper. It was adjusting to a new reality. How do we keep moving forward with life? How do we find the strength to get through the day?
As we approached the beginning of September, Cheryl’s original due date, a painful reminder of what could have been kept returning. We were supposed to be welcoming a new baby now, not going to visit her on Har Hamenuchot.
This became our reality. There are moments when we are at the ice cream store with Gavi and we feel that she is missing. When we are giving brachot on Friday night, yet there is one bracha we will never be able to give. On Friday night, my wife lights the fourth Shabbat candle for Emuna, yet she will never be at our Shabbat table. It’s something that will never go away. You only learn how to live with it. I have a friend who suffered infant loss, and she said that after four years, she is still trying to figure out her emotions. It doesn’t get easier, and sometimes it seems to get harder, and with time you learn how to cope with it.
One of the most heartfelt moments came from our son, Gavi. One night, a few weeks after Emuna died, when Cheryl was crying, Gavi took his pacifier out of his mouth and gave it to Cheryl. He said, “Mommy, you’re crying, take my pacifier.” He wasn’t even 3 at the time, yet he saw his mommy was sad and he was willing to give her the one thing that comforted him most.
After our daughter died, the social worker said that there were different support groups for mothers. My mother asked, “What about the fathers?” and the social worker was silent. There aren’t really that many. I found some websites that were helpful, but not much beyond that. I wasn’t surprised: Men tend to keep their emotions to themselves, even if they’re suffering greatly inside.
While everyone expects a mother to be devastated and unable to function after this kind of loss, a father is expected to keep everything together—on a practical level, to make sure his wife and family are taken care of, and on an emotional level. When people call, they ask how the wife is doing, but only a few close friends will ask how the husband is doing, as if he could take this big punch and act like it hasn’t affected him at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On October 5, 2016, Cheryl gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Ori Baruch Pinchas. For all of the joy and happiness Ori brings us, it doesn’t take away the pain from losing Emuna—we still miss her greatly and feel that our family isn’t complete without her. But for all of the pain we still feel from losing Emuna, it doesn’t take away from the utter happiness that Ori brings us.
In the past two years, I’ve been in touch with many other guys going through miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths. A lot of fathers reached out to me after Emuna died and helped me get through some of the tough times. I’ve paid it forward and have been in touch with many other fathers going through this. There is a community of guys who are there for each other—a safe place for fathers to be with the only other people who can understand each other and know that we aren’t alone.
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Adam Burnat made aliyah from New York 11 years ago and currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two sons.