Chesed Shel Emet

At some point in high school I read a short story as part of a Hebrew literature course. I remember nothing of the story line, but the title stuck: Chesed Shel Emet it is the Jewish concept of an act of kindness that one person can do for another, but for which the person can never be repaid, rewarded or thanked by the beneficiary- it can be loosely translated as a true act of kindness. The classic example in Judaism is being part of the chevra kadisha, the Burial Society, which prepares the body of a Jew for burial. The person who has died can never say “thank you,” but the act has allowed the deceased to fulfill one last ritual in accordance with Jewish tradition and law. A few years later, I recalled this concept as I “guarded” my grandfather’s body before his funeral, insuring that his body was not desecrated and doing one last favor on his behalf. It was the last moments that I had with him and while he will never be able to express his appreciation, I am beyond grateful for those few minutes.

Fast forward about 20 years, I was 16 weeks and 5 days pregnant but the fetus was not healthy. After consulting with various experts, we took the impossible decision to terminate the pregnancy. As the medical staff wheeled me into surgery to rid my body of his, one of the nurses leaned over and asked, “Do you want to arrange for the burial or would you like the chevrah kadisha to do so?” It was a question for which I was completely unprepared.

I had entered into this procedure fairly well informed, I met with doctors, nurses and a social worker all of whom explained the process and what to expect. I had consulted with friends who had been through this as well. I even knew that burial is not required according to Jewish law because I had not yet completed my 20th week of pregnancy, so I didn’t understand. It turns out that Israeli law is a bit different than Jewish law. After 12 weeks, parents are allowed to arrange for a burial privately, or they may elect to have the chevrah kadisha take care of the process.

It is important to mention that there is much controversy over the way this law is implemented and the information that is available to parents after a loss. It goes without saying that I am describing my own experience. Every woman who has been through this has her own impressions and criticism.

In that moment, without my husband by my side and starting to feel the effects of the anesthetic that would soon put me to sleep, I answered the only way that I could have: the chevra kadisha would arrange the burial. A year later, I’m still secure that I made the right decision for me.

They say when a pregnancy ends a woman loses a piece of herself. This has been the case for me even with my pregnancies that brought me my two beautiful children; in the days and weeks following their births I felt a bit empty inside, not just the relief of no longer carrying around a few extra kilo, but also that a piece of me had departed. I see that piece in my daughter’s smile and my son’s eyes. What was once part of me is now out there in the world. When a pregnancy does not end with a live baby, losing this piece of yourself is incredibly difficult. Months later I felt this loss, but I also began to feel that he was missing.  That is to say, the chevrah kadisha had buried him and I realized that I did not know where. He was missing.

To be clear, I did not need to know about the exact plot and I was not looking to visit. I just needed a bit more information about the general area. It so happens that this information is not easily obtained. I asked and googled but it’s not widely known. Not knowing began to haunt me, and so I turned to a friend, who turned to another mutual friend who had connections with the chevrah kadisha and he found out that there is a section of the main cemetery in Jerusalem where fetuses are buried. Knowing this information gave me a measure of peace, because someone had taken care of him after he left my body.

I did not have the emotional resources to deal with the burial and I think part of my healing process has been allowing myself to let him go. Permitting someone else to do what I could not, was part of accepting the loss. At the same time, I am grateful that his remains were buried because it is an acknowledgement that he was. Make no mistake, I knew and know that he had some type of presence in this world, if only through me. From the moment that I learned that he was growing in my body, I stopped drinking caffeine, eating sushi and stumbled through the nausea that accompanies me from about week six well into the second trimester of pregnancy. I felt my stomach harden and knew that in a couple of weeks I would need different pants and eagerly awaited his first kicks. However, all of these are the things that I knew and experienced, but in burying him it felt like the chevrah kadisha was recognizing what I already knew to be true.

It can feel very lonely grieving a lost pregnancy. Many people might not have known that there was supposed to be a baby. It’s difficult to grieve something that didn’t quite exist. The reasons are endless and unique to each person’s experience. Although I was not there, the act of burying the fetus “validated” my grief. While I am able to articulate my gratitude, I have no doubt that it was a Chesed Shel Emet.

2 thoughts on “Chesed Shel Emet

  1. Dearest Toby, I am so glad and so touched that you were able to share this. May I share this with others? I loved you as a little girl and am so proud of the woman you have become.

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