From Joy to Grief

By Pam Chernoff


The radiologist looked at the ultrasound monitor. “I’m sorry. There are no heartbeats,” he said. “You’ll want to cry now.” My husband and I clung to each other, sobbing, for a moment before we were whisked to a room in the hospital’s labor and delivery wing.

Six-and-a-half months into my pregnancy, grieving our sons, Benjamin Clifford and Andrew Nathan Chernoff, became my introduction to Jewish mourning.

When we lost our boys, we were already planning a double bris (circumcision ceremony). I was looking forward to inviting our families and our synagogue in to help welcome our sons into the covenant, although I can’t honestly say I was looking forward to the actual circumcision. My husband, Joel, had argued, persuasively, that uncircumcised teen-aged Jewish boys would be in for more than the usual amount of locker room teasing. Better physical pain before their memories were well-developed than emotional pain 13 years down the road, I figured. I was already trying hard to be a good non-Jewish Jewish mother.

We’d even attended a course on baby-naming rituals that was ostensibly meant for interfaith couples. Unfortunately, the two teachers presented only the Conservative tradition–one in which a baby whose mother is not Jewish must be formally converted by being taken to a mikvah (ritual bath)–for immersion. (On the eighth day of life, when the bris is performed it is not yet safe for a baby to be dunked in water–thus the conversion comes later.) Because the baby is not technically considered to be Jewish at the time of the bris, the wording of the ceremony is different. The teachers even gave the name of the Orthodox mohel who performs “everyone’s” bris.

They were honestly explaining the truth as they believe it, but what I heard was, “You are making the huge sacrifice of agreeing to raise your sons in our religion, which is great, but we need to fix them before they’ll be quite acceptable to us.” In my heart, I felt I was offering the most amazing gift I will ever give and was being told in return that the traces of me somehow needed to be washed off before that gift would be good enough. This came at the moment when I was starting to feel the weight of that sacrifice. We were, after all, planning a bris, not a baptism.

I had to speak up. So I told the class that the Reform tradition does not require that a patrilineally Jewish baby be formally converted, that for Reform Jews raising a child as a Jew makes the child a Jew. I gave out the name of the mohelim (ritual circumcisers) we were planning to use, a couple who would use the traditional wording, referring to our sons as Jews, not as converts.

A few weeks later came that horrible Monday afternoon when we learned we had lost the twins. There were blood clots in their placentas, probably brought on by preeclapmsia. After he called my parents, Joel’s first local call was to our friend Dawn Kepler, who is the interfaith outreach coordinator for our area. Her next call was to our rabbi, Margie Jacobs, who came right over.

My memory of the 36 hours between being admitted to the hospital and giving birth is blurred by anesthesia and trauma. Once the anesthesia wore off, I was left with inexpressible sadness. A writer with no words. Rabbi Jacobs asked if I wanted to include anything from my tradition in the memorial service. The only thing I could think of was the familiarity of the 23rd Psalm.

We had belonged to our small synagogue for less than a year, but many people showed up for a short service to say Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, that week or brought us food as we sat shiva (seven days of mourning). I welcomed the chance to sit with our grief and feel it and remember. Over the next months at Shabbat (Sabbath) services I said Kaddish for our boys and sang the Mi shebeirach, the prayer for healing, for myself.

I have never mourned a loss of this magnitude in a Christian church. Certainly, plenty of Christian ministers and priests have the kind of pastoral skills that we encountered as we mourned. But my experience of Christian funerals is that it’s all too tempting to focus on heaven and to neglect the very real grief felt by the mourners. I believe in heaven. The rabbi who helped us through our loss believes in heaven. But I ached too profoundly for the eyes I’d never get to look into and the foreheads I’d never kiss, to be comforted by the idea of Ben and Andy being anywhere except in my arms.

Now, two-and-a-half years later, certain images are frozen in my mind. The haunting, wordless tune the rabbi hummed to summon the angels. Crying too hard to sing along with the Mi shebeirach in the hospital the day after the twins were born. Sitting by Ben and Andy’s yahrzeit candles, waiting, when I thought the flames were about to go out. The sound as I shoveled dirt onto their urn. At my time of greatest need, I was comforted by rituals that were not my own. For that, I will always be profoundly grateful.


About Pam Chernoff

Pam Chernoff has just moved from Pinole, Calif., to Tarrytown, N.Y., with her husband, Joel, and their amazing 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sarah, whom they adopted 10 months after they lost their twins. Pam is a part-time stay-at-home mom and a part-time project director at the National Center for Employee Ownership.