12 hours after Reva Judas’s first son was born he passed away. She experienced 6 miscarriages after that. Ellen Krischer gave birth to a stillborn at 37 weeks. For both of them, their agony was compounded by the taboo nature of their losses. While both, thank God, have children (and Reva even grandchildren) today, their losses are forever present. United by pain and a dream of helping other families suffering in silence, the two founded Nechama Comfort to build a legacy of hope and healing.
Nechama Comfort helps women and families who have had miscarriages and have lost children up to a year old. In the last five years, over 400 families spanning the spectrum of the Jewish community have benefited from their services. One in four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. “In the years before in-home pregnancy tests, people just didn’t even know that they were pregnant. Out of 1.4 million pregnancies a year, 1 million end in miscarriage. 26,000 stillbirths occur after 20 weeks a year. there are 19,000 deaths in the first month of life, and 39,000 in the first year of life in the United States. Over the age of 35 the risks do go up.
Most people have either experienced it or know someone who has experienced a miscarriage. Firsthand knowledge of stillbirth and infant loss, however, is more rare, and it’s for a sad reason. “Probably everyone knows someone who has had a stillbirth, we just don’t talk about it.” Krischer adds, “You’ve not only lost the child, you’ve got all of the hopes and dreams…you plan and then it doesn’t happen.”
Judas grew up a Yeshiva University-educated rabbi’s daughter. The family lived in many different communities around the country, running Orthodox synagogues with members ranging to unaffiliated through Orthodox. “We were able to grow, learn and be respectful of all the different types of Jews that are around. To this day, we’re fortunate to look back and really see the influence my family has had in helping other families grow in their Judaism and in their lives.” That was Judas’ inspiration for doing kindness. Krischer is from a modern Orthodox family in Maryland and went to school in NY, moving to NJ after marrying a Boro Parker. She turned to the community when she needed help as that she didn’t live near family. “The more I saw what people were able to do for me, it made me open my eyes to what I as an individual could do for other people.” After the loss of Krischer‘s daughter, it became a natural fit. “I saw a real need – that there’s a place for me to be able to help other people the way that Reva was able to help me.”
Judas’s son died at 12 hours old of a congenital heart defect. They were told, “just go home, get pregnant [again] and move on with life. Unfortunately, there was no awareness of this type of loss [at the time]. My friends would see me in town and would cross the street because they didn’t know what to say to me. If we don’t talk about it, it never happened.” In the last 50 years, this is no longer spoken about in the same way. The advances in fertility treatments and technology have enabled Nechama Comfort to help more people.
When Judas’s loss occurred, slowly people would reach out, despite there being “no place to go for Jewish guidance.” Seven years after the death of her son, Judas’s Lamaze coach, Johanna, who was trained in how to support people with infant pregnancy loss, started a support group at Holy Name and invited Judas to come. As people started to feel more comfortable, they felt there was a need to start one for the Jewish community.
Judas has since been trained as a Chaplain, ran the support group at Holy Name and now runs Nechama Comfort. Their primary goal is to help the family, from dealing with the hospital to funeral homes and cemeteries. “Anything that a family is not in a position to deal with, they have to focus on helping each other through the loss, that’s our primary focus. In support groups, individuals and their families can support each other.” They have extended it to educating communities on everything from what not to say to how to really be helpful. “In general, it’s hard to know what to say to people who are grieving, so we give them a list of things that they can say and ways that they can be helpful.”
Nechama Comfort suggests that people treat the loss like any other loss. Although there is no shiva for a child under 30 days old, the family still needs time to handle the loss. Krischer says, “Just to say the words ‘I’m sorry…I’m thinking of you. I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through. Would you like to talk?’ [is all helpful].” They meet with the family to find out if people want visitors, if they want the news shared and how. “It’s a unique loss in that both husband and wife are experiencing the loss at the same time. So we make sure to talk to the father, and if there’s other children.” It’s normal human behavior to be shocked by the news, “but then you need to acknowledge the loss.”
A couple recently delivered a baby that they knew was going to be stillborn and reached out before the delivery. “Nechama Comfort is always about choices. We want each family to know what the choices are. The parents were able to hold the baby, as well as the grandparents, cousins, and down the line. This helped the couple to grieve. They saw that they had their family’s support.” From there, the grief process was guided and went smoothly, as best as it could be. The mother attended support groups and they were able to help her deal with her grief and move through it. “She had another baby a year later and we went to the bris. A week later, she had a memorial kiddush for the son she lost.” Now she is giving back in the support group. “The more people that reach out, the more people that can get the support that they need.”