Mourning possibilities
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Mourning possibilities

Local woman helps parents face trauma of stillbirth, infant mortality

Three decades ago, when Reva and Danny Judas’ newborn son died, just 12 hours after he was born, there was nowhere for the Teaneck couple to turn for emotional support.

Nobody wanted to talk about loss; it was believed best to get on with life and not dwell on the tragedy.

Reva Judas wasn’t willing to accept that approach, and she did not think anyone else should, either — especially after suffering six miscarriages between the births of her four healthy children.

She soon became a go-to person for others in similar situations, and eventually earned certification as a hospital chaplain. In January 2009, Ms. Judas founded the nonprofit infant and pregnancy loss support organization Nechama (the Hebrew word for “comfort”) initially at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and then at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.

Now known as NechamaComfort (on the Web at nechamacomfort.com), the organization came under the wing of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and Hudson County last February. It offers a support group every second Wednesday of the month, from 7 to 9 p.m., for men and women — grieving parents, grandparents, and extended family of a baby from pre-birth to one year old — at the JFS office at 1485 Teaneck Road in Teaneck.

Though NechamaComfort is geared to address the particular needs of Jewish families, Ms. Judas counsels anyone who approaches her, and counts several non-Jews and Jewish atheists in the support group.

“We have some people who’ve been coming for years, partly to help those newly bereaved, and we have people who come for six months or a year after a loss, have another baby, and come back for the yahrzeit,” she said. “I do a lot of phone support for those who aren’t able to come to the support group. I also make house calls, as a volunteer.”

Ms. Judas provides guidance for clergy, funeral directors, and medical personnel; Jewish burial support; assistance in finding meaningful ways to move beyond loss; assistance during subsequent pregnancies, and community awareness programs both locally and in Israel through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s partnership with the city of Nahariya.

Ms. Judas said that “the main thing is I give choices” concerning how to deal with the immediate trauma and its aftermath. There are few Jewish laws governing pregnancy and infant loss, she points out, “so you can choose your own customs. It is your choice to make.”

Some families find great comfort in traveling to Israel to plant a tree in memory of the baby. Although the traditional seven-day shiva mourning period does not apply for miscarriage or stillbirth, she finds that more and more parents are choosing to sit shiva “informally,” and as a practicing Orthodox Jew she does not discourage this.

NechamaComfort was modeled on a pregnancy and infancy loss support group pioneered by Johanna Gorab, Holy Name’s parent-education coordinator. Ms. Judas incorporated some of Ms. Gorab’s ideas, such as memory boxes filled with photographs of the baby, his or her hospital bracelet, and other memorabilia. She assures parents that it’s fine to include Jewish prayers or psalms and even a lock of hair, as this does not violate Judaism’s guidelines on burying a body intact.

Often, people who experienced an infant’s death long ago are only now starting to feel comfortable acknowledging that child’s ongoing presence in their life.

“If you lost a baby 30 years ago, you can still name that baby now, or start lighting a Shabbos candle for that baby,” Ms. Judas said. “The main point is for people — mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings — to be able to deal with this publicly. Even a miscarriage will affect your life forever.”

The JFS affiliation gives NechamaComfort a solid home base; Ms. Judas is there 10 hours a week as of July 1. The pregnancy loss groups are part of the JFS’s larger menu of support groups coordinated by licensed clinical social worker Debbie Fox. “At JFS I have social workers on call and I can refer people to them,” Ms. Judas added.

Ms. Judas, a former Moriah School kindergarten teacher and now the part-time project coordinator for NJ Yachad and its vocational program, has trained additional pregnancy loss facilitators, “so when there’s a crisis we can send someone to the hospital and make sure everything is done properly. And we’ll go to obstetricians’ offices to explain what we do.”

A few weeks ago, she said, an OB-GYN sent a client to an abortion clinic in Englewood to have a dilation and evacuation procedure. The women’s fetus had died in the womb. “Doctors don’t realize it’s traumatic to send someone there,” Ms. Judas said. “They think only about the medical facilities available and not the woman’s feelings. They need to be educated.”

Another case in point is a recent first-person New York Times account of a 38-year-old orthodontist’s disappointment in how a New York hospital handled her son’s stillbirth. “Why aren’t hospitals better equipped in dealing with such a tough experience?” the grieving mother wrote, noting that one in 160 pregnancies in the United States end in stillbirth.

Ms. Judas, a member of the New Jersey Consortium of Infant and Pregnancy Loss, does community education as a scholar in residence at synagogues, and also is available to members of Yesh Tikvah, a new support group for Jewish couples — mainly modern Orthodox — suffering infertility.

The demand for NechamaComfort keeps growing, she said.

“I have calls from literally all over; three from Israel last week and four in Teaneck. I think we are seeing more cases for a few reasons. People are more open than they used to be, and they know they’re pregnant so much earlier these days. And because of 4D sonograms you become attached to the baby much sooner. Also, people get married later and more things can go wrong. So we have a lot more work to do.”

To reach Reva Judas and NechamaComfort, call (201) 724-4093 or email nechamacomfort@gmail.com.

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