Trigger warning for miscarriage: disturbing description, although not detailed
I remember first learning about the family purity laws. They appeared, to me, mysterious laws. Why should a wife and husband separate during and somewhat after menstruation? What was so important about this natural process? I remember that an early teacher explained to me that it was not because women were dirty or lesser during this time. I was told that it was because we value life so much that we mourn the loss of the potential of life from the egg that was lost during the cycle. I took this as an acceptable explanation and moved on, without giving it much thought for years.
After I started dating my future husband, keeping the family purity laws became a challenge because it meant absolutely no touching during the dating process. I thought it ridiculous that the mikvah was not allowed to unmarried women and that we had to suffer because of that restriction. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties and my personal irritation, I ultimately kept these laws because I wanted to do what I saw as the right thing.
Again, the family purity laws interfered with our wedding, when I became niddah at the last second. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that we were not allowed to be alone together until after all of our Sheva Brachot ended. I remember staying near our new home, with a friend, paranoid that our neighbors would observe that we were not sleeping in the same place. I felt so terribly embarrassed.
Despite the negative experience before my first mikvah visit, I found the actual visit meaningful. It demarcated my ability to at least enter into the next stage of our marriage. It was a very emotional and positive time for me.
Soon, the mikvah became routine. It was meaningful because it marked the time when, at last, the niddah restrictions were lifted. It also helped that I went to a beautiful mikvah and that we went out on a date after the mikvah, each time. Overall, the mikvah was a positive experience, despite the difficulty.
The experience changed when my husband and I decided to start trying to conceive. Each month I would get negative pregnancy test results, but would not be certain I really was not pregnant until I started to bleed. The separation became painful in addition to difficult because we separated when I felt sad. When I went to the mikvah, my experience felt somewhat sour. I did not want to have to be there. Being there meant I was not pregnant and I did not know when I would be.
Then, suddenly, I faced those two pink lines, one very faint, that told me I was pregnant. I started prenatal care and monitoring immediately, at the urging of my doctor’s office. Although I was worried about miscarriage, within two weeks I was reassured with an ultrasound showing an embryo with a nice strong heartbeat. As time passed I began to relax and believe that this baby would survive.
Unfortunately, the child was not meant to be. At the next ultrasound, we were shocked to be informed that the embryo’s heartbeat had stopped. It took a few minutes to process that my baby was dead and would never be born. It hurt, but only slightly at this point. It was still inside me and we had to figure out how to get out the tissue.
The next week, I took medication to make the tissue leave my body. The experience was not particularly traumatic at the time. With pain medication, it was not particularly physically painful. My memories of the mangled tissues of my baby leaving my body in such an undignified manner haunted me later.
I soon was overwhelmed with crushing feelings of loss. To me, my baby, embryo, potential life, or whatever it was deserved more. I felt a need to do something to acknowledge its life through a name or a ritual of some sort. I was upset to find that in Judaism a name is not considered appropriate at this stage. I searched online for some form of Jewish ritual for miscarriage. I found nothing. For some isolating hours, I felt devastated by this lack, like Judaism had failed me and my personal spiritual needs.
Then, I spoke with my mentor who taught me the family purity laws in depth before my wedding. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that before birth the baby has a soul but receives another part at birth. She continued that in a similar way all our eggs have a part of a soul.
In the course of our conversation, she did not mention a ritual, but it did bring one to mind. The mikvah. What she had said fit perfectly with what I had been taught about the mikvah in the very beginning. The mikvah is the woman’s ritual that can help her connect with the part-soul that is lost with every period and miscarriage. Perhaps it is a ritual to help us transition on.
The time of separation appears to me a time that the woman can choose to reflect on the loss of this part-soul. The prayers at the mikvah tribute to this precious soul as well. I feel that my mikvah visits while we were trying to conceive could have been enriched by me viewing this ritual as a way of processing that sadly, as this part-soul, potential life was lost, we would not be having a child, yet. Almost like a mini miscarriage each month, not in a fully sad way, but in a positive way because this part-soul was to be appreciated and cherished.
Furthermore, I realize that although it was difficult for us before marriage, waiting to use the mikvah, perhaps the restriction is a form of support. If I had used the mikvah before marriage and thought about the part-soul in the egg, each time, it might have been a painful experience knowing that we were not at that point yet and might not ever be, at least not with each other. Instead, my first time using the mikvah was for all previous lost part-souls at once, transitioning me to the next happy stage of my life.
I write this as I anticipate my first mikvah visit after my miscarriage. At first I was dreading this visit, expecting it to be terribly sad. Frankly, I still expect to burst into tears at the mikvah. However, I now look forward to the visit not only because of the lifting of restrictions with my husband, but also because it is that ritual I was searching for that helps to acknowledge my almost-baby’s significance. I will be praying at the mikvah for it and perhaps also for future, healthy, babies. I do not expect the pain to end then. I know it is a mere part of the healing process.
Upon further reflection, I realize that part of what is so special about this ritual is that it is also done after a live birth. It is the same ritual for each soul that is held inside us, regardless of whether they survive or not. To me, this ritual is an acknowledgement of the life in an equivalent manner putting all of these souls on the same level, at least in one way. This is what I was searching for in wanting to name my child or have a memorial. I wanted some way to show that, in a way, this child is the same as what will, G-d willing, be my future surviving children. Mikvah does this without diminishing the children who are born alive and receive something extra. Sad as I am, I appreciate such an opportunity.