Some losses are secret. No matter how much we wish to share, it must remain so. I am speaking about fertility.
Perhaps a person is very private. Perhaps their partner is very private. Perhaps our family tradition forbids the sharing of such a loss. Perhaps… perhaps… there is a sense of failure or “how could this happen to me?” or “why me?” or “why does everyone have children and I… I had this happen to me.” For many, it not only happens; it happens more than once.
We suffer alone or with our partner the anger, rage, agony, helplessness, and grief; and the sense of profound loss of a being we will never meet and yet we carried in our womb. The loss for the father is also excruciating and his feelings are sometimes expected to be even more secret.
So much of our sense of self as a future parent, or a yet-again parent, is bound up in childbearing. When we suffer a loss, it may be more than we can bare to let others in on our secret. Yet bearing it without community support can make it even more unbearable.
In an age when abortion is such a triggering topic, it is difficult to sensitively discuss that agonizing decision, and yet it must at least be mentioned as we also mention miscarriage, still birth, failed IVF, and related losses.
In Northern California, Sinai Memorial Chapel began addressing these realities long ago with the now well-worn policy that burial of an embryo, fetus, or child less than 30 days of age is free-of-charge. Sinai’s goal is to support the family and honor their loss as part of our communal responsibility.
In November 2022, Sinai Memorial Chapel took yet another step: While continuing these free burials, Sinai opened the Memory Garden.
The Memory Garden is a place to remember. There are no burials in the Memory Garden. Rather, it is a place for those with fertility related losses to visit, mourn, place a stone, and reserve a time for a private or public gathering.
The Memory Garden in Colma, California (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)
Now that the Memory Garden is open to the public, the goal is to help plant the seed for envisioning and creating Memories Gardens in the Jewish world and among all humanity.
While respecting each faith tradition and the grief of those who do not identify with a specific tradition, we hope the Memory Garden will inspire all communities to honor fertility related losses, each in their own way.
It will not end fertility related losses. It will not curb their numbers. Rather, it will give us a place to go and sit and stand and pray and cry and wail and express positive feelings as well. Perhaps the existence of such gardens in or near cemeteries or other venues will create an opportunity to make it known that we are not alone as parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and others as we mourn our fertility related losses.
During the dedication of the Memory Garden in Colma, California, Rabbi Yitzhok Feldman of Congregation Emek HaBracha pointed out that in the Torah, the first use of the Hebrew word aron is after Joseph died and his body was placed in an aron in Egypt. Thus, the word aron was used to denote coffin before it was also used to denote the ark in which the Ten Commandments were kept in ancient times, and the Torah scrolls are kept today.
The root of aron—aleph and resh—means light. The light in each of us is the light we honor as part of laying our dead to rest.
After the dedication of the Memory Garden, Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray of Congregation Beth Jacob and President of the Northern California Board of Rabbis sent a note in which he wrote, “For a rabbi helping people through this painful moment in life that is often hidden or overlooked, it is a blessing to have a place where a person or family can grieve, find comfort, and find pieces of peace.”
The Memory Garden in Colma has a circular area covered with grass that represents the womb. Surrounding it are two circular cement rims. Water flows between the rims. Pebbles may be placed in the water during visits. Beyond the water is a circular sandy walkway. The outer rim of the walkway is inscribed with the secular and Hebrew months—January to December; Nisan to Adar.
The placing of pebbles honors the Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble when visiting a grave to show it was visited. In the Memory Garden, we place a pebble in the water to honor the memory of the tiny light whose loss we grieve.
May you be comforted in your loss whether new or from decades ago and may the memory of the little light that departed before it arrived to fullness be for a blessing.