Memory Garden: Soon, a place for mourning parents to reflect and meditate

In February 2009, Abby Michelson Porth was a happy, 33-year-old expectant mother. She and her husband, Jason, were already parents to a healthy son, Jonah. But they had trouble conceiving a second time around, and, after finally becoming pregnant, Porth miscarried.

Despite the support of her family, her friends and her community at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, Porth was devastated.

“It was a deeply traumatic experience,” Porth says three years (and one healthy daughter) later. “In part because the physical loss was experienced in the medical realm, and then later [when calls and cards started coming in, and friends began bringing over meals], the emotional loss was experienced in the Jewish and spiritual realm.”

The fact that there was no “blending of the two” — the physical miscarriage was totally separate from the Jewish, spiritual part of the grieving — “added to how upsetting the experience was,” Porth says.

“There was an incredible sense of isolation in my moment of loss. It would have been exceptionally meaningful and helpful to have some kind of physical Jewish space — such as a cemetery — where the loss wouldn’t have felt disjointed from my community.”

As Porth mourned, the wheels started to turn. She began reaching out to other Jewish women who had experienced infertility, miscarriage or pregnancy loss.

She talked to a woman in her 80s who was still driven to tears by the memory of miscarrying when she was in her 30s. “It was like it happened yesterday,” says Porth. “She had never been given a chance to grieve.”

Soon, Porth, who is the associate director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, realized she had tapped into something: For a tradition in which grieving is such a detailed, multilayered process, there is no physical space for convening, no tradition of ritual mourning and very little formal community comforting available to women who miscarry, have an abortion or lose a child before it turns 1 month old (the age at which halachah, or Jewish law, prescribes Jewish burials for babies).

“As I became a repository for all these stories, it became clear that there was something of a void for these women,” she says.

Thus was born the Memory Garden, a space where women who have experienced these kinds of losses could come and reflect, meditate and mourn in their own personal ways.

What began as a spark of an idea in 2009 is on its way to becoming a reality in 2013. The physical garden will not be an actual cemetery, and will not have plaques or markers of any kind, in accordance with halachah.

It will be built in Eternal Home Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, and will be open to the public. Positioned on a hill looking out over the rest of the cemetery, the garden will be dotted with trees and flowers, with benches for mourners to rest and reflect. An educational component, in which women suffering from losses gain access to therapists, spiritual leaders and other women who have dealt with fertility losses, is just as important to the project, Porth says.

Debbie Findling, strategic philanthropy adviser at the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, was among those Porth spoke with first. Findling, who now has one child, went into early labor during her first pregnancy 12 years ago and had a stillborn baby; multiple miscarriages followed in the years afterward.

Findling says she jumped at the chance to “go public” with her story.

“The notion of infertility and fertility loss in the Jewish community is so hush-hush,” Findling says. “We want other women to know that so many of us have experienced it, are experiencing it. Women should know they’re not alone.”

Findling says she thinks a stigma persists because “as a Jewish woman, you’re supposed to be fruitful and multiply. Children are valued so highly in Judaism. And then there’s the sense of ‘this is what your body was built to do, and you’ve failed.’ I definitely felt a sense of shame, of failure.”

Findling recalls that after she gave birth to a stillborn baby, she handed her baby to a nurse who proceeded to say a prayer for the child about Jesus watching over him.

Debbie Findling (left) and Abby Porth visit Eternal Home Cemetery, where the Memory Garden is planned for 2013. photos/joyce goldschmid

“It was almost a double trauma,” Findling says. “Do you say, ‘No, we don’t do that’? And then, what do we do? I’m a Jewish educator, and I had no idea what to do in that moment.” Findling took her stillborn son back from the nurse, explaining that she was Jewish, and recited the Shema. “I didn’t know what other prayer to recite,” she says. “That was the only thing I could think of to do.”

In the 12 years since then, Findling has developed her own ritual to commemorate her baby’s death, lighting a yahrzeit candle for the baby once a year — regardless of what tradition says she’s “supposed to do.”

Porth and Findling cobbled together a group to talk about what it would take to establish the Memory Garden through Sinai Memorial Chapel, including Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, and Karen Erlichman, a San Francisco therapist with both personal and professional knowledge of fertility and pregnancy loss. They met with Samuel Salkin, Sinai’s executive director, and Jennifer Kaufman, director of Sinai’s grief support program.

And though the duo went in expecting to try to buy some land at Eternal Home, Salkin found the project to be so in line with Sinai’s core values that he says it made sense to give the space at no cost.

“When a child dies, she’s buried at no cost to the family. The chevra kadisha [Jewish burial society] has done that for hundreds of years, because we see it as a communal loss. It’s a communal responsibility to take care of the child, and of the family as well,” Salkin says. “That should absolutely extend to women who have had a different kind of loss. This just made sense.”

After a presentation by Kaufman, Sinai’s board of directors unanimously approved donating land for the project.

As the head of the grief support program, Kaufman works with families who have lost a loved one of any age. She says the garden will help to fill a “blank space” in the way the Jewish community deals with mothers who have miscarried or lost an infant.

“In some ways I think mourners grappling with pregnancy loss are the most vulnerable and the least visible,” she says. “It’s such a common kind of loss — it’s always been surprising to me that there aren’t more resources available … A pregnancy is something everyone can see. A woman’s office, her whole community can be involved, but we’re really taught not to talk about this. It’s really something of a white space in Jewish tradition.

“As good as we are as a community at addressing taboos, we need to develop more language and a more sensitive conversation here,” Kaufman adds, “and I think the Memory Garden will help start that off.”

Organizers say there’s been an outpouring of support from local Jewish leaders — some for personal reasons.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, was among those. Goodman and his wife’s first pregnancy in 1981 resulted in a stillborn baby at 30 weeks.

Abby Porth (left) and Debbie Findling traverse the land where the garden will be located.

“I was young, and the tradition said if the baby doesn’t live 30 days, you just bury the baby in an unmarked grave and get on with your life, so to speak,” Goodman says. “And for me that was incredibly difficult … I was already saying Kaddish for my father [who had died months earlier], and now I had to figure out how to deal with the loss of this baby that, according to tradition, I wasn’t supposed to mourn for.”

Goodman and his wife developed a ritual of their own, saying a blessing for their child and placing an unopened rose in a vase each Shabbat. They also went together to a neonatal support group at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, and got involved with the Compassionate Friends, a national support group.

“I think there’s a perception that because the woman was carrying the baby, it’s somehow easy for the guy to get over it, which certainly wasn’t true for me,” recalls Goodman, who says colleagues and congregants at Congregation Peninsula Sinai (where he was then senior rabbi) began referring people who had miscarriages to him.

“I started realizing how many people have these kinds of tragedies, and how important it is to have real support,” he says.

Weiss, who co-founded a weekend-long grief and healing retreat for families with Sinai and Jewish LearningWorks (formerly the Bureau of Jewish Education), has high hopes for the project’s implications beyond the Bay Area.

“Rabbis across the movements have responded to the issues of pregnancy loss for centuries, and many rabbis have conducted ritual and other liturgical experiences and written about pregnancy loss,” Weiss says. “But in the tenderness of that experience, the tendency is to be more private about it. It’s wonderful that there’s this momentum to have a communal conversation, with a more public spiritual response.”

Aside from the garden’s physical space, Weiss will help lead “phase two” of the project, which will involve organizing other Jewish leaders and those in the medical field into a support and education network that will be available to all families free of charge.

And though the project’s completion is still a year or so away, Porth and Findling are certain they’re on the right track. There’s been buzz from the community — Porth says she’s been “overwhelmed” by the number of people who want to get involved.

And then there was this moment: As Porth and Findling were visiting Eternal Home to see where the garden would be located, Kaufman was showing them the children’s burial area, to which the Memory Garden will be adjacent. “And as I went to take a picture,” Findling recalls, “Abby was standing in the foreground, so I said ‘Abby, move over.’ And as she moved over, we looked down and where she’d been standing there were two plaques for babies — and they were mine.”

Findling had two late-term losses years ago, and knew the remains were somehow taken care of by Sinai, but says she thought they were likely in anonymous graves marked “infant” — not “Baby Boy Findling Moss” with the dates they died.

“I just broke down sobbing. I had no idea those markers even existed. The three of us, Jennifer, Abby and I, said Kaddish together and put stones on the markers, and I immediately called my husband. It felt like God was blessing the moment,” Findling says. “The idea that the Memory Garden is going to be next to my two babies … it felt like everything we were doing was right.”

Memory Garden information is available from Abby Michelson Porth at [email protected] and Debbie Findling at [email protected]. Donations for the project are welcomed at Sinai Memorial Chapel, 1501 Divisadero St., S.F. 94115. Put “Memory Garden” in the memo line. Acknowledgement will be sent if made in memory of a loss or in someone’s honor. For support services after a fertility loss, contact Rabbi Eric Weiss at [email protected].

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.