Sitting Shiva

by | Aug 15, 2022 | Creative Nonfiction

The 2 a.m. crew on Twitter isn’t unlike the smoky inside of a Waffle House—there’s the profile pic of a marijuana leaf in patriotic colors, the zoomed-in face of an old lady who is ready to share her story of loss from three decades ago, the blooming lily who starts her sentences “oh honey,” the poet who knows exactly what to say and posts pictures of her dogs in forests with impossible neon lighting, the PhD, the pastor.

But this story begins a few miles away, up a hill, in an OB-GYN office. I’m lying on my back on one of those paper-covered tables that, with the slightest of pressure, sounds like a candy wrapper. I’m there to get a 32-week prenatal checkup—only there isn’t a heartbeat. The doctor is silent as she stares at the Doppler. With one hand she searches my torso for the baby’s heartbeat. With the other, she pins the baby’s head between her thumb and index. She tries a different Doppler, a fancy-shmancy handheld ultrasound device that connects to her phone. She even pulls in the old-school ultrasound machine—its squeaky wheels coming down the hallway are the only company I have. Somehow, I get myself to triage for another ultrasound tech to confirm what we all know.

There is no life in me anymore, and there are no answers.

While I put on a gown and take off my Crocs, nurses talk to me like they’re underwater. I cannot reach them, and they cannot reach me with their words.

No heartbeat. No heartbeat. I focus on the shower curtain while I wait for my husband. I count the ways in which I could also not have a heartbeat. I could strangle myself with the curtain. Gouge my eyes out with the metal rings. The nurse knows and stands beside me. She holds my hand. She looks at me how everyone else will always look at me from this day forward, full of pity or full of fear. No heartbeat. No heartbeat. No heartbeat.

Traditionally shiva is sat for seven days after a funeral. Close family comes wearing all black and thickly perfumed (or that’s my memory of Aunt Ida, at least), bearing casseroles in foiled wrapping. It’s quiet. Eerily quiet. People sit on stools and couches; they pray. Someone’s always gossiping in the kitchen, someone else snooping in the bathroom. To most of my generation, shiva has been slowly replaced with new communal gatherings—TikTok Live, Facebook group chats, Discord channels. After my father’s death to cancer in a pandemic, it was clear that even the deepest grievers didn’t feel safe enough to risk bringing Covid into a family room.

When the epidural finally turns my legs to lead, I ask the nurse to take away the pain in my heart. Please, I say, an epidural for my head and my spirit. And if there’s none, just a heavy stone. She turns away from me. I see her tears and know she imagines her daughter, now nineteen, who narrowly survived but could have emerged purple and still like my son soon will.

Through thin walls, we hear nurses finding horse-hoof heartbeats of babies coming down the birth canal ready to scream and cry and claw at the air. Mothers crying and gasping with joy at their first, second, and third bundles of warm bodies. We hear the first cries, wails of rushing endorphins. My husband begs me to turn up the small handheld speaker on the remote for the TV as high as it can go, but it drowns out nothing.

In most heroes’ journeys, there is divine intervention. Odysseus is watched over, protected by a shapeshifting Athena. In my daughter’s Jolly Mon book, written by Jimmy Buffet, the main character plays a magic guitar protected by Orion and is flung to the sea floor, only to be rescued by a dolphin who surrounds Jolly Mon with enough bubbles to bring him to the surface. Theseus uses a ball of magical thread given to him by a princess to fight his way out of a deadly labyrinth. As I lie numb from the waist down, I count all the ways in which no personal god will come to my rescue. No amount of duty or faith will change the course of this stillbirth. There is no chance of being saved.

That night as Pitocin hits and waves of contractions wash painlessly over my body, my husband tosses and turns on the couch. Propped up on pillow, I watch from the bed as he weeps in his sleep, holds a pillow over his ears, wraps his long arms around himself. I bargain with all the gods I have learned the names of. I offer up my own breath for a holy fetal AED machine. The nurse comes with anxiety meds, says she can put me to sleep with Ambien, but instead I enter the Internet grief sphere. I open Twitter—the only place on the Internet where it is easiest to not be inundated with pics of babies and Thanksgiving joy. I share a pic of my sad face eating a red popsicle.

It doesn’t take long for the first shiva-sitter to arrive. It’s a young writer like myself, probably browsing late night to see which poet is being canceled for their latest hot take. Then another. And all of a sudden, the dam breaks and thousands of I’m sorries and me toos begin flooding in. Parents with stories of lost angels, anguishing moments where dads held their breathing babies for just an hour before death, moms who never got to hold the humans they knew only from the inside.

One woman takes a picture of a fox[1] statue by a tree; another shares a pic of his toddler holding her sleeping sibling. Yet another writes my son’s name on an altar to Santa Muerte. Then the DMs begin. The professor, the writer, the RN who never forgets a stillborn baby, the hospice nurse, the pastor who prays for me regardless of my religious status. They surround me.

They come to me in waves with their metaphorical meals and embraces. They light candles, turn on all the lights in the house, wave off pests with sticks, and sit around me in prayer I would have turned away before this hour. All of the dark corners and shadows disappear momentarily and what remains in this unlikeliest of Internet places is a system of support.

In the wee hours, I learn that people want to share their loss in an unrestrained way, without formality or expectation. The relevance of their stories doesn’t matter—it’s the connection, so there’s more willingness to accept the wisdom of strangers: a baby can live an enormously loving life between the first and last breath, or without any breath at all; grief never shrinks, the vessel just grows larger and stronger to carry it. I learn how important it is to find closure with the baby’s body. How to not blame, how to surrender.

Nothing feels cliché at 3 a.m. I accept it all—even the GIFS of roses, two bears hugging, photos of cats and dogs and beaches.

When the nurse comes in quietly, she sees I’m crying for the umpteenth time. She sits next to me quietly and keeps me company. The doctor appears with a sleep-swollen face. It’s time to birth my dead baby, hold him, and say goodbye—all in one small sliver of time.

Unlike the primal screams from when I birthed my daughter drug-free, now there is only this haunting silence in the room. Occasionally the doctor and nurse coach me to push. You’ll get to meet your baby soon! and You’re doing so good, Mama! they say, as though I am going to meet a live baby. I watch my husband’s face crumble, his eyes hot with tears.

After the fourth push, the doctor reaches in to reposition my son’s fragile body that has slowly slipped down sideways during induction. She tugs and she pulls his body free. She holds him upright, like he’s living, and his head flops forward. He’s small and bruised and doesn’t make a sound.

The divine intervention or miracle I prayed for doesn’t come.

The bigger lesson about grief is that it takes so much time to synthesize a new reality, many more hours than an induction. Much longer than seven days of grieving without shower or shave. Much longer than a year. It takes a lifetime to become a container to fit the biggest griefs, and even then, the container is always changing and so is the space around it.

I hold onto my husband’s arm while the earth falls away. The nurse dresses the baby to lessen the appearance of death, to add weight when she places him in my arms. There is sound, but it’s only the blood coursing in my ears. The room tastes like iron. After one Good job, Mama, no one speaks. Heads are bowed. I can see in the air where each molecule meets the next. My life begins to come apart. I look around for anything that might stabilize the wobble of this new reality, that I am from here forward the mother to dead baby. My milk will come in and engorge the grief; people will look at my body with the fear they project. I reach out knowing no god will save me but somewhere, just beyond where I can see, there are thousands of others reaching to hold me afloat.

[1] Fox—the name of our stillborn.

About The Author

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Rae Hoffman Jager is the author of American Bitch (Kelsay Books ‘22). Rae’s poetry and essays have appeared in a wide variety of online and print magazines: Juke Joint, Contrary, Glass, a Journal of Poetry, Honey Lit, and Kveller—to name a few. She has work forthcoming in New York Quarterly. Additionally Rae was named one of the ‘22 Emerging Artist Fellows for the Ish Festival in Cincinnati. Rae holds a BA from Warren Wilson College and an MFA from Wichita State University. When she is not writing, publishing, and teaching yoga, she is spending time with her spouse, daughter Ivy, and two old dogs.



Books by Rae Jager

Rae Hoffman Jager