Mizuko Kannon, Mt Koya, Japan
Rituals of healing for the grief of miscarriage and abortion: In my experience, rituals performed in memory of an unborn baby, lost though miscarriage or abortion, helps to heal the deep pain of loss and to bring a sense of closure for many women, who often cannot even tell anyone of the dark secret they hold. This post is a reprint of an article I have written in June’s NOVA Magazine, Healing a Lost Pregnancy, which you can read online here (the article is on page 6).
The Water Babies
In Japan, nestled in a grove of trees or on the mountainside looking out over the ocean within the grounds of the temples that are dedicated to Quanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, you will find rows of little stone figures lined up along tiered benches. These statues represent the spirits of babies who have been miscarried or aborted; they are called “mizuko,” which means “water-babies,” because they have come from the waters of their mother’s womb and have returned back into the flow of life.
The statues are placed there by parents after they have participated in a memorial ritual at the temple, praying for a good rebirth for the baby and asking for forgivenness for not being able to give them a life at this time. The little statues wear tiny bonnets and bibs that are made by the old ladies of the village to keep the spirits of the babies warm. The parents often place gifts in front of the statue, such as toys, pinwheels and candy, along with letters to the baby written on small wooden plaques.
When I first encountered these grottos dedicated to the spirits of the water-babies, I was deeply moved because I had never seen such public acknowledgement of miscarriage and abortion in Australia. When I talked to the temple priest, I was impressed by his refusal to engage in any kind of moral judgment: he did not ask whether the pregnancy loss was as a result of a natural miscarriage or the result of the woman’s choice to terminate the pregnancy. His compassion was entirely focussed on helping to ease the grief of the woman who was suffering from the loss of her baby, regardless of the cause.
To me, this was in stark contrast to the situation in Australia, where there is a deep divide in social attitudes between a woman who has had a miscarriage and a woman who has had an abortion. With a miscarriage, a woman is encouraged to be open with her feelings and to receive appropriate support from her family, friends and society at large. However, if a woman has an abortion and suffers grief from her loss, because she may have complex feelings of shame or guilt, or feel she doesn’t even have the right to grieve, then she is left alone to carry her pain in secret and the usual ways of finding healing for her grief are closed to her.
When I returned home to Australia, as a Buddhist priest, I began to offer memorial rituals of healing for pregnancy loss here at Wabi’an, a chapel dedicated to Quanyin, the Goddess of Compassion. Every woman’s experience is unique and each memorial ritual is individually created to help her find closure for her grief.
Mizuko in bibs & bonnets at Hasedera Temple
For many women, healing the grief of an early miscarriage is difficult because the baby just “disappears” and there is nothing tangible to mourn: When Laura had a miscarriage, she felt her grief as a great empty space within her, unable to find expression or closure. Although well-meaning in their support, her family and friends did not appreciate the depth of her grief, saying “It just wasn’t meant to be” or “You’re young – you’ll have a baby one day”. But Laura grieved for this baby, of which nothing remained. So as part of a memorial ritual, Laura made up a box of mementos, photos, and letters that gave her something tangible to bury in a special place that fully acknowledged and celebrated the baby’s life with dignity and honour. A year later, Laura carried another pregnancy to full term and gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
For many women, events much later in their lives may trigger the deep pain of suppressed grief: Jackie was 56 years old when her own daughter had a miscarriage. While comforting her daughter, Jackie became overwhelmed by a grief of her own that related to the abortion she had been forced by her parents to have when she was 16 years old, 40 years earlier. She had tried to forget all about it but suddenly, in sharing her own daughter’s loss, she grieved for the loss of her own baby all those years before. So a ritual of healing was performed that honoured the spirits of both babies, sending messages and mementos up to heaven tied to balloons, which brought Jackie a great sense of peace that she had finally acknowledged her loss and healed her own deep grief.
For many women, illness and fertility issues bring up feelings of having created bad karma from having an abortion: Christine was in her mid-30s and had been undergoing IVF treatment for some time, without success. Because she was having difficulty in conceiving, she began to believe that she was being punished for having had an abortion when she was younger. She had never told anyone about her abortion and was worried that the spirit of the baby was seeking revenge by preventing her from getting pregnant. After performing a memorial ritual to honour the spirit of the lost baby, Christine confided that she felt a huge burden was lifted from her by just being able to share her story and not being judged or condemned for the choice she had made. The following year, Christine gave birth to a healthy baby girl – naturally and without fertility treatment.
Letters written to mizuko babies on wooden plaques
Rituals for Pregnancy Loss
Every woman has her own individual way of grieving and so each memorial ritual is unique. For some women, it is enough to share her story and be relieved of the burden of her secret, in which case she may decide to perform her own ritual in private. For others, a formally conducted ritual using traditional language and structure provides the sense of an important occasion that suits their need to express their loss as a life ceremony. In every case, I encourage the mother to begin the process by naming her baby and writing a letter that expresses how she feels and what she wants to tell the spirit of her baby.
Many memorial rituals are created using one of the elements of earth, water, wind or fire: for example, the focus of an earth ritual may be to bury something and perhaps plant a tree; in a water ritual offerings are made into a river, lake or the ocean; a wind ritual may involve using a balloon to send a message up to the heavens; a fire ritual is an ancient way of mourning though fire, smoke and ashes, or by lighting candles or incense. I have found that each person tends to naturally be drawn to creating a special ritual of their own through one these elements, or using this as a starting point for their own creative journey. I have helped to create rituals that involved painting a picture, sewing a quilt, knitting a story, playing music, writing poetry, scupturing an image, or making a photo album. With nurturing support, each person is able find their own expression of their grief and healing.
In the ongoing heated and emotional debate between pro-choice and pro-life lobbyists, it is the lonely voice of each individual woman, with her own unique experience and personal grief, that is drowned out in the political rhetoric. When a woman comes to me who is grieving the loss of her baby, I do not ask questions: Regardless of politics and religion, my objective in offering a memorial ritual is to bear witness to each person’s particular experience, to acknowledge their grief without judgement and to support their healing process. My role is to welcome each individual with compassion and respect for the choices they have made in their lives and to offer comfort and healing for their grief in a way that honours their life choices and their own spiritual path.
Although until now I have offered rituals only to mothers who have come to Wabi’an, I also encourage and welcome fathers who are suffering grief from pregnancy loss to seek healing as well.