Healing a Lost Pregnancy

Mizuko Kannon, Mt Koya, Japan

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

Mizuko in bibs & bonnets at Hasedera Temple

Healing Stories

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

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.

 

Winding up the Year of the Snake

Hello Fellow Pilgrims 🙂

At last I have finished my BA in Japanese at Curtin University and I’m looking forward to returning to my role as a Buddhist priest and counsellor, renewing my acquaintance with you and continuing our journey together. Although in many countries where the Gregorian calendar is used the New Year has already past, according to the traditional lunar calendar, we are now in the last phase of the Year of the Snake before the New Year of the Wooden Horse, which starts on February 4th. Although I have shed my University-student skin, I am still very much the student and I would like to continue to share with you the teachings that are bestowed on me.

I have now set up a website, several blogs that cover my various and eclectic interests, and a Facebook page where I will be coordinating my work, writing, teaching, counselling, services, classes, etc.
Website: http://www.catekodojuno.com
Facebook: Wabi’an page and Cate Kodo Juno page – I’m a newbie to this, so please be patient with me as I follow the learning curve to understanding how this works 🙂
Blogs:
Buddhist Astrology (based on the almanacs of Japanese Buddhist astrology)
The Temple Kitchen (about shojin Buddhist vegetarian cuisine)
Kuan Yin Oracles (applying the oracles to everyday life with one oracle per month)

Sacred white snake in Japan

Sacred white snake in Japan

The Year of Snake is very much about shedding skins and beginning anew – how was it for you? I had a very auspicious sign on the eve of the first day of the New Year: I was driving home after having watched the sun go down over the Indian Ocean and toasting the old year with my husband, when across the width of the road there seemed to be a banking of white sand. It had been raining and often the sand gets washed over the road in wave-like ripples. But my husband suddenly cried out, “Stop!” And as I jammed on the brakes, we both watched in awe as an enormous albino carpet python continued its path across the road into Yalgorup National Park, adjacent to where we live. We had never seen anything like it! In Japan, a white snake is considered to be the incarnation of Kannon (Kuan Yin) and a sighting of a white snake is said to be harbinger of good fortune. What an auspicious beginning to the Year of the Snake!

We hadn’t seen a snake on our block for several years because Russell has been keeping the long grass cut and the ground clear. However, in November, we were just going to bed and Russell was about to open the bedroom window when, to our great surprise, we encountered a large brilliantly coloured carpet python climbing up the window frame. Although we are quite happy to have a resident carpet python in roof cavity, where they keep away any rodents (there was one in our bunkhouse for some years), I didn’t really want to have one living in the bedroom! Russell manoeuvred it out the window and encouraged it into the garden.

Wargyl eggs = thrombolites

Wargyl eggs = thrombolites

Now at the end of the year, we have found that there is a large dugite snake living under Wabi’an. Although dugites are poisonous, they are very timid and avoid human contact, so as long as I stomp up the path and let it know I’m coming each day, I’m not at all worried about it. In fact, according to the Buddhist tradition in Japan, it is very auspicious to have a snake living in a temple because they are considered incarnations of protector deities. My home temple in Koyasan has a large snake that tends to curl up near the fire altar in cold weather because it’s warm. Furthermore, Wabi’an has been acknowledged by a Nyungar elder as a site that is sacred to the Wargyl, the Rainbow Serpent. It is said that the Wargyl traced a path that goes under Wabi’an, from the estuary to the east to the shore of Lake Clifton, where she laid her eggs. These eggs are known today as thrombolites, the oldest living organisms on our planet. So I feel very blessed to have these associations with the Wargyl and Kannon emerging in the Year of the Snake.

What will the Year of the Horse hold? I’ll talk more about the signs for the Horse in a future entry in my Buddhist Astrology blog.

My Blind Good Samaritan

Winter sky

Winter sky

I was visiting my son in Geelong for a week and I went into Melbourne on my last day, in order to do a bit of research on Japanese-Australian history at the Victorian Archives, before flying out that afternoon. I had planned my trip out to the airport – down to the last minute and down to the last dollar, leaving just enough time and just enough money to get back home again. I had to walk from the Archives to the nearest train station, which would take me one short stop into the city, from where I would take the airport bus. However, when I got to the station, which was unmanned, there was nowhere to buy a ticket and when I used the station phone to talk to a rail employee, I was told that there was a new system in place which meant I had to buy a travel card for $6 and then add the minimum of $5 to it in order to travel. But I was on my way out to the airport and I didn’t have time to walk the distance to the airport bus and I didn’t have enough money to pay $11 to travel one stop!

It seems this station is nearby to a training facility for the sight-impaired and a blind man who was walking onto the station platform heard me talking to the station employee and offered to help me out. “Look,” he said, “I know it’s illegal, but it seems pretty crazy to have to pay so much just to go one stop, so if you sit with me on the train and an inspector comes along, I’ll tell him that you’re my carer.” Well, I didn’t want to miss my flight, and time and money were running out, so I thanked him and we sat down together and chatted while waiting and travelling on the train.

My Good Samaritan told me that had been a builder and lost his eyesight about twelve years ago when he found out his son had been sexually abused by a priest: he became so angry that he actually burst the veins in his eyes and went blind! Since that time he has become very active in support groups and lobbying to help to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other fathers. He said that he found great comfort in his activism and it helped to channel his anger and frustration, so much so that these days he’s actually much calmer and relaxed than he was before he went blind. He makes incredibly intricate ornamental wooden boxes, one of which was in his bag, just finished, that he showed me. It was  beautifully and very delicately engraved using modern technological instruments that actually talk to the user. He told me that his grandkids all lived nearby to his home and visited frequently and he felt his life was rich and rewarding in ways he never imagined possible. “Don’t get me wrong,” he smiled, “I’d still rather see, but I appreciate my life now in a way that I never thought possible and so to some extent I’m actually grateful for my blindness – there were so many things about myself that I just didn’t see before, but now I do!”

When we got to the central station, I walked – guiltily – through the turnstile with him, but actually no one even asked who I was or stopped me! My Good Samaritan then proceeded to lead me through the station and take me to the airport bus station. He quickly and efficiently navigated his way by using his stick along the raised guidelines on the ground, and I followed along one step behind like a little kid. When he deposited me at the bus station I asked him if his home was nearby. “Oh no,” he laughed, “I live another 80 kms on the other side of the city. I just thought I’d better first get you to your bus safe and sound so you wouldn’t miss your flight!” He then said goodbye and walked back towards the train station.

Geraldton wax - harbingers of Spring

Geraldton wax – harbingers of Spring

I was so grateful for his generosity, and it reminded me too that help can come from the most unexpected sources. In one of the Buddhist sutras that I study, the Kuan Yin Sutra, it says that the deity Kuan Yin will appear to whoever needs help in whatever form is needed at that moment. It then recites 33 forms that are examples of her manifestations, including the ones we might expect such as gods and goddesses, monks and nuns, but also in forms that we might not expect such as children and animals, but much more surprisingly is that Kuan Yin may even appear in the form of criminals and demons and monsters! In other words, if our eyes are open – that is, if our inner eyes and hearts are open – and we are not blinded by our own judgemental attitudes, then we will find whatever help we need on our path through life. It is our own prejudices that blind us to the goddess standing before us ready to help us on our way. See?