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.

 

The Way of Toast

Tea pots in my kitchen

Tea pots in my kitchen

I was in the kitchen making breakfast the other day when my husband, Russell, glanced over at me and with a wry smile commented that the complicated ritual I have for making my toast should be called “The Way of Toast”, like how the tea ceremony is the Way of Tea, or calligraphy is the Way of the Brush, or any other kind of ritual art. We had a bit of a laugh about that because it is true that over the years I have created a certain ritualistic way of preparing my toast “just so”. But later I thought about what is meant by “The Way of …” and it seems to me that just about anything that you engage in in your daily life could be made into a ritual art that expresses your spiritual practice.

Although we might see tea ceremony as a beautiful but complicated ritual art shrouded in mystery and largely unintelligible to the non-initiated, it is basically simply about making a cup of tea and sharing it. Shunryu Suzuki, a much-loved and respected Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for bringing Zen in the United States, would make tea ceremony using a polystyrene foam cup and instant coffee to show that you didn’t need fancy implements or some special occasion to share the essence of tea ceremony with another person. The purpose of the ritual is in fact to practice a way of emptying your mind to such a degree that all that remains is that single, precious, present moment of connection, of communion with another person – or even if you are alone, communion with the cosmos. The ritual helps you to be fully present and engaged without the background chatter of mind interfering. The longer the process, the more you have to really concentrate and the longer time it takes to master. This long-time investment of your energy and practice is a reflection of your own commitment to perfecting a ritual art and, despite our insta-everything world, reveals slowly the peeling away of the layers of mind chatter as you continue to practice. My dear friend in Japan, a tea ceremony master who had learned the art from her parents since childhood, once told me that she looked forward to her 60s because then she thought she might have reached a stage of being able to perform the tea ceremony with a “true heart”.

Cumquats ready to pick

Cumquats ready to pick

But you don’t have to aspire to become a master at a particular ritual art – what about becoming a master of the art of your own life by just fully engaging in the small rituals of everyday life? A spiritual practice can be developed by making your whole life into a ritual art: a work of art that is ever-evolving. This ritual practice can be fully realised even when you engage in the most seemingly trivial of acts such the act of peeling a humble potato and experiencing a moment of joyful awe at how it is that you and this here spud have arrived at this very moment in time together, a moment of being fully present. Now that might sound a bit OTT but in fact it is possible to live a life deeply imbued with a sense of wonder and joy whilst engaging with any moment of your life. It begins with bringing into your consciousness the awareness of every little action of your body when it moves through the routines of everyday life – cleaning your teeth, drinking a glass of water, putting on your clothes, making a cup of tea or preparing toast! When your mind is fully occupied with being aware of what your body is doing, that is a great spiritual practice because by emptying your mind of its usual white-noise chatter, you are creating an open space – this space is the place where spiritual transformation is possible, a space within which the pure joy of being is able to flow freely.

So next time you make a cup of tea, take a moment to feel the way your body moves step by step through the actions of creating a cuppa – feel your footsteps, hear the sound of the water boiling, feel the heat of the cup in your hand, feel the weight of the cup, feel the steam rising into your face as you raise the cup, feel texture of the cup as it meets your lips… and really feel the tastes and textures in your mouth as you drink, feel your breath coming in and out in rhythm with your drinking. It might sound a bit crazy, but the moment of enlightenment might be right there in your next sip! Enjoy!