On a shelf in our living room, next to a photo of Theo and Nicholas snuggling on the couch, sits a little figurine of a baby sleeping peacefully under a red blanket. This is Jizo.
I ordered the little guy from a site called Buddha Groove, an online purveyor of items like Tibetan singing bowls, healing gemstones, and inspirational jewelry. I’d never visited the site before (although I dabble in yoga and meditation, I’m not a collector of the accoutrements), but I found my way there this past spring when someone on my local moms’ Facebook group posted a link in response to another member’s query: Did anyone have ideas about what she might do for her sister-in-law, who had just lost her baby in her twentieth week of pregnancy?
I had been scrolling aimlessly, half in a daze (like I do all too often); but the post snapped me awake.
It had been more than seven years since my husband and I lost our baby, also at twenty weeks—and, though my grief has been softened by time and by our two awesome children, there are still moments when it pierces. This was one of them. I scrolled through the thread, which kept growing as I read.
There were suggestions of food, care packages, and sympathy notes; many of the women who responded said that they, too, had lost babies. Then the talk turned to Japanese rituals of mourning a miscarriage. I clicked on a link to an article describing temples, gardens, and cemeteries in Japan filled with statues of a Buddhist deity called Jizo.
The story goes like this: Jizo was a bodhisattva who took a pass on attaining nirvana in order to be a protector of children—more specifically, to protect the spirits of deceased children and unborn babies. Because they didn’t have time to build up good karma on earth, they are doomed to remain in purgatory (hardly seems fair). Enter Jizo, who scoops up these little ones and hides them in the sleeves of his robe, offering them safe passage to the other side.
Intrigued, I read all I could about Jizo and mizuko kuyo, which translates as “fetus memorial service,” a ceremony in which offerings are made to Jizo, and statues of him are adorned with crocheted hats, bibs, and other baby items. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this before.
Back in September of 2010, when my husband and I were forced to make the gut-wrenching decision to end our very much wanted pregnancy due to a fatal genetic disorder, the western world hadn’t yet “discovered” Jizo. Or at least I hadn’t. In the weeks that followed, once we could sort of begin to think clearly, we realized that we wanted to do something to memorialize the baby. But, not only was there no rule book for how to go about it, we hadn’t even received so much as a pamphlet from medical professionals offering tips for where to seek help or support or… anything.
It’s a strange thing, right? We spend a lot of time in our society talking about protecting unborn children, but when we lose them, we don’t like to talk about it (even—especially?—when that loss is a choice, medical or otherwise). And we don’t have any real traditions in place for honoring and remembering them. It’s kind of an a la carte situation—in a way, it’s nice that you can pick and choose from various options and “make it your own”; on the flip side, when you’re deep in grief you’re not so good at planning or being creative.
My husband and I are not religious, so we had no faith-based structure to turn to. This didn’t stop my older Italian relatives and friends of my mother’s from giving me prayer cards, statues of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads, and even holy water. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the gestures—I did, very much, and I kept all of these talismans close by in my night table drawer. But I did feel a little hypocritical seeking comfort in symbols of a religion in which I hadn’t participated for decades.
I googled “how to memorialize a miscarried baby.” Up popped a host of sites, all pastels and cherubs, that offered trinkets and jewelry featuring angels and inspirational sayings. These did not speak to me. Other options included ordering a custom-made baby doll or adding your baby’s name to an online memorial. We hadn’t given our baby a name; at that time, we still didn’t know the gender.
We had been waiting for the 20-week ultrasound to find out, but it was at that appointment that we learned that the baby wasn’t going to make it. So we asked the doctor not to tell us—it was enough to take in the fact that we would lose “the baby”; losing “our son” or “our daughter” would have been too much. I suppose I could have written “Baby Vames” or something like that, but an online list didn’t feel weighty enough. It felt like the mourning equivalent of breaking up with someone over text.
The years of ceremony and ritual from my Catholic school days had made their mark, and I felt that we needed some kind of Event. My husband and I were extremely lucky to have the love and support of our family and friends—and with their help, we were able to honor the baby not once, but twice.
In Brooklyn, where we lived at the time, close friends of ours held a memorial gathering at their apartment. And, upstate at my parents’ house, we planted a blue spruce in a corner of the backyard. My uncle, who had married us a few years earlier, led the proceedings, and my dad and brother each wrote something for the occasion. It was lovely, and cathartic, and it helped. I think it also helped that we were occupied with a mission: to figure out what had gone wrong with my pregnancy and find out whether we would be able to have children in the future.
After a year of tests and procedures and the miracle of science, we did—and life, full as it was, went on.
But when I read the Facebook thread in April, and saw the link with a photo of this baby snuggled under a red blanket, I felt like I’d found a long-missing puzzle piece. For starters, the statue of Jizo was so cute. It made me happy just to look at it. Statues of Jizo are usually small, monk-like figures that look like babies or children—they have warm, content smiles. They exude peacefulness. I also loved the idea of a benevolent being looking after babies in the afterlife. Plus, this particular statue was only $35. I decided that I needed a Jizo of my own.
It came within a few days. When I saw the small package in my mailbox, my heart skipped in my chest. I ran to the kitchen to find scissors, and when I pulled the little figurine out of the cardboard box in which it was nestled, I was surprised by its weight—it’s made of cast iron, and it felt solid and significant. It fit comfortably in the palm of my hand.
One of the hardest things about losing a pregnancy is that you never get a chance to hold the baby you’ve been looking forward to meeting for so long. I know this sounds crazy, but when I held the little Jizo, it felt like I was finally getting to do that. I lifted the statue to my lips and kissed its head.
For the first few nights, Jizo stayed next to me on my night table. Eventually, I moved him downstairs to the spot where he remains, next to the photo of Theo and Nicholas.
There are times when I feel guilty for continuing to grieve for the baby; after all, I have so much, including the two healthy, amazing children in the photo. Conversely, there are times when I worry that I’ve forgotten about the baby and that I’m unable to access the love and closeness I felt, however briefly, when I was pregnant.
At those moments, it’s nice to be able to hold the Jizo statue in my hand or just look at it, nestled on the shelf next to our boys.
I guess the point of all of this is that it’s never too late to do something—whether you have a ceremony, buy a statue, write a poem, whatever—to memorialize someone you’ve lost and to seek some kind of closure, such as it is. For a long time, I questioned certain choices we made—like, maybe we should have given the baby a name? I suppose there’s nothing stopping us from doing it now. There’s no rule book, after all.
I wrote this post because I recently learned that October is infant and pregnancy loss awareness month—something I should have known about earlier, I suppose, but then again I guess I come late to things. For those of you who’ve gone through this kind of loss, I’m sending you all my love and sympathy. Also, here are a few sites and articles I’ve found helpful; maybe you will, too:
Pregnancy After Miscarriage (Motherwell)
The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage (NYT)
I’ve also written other things about my experience with pregnancy loss here on the blog and for a site called Mothers Always Write.
Last but not least, if you’re interested in having a Jizo of your own (in addition to protecting unborn babies and children, he’s also the protector of women and travelers, so he covers a lot of ground!), you can find one pretty much anywhere these days, including on Buddha Groove, Etsy, and Uncommon Goods.