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Waterbaby – remembering babies lost too soon

Viv shares her thoughts on marking a loss, following a visit some years ago to the garden paths of a Buddhist temple in Japan.

I was looking at one of Japan’s ‘miscarriage graveyards’ and realised I had never seen anything like it before and possibly never would again.

CHERRY blossom swirled across the garden paths of the Zojoji Buddhist Temple in Tokyo. The white and pink petals fell from overhanging branches like confetti, covering row upon row of baby statues as their brightly coloured pinwheels spun beside them in the breeze.

This is what I had come to see but I felt rooted to the spot, taken aback by the visual reminder of the scale of loss. There were so many of them; hundreds of stone monuments to the unborn, their hands clasped in prayer, red hand-crocheted bonnets tied around their perfectly round heads, their faces serene, dignified, their eyes closed.

I was looking at one of Japan’s ‘miscarriage graveyards’ and realised I had never seen anything like it before and possibly never would again. My husband Nick, our three-year-old daughter Eva and I were scheduled to fly back to the UK later the same day after a three week stay in the capital.

As a woman who has suffered multiple pregnancy losses and as a telephone helpline contact for the Miscarriage Association, the charity’s (former) strapline came to mind: Acknowledging Pregnancy Loss. Standing in the gardens of the Zojoji Temple, I was reminded of the amount of loss that went unacknowledged in our part of the world and what achieving acknowledgement could actually look like.  As I walked the garden paths, the sense of grief intensified: cartons of baby milk, booties, toys and teddy bears, bonnets and matching bibs, notes and cards written in Japanese and flowers everywhere; all gifts mothers had left for their unborn offspring. As I walked behind a row of statues, I discovered that each had a Japanese inscription on its back – every one had been given a name.

Nearly nine years ago, my husband and I had a baby girl who died at birth. We named her Pascale and were given the opportunity to have a funeral service. The exact point in the UK when miscarriages become stillbirths; when lost pregnancies are thought of as lost babies; when funerals are offered, or death certificates issued, are contentious issues which largely depend on medical demarcations. These categories of pregnancy play a huge part in whether or not and to what extent, a woman’s grief is acknowledged. This is less of a problem in Japan because the embryo or fetus has the same distinct status at whatever gestation.

Fortunately for our family, we can visit the garden of remembrance at the crematorium where our daughter was cremated. Our grief has been acknowledged. But there is no such acknowledgement for the four lives we lost to early (first trimester) miscarriages between 2000 and 2008. It is almost as though they never happened. George Orwell’s ‘unpersons’ come to mind (Nineteen Eighty-Four), the people who, without name or record, simply ceased to have existed.

In contrast, Japan’s miscarried (and aborted) embryos, fetuses, stillbirths and neonatal deaths, all have a unique name: ‘mizuko’, which translates as ‘water child’ or ‘water baby’. The rows of baby-like statues, which can be seen at many Buddhist temples in Japan, are called ‘mizuko Jizo’ – water child Buddhas. The Jizo serves a double purpose; the image both represents the soul of the deceased infant or fetus and is also the deity who takes care of children on the other world journey.

It was the  mizuko Jizo that first drew me to visit Japan. I wanted to see first-hand these shrines to pregnancy loss, to watch women paying their respects and acknowledging their grief in a way that we are denied in the West. I wanted to imagine what it might be like to have a place like this to go and grieve, remember and acknowledge early pregnancy loss. To the best of my knowledge, Japan is the only country in the world that has a specific word for the lost life of the unborn.

At the Miscarriage Association, helpline volunteers are trained to actively listen to, acknowledge and accept the grief of miscarriage. The reason this is so important is because in our society, pregnancy loss tends not to be fully acknowledged and women are often expected to quickly move on from the event. As I wandered around the statues at Zojoji, part of the reason for that became clear. Standing in front of one of the mizuko Jizo, our daughter Eva (born after our first three losses), did what she does many times each day, she asked: “What is it Mummy?” She was a little young for a full explanation, but it was clear to me that if she were to grow up in Japan, the concept of the mizuko would grow with her; she would learn about water babies and the grief parents feel for them and she could look up the word mizuko in the dictionary.

I also realised that in the UK such a question would never arise because a solid concept of such a ‘half-being’ does not really exist and neither does a corresponding name or mourning ritual. It’s either a baby, worthy of grief, or it’s not. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges to acknowledging pregnancy loss in all its forms in the UK – the problem of how to acknowledge the nameless. Words make sense of life; perhaps it is impossible to acknowledge this loss properly until we are brave enough to agree on what it is we have lost and name it.

Miscarriage describes the process, but not what has actually died. In the West we rely heavily on euphemism to describe death and miscarriage is no exception; we get around the absence of a word like mizuko by adding the word ‘lost’ to various nouns, as in: lost baby. But the nouns we use tend to be subjective and fraught with controversy. Some women feel ‘baby’ is too emotive or medically inaccurate, especially for earlier miscarriages. On the other hand, words like (lost) embryo, or fetus sound too clinical for some women and devoid of the humanity required for grief to seem appropriate.

Often the miscarried embryo or fetus is reduced to a sometimes unavoidable ‘it’ as in the frequently used phrase to describe the event of miscarriage: ‘She lost it.Lost angel is another commonly used term. In my work with the M.A., I have heard women allude to this absence of a word to describe the lost in-between life in the womb many times. Some tell me they are offended by people using the word it, others by the words embryo or fetus. “It was a baby to me,” some will say. But I think what is often at the heart of their distress and indignation, is that they themselves do not have a precise word to describe what they have lost, or perhaps even a solid concept of that loss. It is as though they are grappling to find a name and feel that without such a word whatever they have lost didn’t quite exist.

What I like about the word mizuko, is that it is a complete word for the life that has been lost, whether a first, second, third trimester, or neonatal loss. It is not a word that needs another negative word to define it, i.e.: lost embryo or lost fetus, but something in its own right, something that by definition died on its journey towards life. It was not necessarily a fully grown baby when it died but neither was it nothing. It was something else: a water baby.

Finding a name for this very particular form of life has profound implications for women and society. In the West we tend to think in black and white regarding the process of life, we think in terms of life or death rather than the Japanese view of life and death as part of a continuum – the emphasis on the process between the two: growth, maturation and decline.

The mizuko concept acknowledges the humanity of the lost embryo or fetus by giving it a named identity, whilst simultaneously accepting its unique in-between life status. The word mizuko by definition, refuses to deny the grief of certain types of pregnancy loss by affording all life in the womb a unique and equal status. Each woman’s grief will be individual, depending on many factors, but according to the Japanese viewpoint, the spirit of the life of the womb cannot be denied or categorised by gestational dates.

I stayed in and around the Zojoji gardens for most of the morning, looking at the mizuko Buddhas, each one made individual by the inscriptions and gifts. I watched as women came and performed ‘mizuko kuyo’ (water-baby memorial) rituals. The ceremonies were created and developed by women well over a hundred years ago, some offering formalised mizuko kuyo ceremonies and selling (critics would say a little too lucratively) the Jizo statues like those at Zojoji.

Rituals can involve prayers, dowsing the statues in water and leaving gifts. Water is both an acknowledgement of death and the expression of faith in some kind of rebirth. The mizuko is thought to leave the warm waters of the womb to return to its former liquid state to prepare itself for an eventual rebirth. Historically, Japanese Buddhists believed that existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid. Children solidified gradually over time and were not considered to be fully in our world until the age of seven. They also believe the mizuko will be reincarnated – the mizuko kuyo ceremony helping to send them on their way.

I watched as one woman emptied out a bag of fresh flowers and a cloth and brush. She removed the old flowers, cleaned the vase and refilled it with brightly coloured fresh blooms. She ladled water over the Jizo, removing the crocheted cap first and carefully wiping the small stone face with a cloth afterwards. At the Zojoji temple gardens there is, among the army of baby Jizos, a larger Jizo statue where women can leave toys and offerings for their mizuko. Many candles had been lit and incense sticks burnt, sending a heavy scent across the garden. On a wooden gateway adjoining the garden hundreds of small wooden plaques (ema) were hung, carrying messages and prayers to the mizuko such as: please sleep peacefully, and just as heart-rending: please forgive me. Most of them were signed by the mother of the mizuko, but sometimes the father or even the whole family had signed.

The value of ceremony was clearer to me than it had ever been – the need for rituals to mark our lives and make sense of events that might otherwise make no sense at all. Despite having no particular affinity with Buddhism, I did finally dowse the large Jizo with water and closed my eyes, without knowing quite what I was hoping for: to remember my own losses, to acknowledge them with a ritual I had not had access to before? The sense of loss was compounded by the presence of so many of these, above all (despite their cheery apparel), strikingly lifeless statues. I found myself unexpectedly comforted by a culture so alien to mine and by a message that needed no translation – pregnancy loss is one of the worst things that can happen to a woman.

It was when I opened my eyes that the journey of my own personal losses seemed to move on. Eva was collecting water in a cup and pouring it back into the fountain. She was playing in a refreshingly unceremonious manner that seemed to scream: I am alive! She ran around the Jizo statues, examining their faces and playfully copying their posture and expression – closing her eyes peacefully and putting her palms together. I ran over, gave her a big hug and knew I had stayed long enough. Happily, for our family, childlessness came to an end with the birth of our precious daughter, but I am very aware that for many women their journey to motherhood is still, as it once was for me, one of unremitting grief. The value of mizuko kuyo, like the work of the Miscarriage Association, is that it can pave the way for the future; it helps women move through their grief and continue living.

As we walked away, the deafening ten foot bell of the Zojoji temple tolled – the monks were preparing for a funeral service. We had been in Tokyo for three weeks and it was our last day. With my daughter’s hand clasped in mine I remembered the highlights of our stay: we had seen the sakura (cherry blossom) explode across the streets and parks of Tokyo – Japan’s most celebrated season of new life. We had been to hanamis (cherry blossom parties) in the parks, gazed up from the foot of Mount Fuji to see the summit and rattled through the countryside to the capital on the shinkansen (the bullet train). We had run through the curious, ancient and modern streets of Tokyo in a thunderstorm, squeezed into the packed Metro trains and tracked down the city’s shrines and temples in search of the mizuko Jizo.

As we left behind the statues of Zojoji and walked across the expansive courtyard, my step quickened. Soon we were through the giant two-storied main gate and on the other side of it. My daughter tugged at my hand, pulling me away towards the nearest swing park. The cherry blossom seemed to be falling faster than ever; a delicate, flurrying finale to such a brief, spectacular few weeks in bloom. Soon it would be gone, not so much an end as a beginning. It was nearly May, summer was already rushing in.

 Viv Mayer



The Zojoji Temple is located close to Tokyo Tower. The nearest Metro stations are: Onarimon and Shiba-koen. Admission to the Temple is free.

Japan National Tourist Organisation: www.jnto.go.jp/eng


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