Losing a child is one of the most difficult experiences one could ever go through. The feelings of grief and loss can be overwhelming, and you might be unsure of how to work through these emotions. But what if the child you lost was never born? How do you grieve for a child you may have never held or even named?
Many parents who lose a child due to a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or an abortion are left with these questions looming over them, making it difficult to know how to grieve. And as the options can be limited in many cultural contexts, the feelings of loss that are experienced-- with no avenue for their expression-- are often kept inside. The contemporary Buddhist ceremony, Mizuko Kuyo, however, is practiced explicitly for engaging with these feelings of grief, and is increasingly practiced all over the world.
Where Did Mizuko Kuyo Start & What Does it Mean?
Originating in Japan, the memorial service of Mizuko Kuyo commemorates unborn children who have been lost due to miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion. This Buddhist ritual is quite recent, showing its first signs of practice in the 1970s. "Mizuko" means "water child," and is a common Japanese term used to refer to a stillborn fetus or infant. The ceremony itself consists of an offering made to the bodhisattva, Jizo, who is the protector of children. Indeed, parents and other family members will participate in Mizuko Kuyo ceremonies as a means of both engaging with their feelings of grief, as well as to ensure the safety of their lost child's spirit in the afterlife.
Mizuko Kuyo varies from temple to temple, but is commonly practiced through the adornment of and praying to small stone statues. These statues are made in the likeness of Jizo, and are often paid for by the parents of the deceased child. The parents may then adorn the statue (often in garments such as bibs and hats), before it is displayed in the temple's yard. These yards are often designed specifically for the Jizo statues, and might feature a typical playground with swings or slides intended for the spirits of the children. These spaces are not merely places to grieve, but also to celebrate life. It is not uncommon for families of the deceased children to come to these yards to tend to the Jizo statue, while their other children play. In this way the Mizuko are surrounded by familial life and love, while the other members of the family can express their grief in a loving and peaceful environment shared with others who know their pain.
Resources for Grieving Parents
Although we may mourn differently North America, this does not mean we need to do so alone. In the case of stillborn or early and unexpected death, our loss can feel isolating and disorientating. We might even feel guilty for grieving and keep it to ourselves. Remember that everyone will experience loss in their own unique way and that there are resources and people to help you through it.
Creating our own, perhaps more secular rituals and practices to overcome a loss and face our grief is important. We can learn from the Mizuko Kuyo ceremony of creating a safe space to grieve and even connecting a physical object where one can revisit and reflect on that loss when needed. This form of symbolic ritual can be as simple as planting a tree in a garden, releasing balloons or lanterns, or lighting a candle.