I found out I was pregnant two days before flying to Japan. I’d booked a last-minute ticket to spend a week travelling through the country with my husband before he needed to be there for work; at the time it seemed smart to cram in one last international vacation before we started trying to have a baby. But it all happened quickly and there we were, making my first appointment with an obstetrician from JFK’s Terminal 1.
It turns out January is not a great time to visit Japan – it’s freezing, and all the best stuff to see is outdoors. But it’s even worse when you are newly pregnant and extremely jittery about everything.
I spent most of the trip watching longingly as my husband scarfed down one piece of glistening sashimi after another. I used up a ridiculous amount of data Googling the names of Japanese fish in an attempt to determine their mercury levels. And I spent three days lying around a mildewed resort while my husband skied Hakuba’s famous powder. I even skipped the region’s famous hot springs after reading that pregnant women were supposed to avoid jacuzzis.
It wasn’t our most fun vacation. But it was one of our most memorable: we took photos toasting with water to show our parents when we returned and broke the news. I didn’t even mind missing out on all the fun stuff. We were having a baby!
Then, a few weeks after we got home, I had a miscarriage. We learned that the baby’s heart had stopped at my 12-week scan; she had actually died nearly two weeks earlier. I was completely unprepared to deal with that kind of pain and loss, and it left me an emotional wreck for months.
Even with the best support network possible, I often felt alone in my sadness. My heart broke again every time I saw a pregnant woman on the subway, even as I reminded myself I had no idea what she’d been through to reach that point. I temporarily deleted Instagram and Facebook from my phone to avoid being bombarded by pregnancy announcements and pictures of newborn babies.
It wasn’t until weeks later, when I finally got around to uploading the Japan trip photos onto my laptop, that I remembered Jizo. I’d first learned about the Buddhist bodhisattva, the protector of children and especially of fetuses that are never born, in a New York Times essay by Angela Elson. Coincidentally, I’d read Elson’s story – titled “The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage” – on the plane to Tokyo.
Elson wrote that figurines of Jizo, which honour the “souls of babies who are never born,” are ubiquitous in Japan’s Buddhist shrines. And they were – I noticed the statues, with clasped hands and often adorned in red caps, everywhere we went. I was drawn to them, snapping photos when I saw them and often giving them a quick nod, hoping the gesture would protect my own unborn child even though I don’t really believe in such things.
In western culture and even in my own religion of Judaism, there is no tangible way to acknowledge the death of someone who was never really here in the first place. There is no service or funeral ritual performed over a bloody mass of tissue or a foetus that’s been surgically removed.
But in Japan, that grief can be channeled. Parents leave toys and snacks for Jizo figurines, and visit them regularly. While pregnant in Japan, I’d thought Jizo was a neat cultural concept; mourning a lost pregnancy in the US, I was acutely aware that it was missing.
Elson mentioned she’d purchased a Jizo statue on the internet, so I scoured Etsy for one that wasn’t too big or too cheesy. For $US24 plus shipping, I soon had a 6-inch-tall Jizo of my own.
The pain of a miscarriage never really leaves you. For me, it only started to dull when I got pregnant again and made it safely past that 12-week mark. A little stone statue from Etsy can’t replace what’s been lost. But in those early days following the miscarriage, when I was desperate for an outlet, that little Jizo gave me some respite. First I kept him on our coffee table, where I could give his cool stone head a pat when I needed. Later I moved him to the mantle near our wedding photos.
These days, almost two years later, Jizo sits on a bookshelf in our bedroom, where he blends in with knickknacks we’ve collected on our travels. Most days I don’t consciously remember he’s there. But occasionally I’ll notice him, hands folded, and give him a nod, a thanks for the reminder of what we briefly had.
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