Japan is, apparently, dotted with what are called Jizo shrines – temples with tiny statues of infants, offerings to Jizo, who (among other tasks) watches over miscarried and aborted fetuses.
Strangely, I never encountered any of these temples during my many trips to Tokyo, including the most recent one following my ectopic pregnancy. I had not known to look, though now I wish I had. They might have offered some solace, since there was little to be found otherwise.
It was in Peggy Orenstein’s fantastic 2007 memoir, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother, that the idea of Jizo shrines first got my attention. (She also talks about them in this piece she wrote for The New York Times in 2002). It was a book I discovered when, in the aftermath of the ectopic, I went searching for both memoirs and even well-researched fiction, keen to find well-written stories with which I could identify.
She acutely notes that women these days “feel the disappointment of early miscarriage especially acutely” – and so the need to mourn. She’s right. With all that “active trying”, injections, lifestyle changes, drugs, it is hard to think of eggs as just eggs, as embryos only as some kind of “pre-life”. I cheered my growing eggs on, sent “positive vibes” to petri dishes, and implored each embryo to stick around. From the moment I got a positive pregnancy test, I was with child. A baby. Our baby.
When you take methotrexate (MTX), a chemotherapy drug that works as a folate inhibitor, attacking the rapidly-dividing cells of your pregnancy, you feel like a murderer. No matter how many times someone tells you that your life depends on having an ectopic pregnancy removed, it still feels like you have had agency in denying life.
And so, you mourn. You cry for the cries you will not hear. You wonder if it demands some kind of ritual. I still wonder about my snuffed out fetus and the thoughtless disregard with which it might have been discarded. I look at the sky and pray that she’s ok.
Things moved very quickly once the pregnancy was identified as ectopic. First it was all about drugs, then all about surgery. No one actually talked about how we might feel after. Despite being in the care of two of Singapore’s most well-regarded pregnancy specialists and their teams of nurses, no one suggested that we seek out a counsellor or therapist. I hadn’t told many friends I was pregnant, making it hard to bring up not being pregnant anymore. Our families were sad but it was hard to broach the topic. In fast-forward mode, almost everyone skipped ahead to the prospect of trying again.
I was stuck, still wondering where things had gone wrong. There is no manual for mourning an early loss.
I tried to throw myself into work, life and all else in between. My husband coerced me into a short break to distract ourselves, filling the void with good eats and nice shoes. We drank copious amounts of coffee. And then we returned to old routines. Routines that didn’t involve planning for the baby that, just days prior, was a living, growing being.
My husband may have felt my loss, maybe as acutely as his own. He must have found a better way to rationalise it because, weeks later, he mentioned in passing how it was only very early in the pregnancy anyway.
I wish that I had known about those Jizo shrines. But I guess I should just light a candle and move on.