Today Nicole joins us as a guest writer. As she writes: “My little boy Colm died, and then was born, right on his due date. Our first son after two beautiful and healthy daughters. We didn’t expect him to come into our lives, nor did we expect him to leave so soon. A surprise at the beginning and a shock at the end, he is my mystery. I am finding that I am strong enough to walk in sorrow, and brave enough to still seek joy.”
After my son died, as the cold grip of shock receded, the magnitude of this loss began to make itself understood. Ah, this right here is the what the poets and artists of the ages have been speaking of all this time.
At once alien and uneasily familiar, I had glimpsed the shadow of this pain before. Literature, music, the stricken faces of loved ones. I recognized it at once, even as I could never have imagined its depths. And what to do with it? I wanted a quest, a battle to return order to my world, and so I quested through research and the deepest darkest corners of esoteric medical journals: The how of Colm’s death consumed me.
When at last we came to the end of that harrowing journey, with not even a scrap of an answer (which is, of course, an answer in and of itself), I found myself at a loss. Where to go now, with this unbounded and hungry grief?
I was surrounded by people who loved me, who loved my family, who, indeed, loved my lost and stillborn son. But I was not satiated, even as I was endlessly grateful. I needed to throw my stone into the ancient waters of loss: to fasten my pain to a collective and specific mourning. I lit my own candles and practiced my own new and strange religion of living in spite of the holes in my heart, but I wanted a connection to a larger tradition.
And I was reminded of the curious statues, often sporting little red hats or bibs, lining trails and inhabiting small shrines in Japan, where I had spent a few bright and youthful years.. I remembered who they were, and why they were. They are depictions of Ojizō-sama, or Jizo less formally, the guardian of children, particularly those who die before their parents. He also protects the 'water babies’, or Mizuko in Japanese. These are the souls of the stillborn, the miscarried, the aborted.
I remember thinking, when encountering these child-like divinities, how very cute!
Later I learned what they represented, how someone may have lost or was losing their sweet and precious child. I felt the urge to reach back and shake myself awake, to send a warning to that oblivious girl, and also, the near obsessive desire to return to Japan and see them again.
Plans were made and tickets were bought: if a quest was not my way forward, then a pilgrimage it would have to be.
Only 4 months after Colm’s death, we arrive at Nokoygiri-yama, Sawtooth Mountain. We traveled here once as newlywed expats in Japan, keen for an adventure. We rented a Nissan Cube and the tolls out of Tokyo cost more than the car. I remember it in the pouring rain, but when we come again, a decade later, it is a warm and shiny February stunner.
We take the back trail this time, climbing impossibly steep stone steps too shallow for human feet to comfortably tread. Birdsong is all around. These are the paths that workers took to the old quarry at the mountain, in ruins now but no less imposing as a result. Tokyo Bay glitters and Mt. Fuji floats in the distance.
This mountain juts out at strange angles, very much the blade it is named for, but I find it reassuring and honest. It is sharp and unexpected—an ancient peak scarred by more modern practices. It is carved in slabs where the quarry workers harvested its flesh and in great statues of Buddhist deities. Arhats too are here, disciples of Buddha who have achieved enlightenment.
Each expression on these 1500 statues, the ones who still boast their heads, is different: peaceful, enraged, joyful, bereft. I know these feelings too.
We don’t tarry too long at these sights. We know where we are going. Down again the other side of the mountain to the Nihon-Ji Temple grounds, we reach the giant Daibutsu, a statue of the Buddha of Healing. To one side, surrounded by cherry trees just beginning to bloom is Ojizō-sama, humble and heartening, and a welcome sight.
Below him lie hundreds of little figures, his own small doubles, placed there by seekers of all kinds. We carefully take out our own Jizo statue, which sadly doesn’t match the others, and gently place him amongst his brothers. We will buy the small temple statues too, a kind of insurance policy against the possibility our version isn’t aesthetically appreciated.
We cry and take pictures.
We kneel and send our agnostic prayers to the sky, to Jizo, to our son, to the cherry blossoms beginning to grow.
We are not Buddhists, but a cultural United Methodist and a lapsed Irish Catholic seeking new holy ground. We don’t mean to culturally appropriate, but where does one turn when a baby dies before its birth? There is no ritual for this in our cultures. We held a memorial service, full of love and sorrow and community, but how does one memorialize this kind of a life?
We have few memories, we’ll never know the color of his eyes or the sound of his laughter. We cannot reach back and make him live again in our minds. He didn’t live that way. Yet, he did live. He was our sweet and mysterious third child. Our son Colm, who never drew breath but whose kicks and turns still echo faintly in my womb.
So, in reverence and deep respect, we borrow Jizo, we join the Japanese ritual, an ocean away from the city in which he died and was born.
Even as we are alone here, we join in the collective and ancient grief of bereaved parents.
A very private yet public act of mourning: the placing of a token at the feet of an idol, a pilgrimage made to honor a deep and terrible loss, the lighting of a candle and the bowing of a head in prayer or sorrow or gratitude (or all three). It is the joining of a larger tribe, a declaration that our son belongs somewhere. These hundreds of other small statues and the hundreds of losses or narrow misses or sorrows they signify companion us in our grief. We are not alone.
We leave this holy place reluctantly, putting one foot in front of the other up the hill again. My heart grows lighter with each step. Something lost, yes, but something gained too. It feels like a sigh of relief after a long cry. It feels like being in fellowship with grief, not its adversary. This is the cathartic integration of that aforementioned life-changing pain, it is becoming part of the larger story of our lives. These are the first glimmers of light on the horizon, even as we still wander in the darkness.
But here, atop Nokogiri-yama, the sky is impossibly blue, and in it I see boundless hope. I see my beautiful son, not alone, but surrounded by love.
Has the world felt smaller or bigger after your loss? What rituals have unexpectedly found you and complemented your grief? Has the companionship of loved ones or strangers felt like a ritual?