On a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen and co-host Sharon Salzberg sat down with writer and interfaith minister Barbara Becker to discuss her new memoir, Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind. When her closest childhood friend was diagnosed with cancer, Becker set out on a quest to live a year of her life as if it were her last. Drawing from a variety of wisdom traditions, Becker explored questions of what it means to be mortal and how turning toward death can help us live more fully. This journey eventually led her to train as a hospice volunteer and interfaith minister, accompanying patients at the bedside and helping families make sense of their loss.
During her conversation with Shaheen and Salzberg, Becker discusses many of the losses we tend to ignore—including miscarriage. Becker, who has experienced two miscarriages herself, believes strongly in the power of speaking openly about grief and loss. Over the years, she has arrived at a deeper sense of healing after her own miscarriages through seeking out communities of loss and participating in Buddhist rituals of mourning. Read parts of her journey below, and listen to the full episode here.
Finding community in loss
About 20 years ago, I had two miscarriages. At that time, we just didn’t talk about miscarriage in this society. For the most part, we were completely silent about that kind of loss, so much so that I hadn’t known that my own mother had experienced a miscarriage as well. As time went on, I found out that both of my grandmothers had also lost pregnancies and that my great-grandmother had died in childbirth. I was completely cut off from this long chain of interconnected loss because of the way we isolate ourselves in silence.
Years later, I decided to post about my own story on Facebook. On October 15, the National Day of Remembrance for Pregnancy and Infant Loss, I shared the names of the daughters I had lost, Arden and Adele. I was surprised by how many of my friends, men and women, wrote the names of their own losses in the comments. I think we all needed that space to finally say what had happened. There’s such community in loss, and sometimes it comes as a great relief to know that what we experienced is a common occurrence. It’s so important to know that we’re not alone.
Opening the door to compassion
After my first miscarriage, I signed up for a meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. At that point in my life, I was aware of the mindfulness movement writ large, but I wasn’t deeply aware of Buddhism. I had a sense that I needed to walk toward the loss I had experienced rather than run away from it, and I couldn’t think of a better way to turn toward it than to go on a meditation retreat.
On the retreat, my mind was monkey mind, jumping all over the place, reliving the miscarriage and the procedure to empty the contents of my uterus. Everything was coming back—all the gore and all the heartbreak. When this was happening, I spoke to one of the teachers, who shared with me that the real key to meditation was to watch the contents of my monkey mind without judgment. That was the first time that I experienced that space of compassion toward myself. I felt like doors opened during that time. I sometimes think that it’s the hardships of our lives that bring us closer to the big understandings. I have now been practicing for 25 years, and I give thanks to Arden and Adele, the children I never had, for bringing me to the dharma.
Slowing down through ritual
When I lived in Japan, I witnessed the ritual of mizuko kuyo, a ceremony honoring the water children, or children who are never born. The idea is that we are very much of the water, from conception to the waters of the womb, and then over time we solidify and become hardened adults. In Japan, many people who have lost children turn to the bodhisattva Jizo, a being who returned to this world for the benefit of lost children and travelers, guiding them into the next realm. In many temples, there are small Jizo statues dressed up in little outfits and they may be accompanied by images of children. These statues symbolize losses, from abortion or miscarriage, from stillbirth or a young child.
One year at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, we organized a mizuko kuyo ritual where we folded origami cranes in honor of all of our losses. It was such a moving experience. I went with my husband, Dave, and we each folded a crane, one for each of our lost children. The act of slowly creasing and uncreasing these little pieces of paper brought focus and attention to the loss we had experienced years before. There was a lot of silence and a lot of tears in the room that day. Even to this day, those little paper cranes hang across the entrance to the zendo, offering another reminder of how the dead truly are still a part of our life.
This is one of the powers of ritual—holding space for people whose lives we might not know that much about. It is important to commemorate them all. For me, the primary benefit of ritual is that it slows us down in a world that is moving at warp speed. Rituals invite us to be quiet and still. And they teach us that we are connected through time and place. A Lakota elder once told me that when he goes out and looks at the stars at night, he sees them as the campfires of his ancestors. To be that connected to a sense of history changes us on an elemental basis.
More on pregnancy loss from the Tricycle archive: