Pregnancy Loss, Ritual, and Eco-Art Therapy 2020

Pregnancy Loss, Ritual, and Eco-Art Therapy with Ellen Speert, A.T.R.-B.C., R.E.A.T.

Pregnancy loss through miscarriage, still birth or abortion is often highly emotional as it brings together the two powerful experiences of birth and death. Yet in the United States few rituals exist which honor this loss. Perinatal death often goes unmarked by those outside the immediate family (Davis, 1996, Speert, 1992).

This is not true in Japan. Mizuko kuyo, which means “water baby” is a widely practiced ritual commemorating these babies who die at birth (Wilson, 2009, Smith, 2013, Homans, 2000, Bays, 2003). Along forests paths, beside roads and in cemeteries throughout Japan,
thousands of statues and carved rocks honor Jizo, the Buddhist boddhisatva (deity) who
watches over and protects these water babies. The shrines are decorated with gifts of flowers, coins and pinwheels left by passers by, so the ritual lives on in the lives of the bereaved families as well as their communities.

Increasingly, this Buddhist observance, along with some simple art making experiences, is being adopted in America. Despite the large number of perinatal deaths in the US, the mother’s (and father’s) need for mourning often goes unmet (DeFrain, 1986, Speert, 1992). Although parents come together in the joy of birth, they are often left isolated in their grief following pregnancy loss, since friends and family feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped to discuss this death. “A major theme that appears again and again in discussion of pain around abortion and other pregnancy losses is the lack of rituals in American society. When a pregnancy loss of any type occurs, it seems that a large number of Americans feel culturally unprepared and bereft of indigenous religious resources to help them deal with the pain” (Wilson, p. 183).

As therapists know all too well, the suppression of grief can exacerbate, prolong or complicate the mourning process. Rituals around this process of mourning, help heal human grief. In fact, much of the water baby ceremony, as it is now practiced in the United States, can be seen as a group therapeutic arts experience (Aria, 2008), stimulating all five senses. The practice can include the making of significant artifacts, chanting or singing, breathing in the scents of nature and perhaps incense, and the sharing of food. Nature settings are a significant part of the ritual, so we include eco-art therapy into the process. When this is performed within a group context, the shared experience further supports these bereaved parents.

In this workshop we will present a brief overview of perinatal loss in the US and information on Jizo and the Buddhist ritual of mizuko kuyo in Japan and in the US. Through ritual, poetry and art making participants will have the opportunity to explore how this can be incorporated into their clinical practices in working with bereaved parents individually and in groups. Although this topic may evoke emotional responses, the facilitator is experienced in holding a safe space for processing the feelings that may emerge.


Arai, P. K. R. (2008). Women and dogen: Rituals actualizing empowerment and
healing. In S. Heine and D. Wright (Eds.), Zen Ritual. Oxford University Press.

Bays, J.C. (2003). Jizo Bodhisattva, Shambhala.

Davis, D. L . (1996). Empty cradle, broken heart: Surviving the death of your baby.
Fulcrum Publishing.

DeFrain, J. (1991). Learning about grief from normal families: SIDS, stillbirth and
miscarriage. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 17(3), 215-232.

Peppers, L. (1980). Adjustment to perinatal death. Psychiatry, 43, 155-159.

Smith, B. (2013). Narratives of sorrow and dignity: Japanese women, pregnancy loss,
and modern rituals of grieving. Oxford University Press.

Speert, E. (1992). The use of art therapy following perinatal death. Art Therapy:
Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 9(3), 121-128.

Wilson, J. (2009). Mourning the unborn dead: A Buddhist ritual comes to America.
Oxford University Press.


Drone Track
Friday, March 28, 2020
2:30 – 6PM
3 CEs
Room TBD
Presentation #109

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