In the movie Gladiator (2000), the victorious but homesick general Maximus carries with him tiny, crude statues of his beloved wife and son. They are a reminder of home, but he also prays to them and for them, tenderly cradling the figures in his hand as he endures the pain of separation.
The figures become even more precious to him when he discovers that his wife and son are dead — tortured and murdered as political revenge.
Some Romans believed that the spirits of the dead were literally embodied in the figures, making them so much more than keepsakes. After he dies, his friend buries the statuettes in the sand of the Colosseum. We see brief, otherworldly scenes of Maximus returning home, of the three of them rushing together again.
I thought of those little figures as I read ‘The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage’ in the New York Times. The author, Angela Elson, says:
According to Buddhist belief, a baby who is never born can’t go to heaven, having never had the opportunity to accumulate good karma. But Jizo, a sort of patron saint of foetal demise, can smuggle these half-baked souls to paradise in his pockets. He also delivers the toys and snacks we saw being left at his feet on Mount Koya. Jizo is the UPS guy of the afterlife.
Elson bought a Japanese Jizo figurine for herself when she had a miscarriage. She says:
A miscarriage at 10 weeks produces no body, so there would be no funeral. “What do we even do?” I asked the doctor. She wrote me a prescription for Percocet: “Go home and sleep.”
We went home. I didn’t sleep. I spent a week throwing myself around the house … I was itchy with sadness. I picked at my cuticles and tore out my hair. I had all this sorrow and no one to give it to, and Brady couldn’t take it off me because his hands were already full of his own mourning. We knew miscarriage was common. But why wasn’t there anything people did when it happened?
So they bought a Jizo. She carried him around for awhile, kissed him, spent time crocheting a hat and jacket for the figurine. “It was nice for us to have something to do, a project to finish in lieu of the baby I failed to complete,” she says.
Oh, Lord, how I understand.
When I lost our own very young baby a few years ago around this season, it was so terribly hard to have nothing to do. No birth, no ceremony, no body to wash, anoint, and clothe, no grave to dig. We could pray and cry and rest, but it was so hard. We want to have our hands on something. We want to know for sure that the world acknowledges: Yes, the child was here. Yes, the child was real.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my dear friend Kate had felted a beautiful little dog for me. Just a few weeks before the miscarriage, our puppy Shane got overexcited by the snow falling, and he went and ran in the road, and he was crushed by a speeding car that didn’t even slow down. My husband and son retrieved the dying dog and brought him to the vet, where they gently put him down, then burned his body and sealed the ashes in a carved box.
The felted dog that Kate made is perfect, a brilliant, lively bit of work. But before she could send it to me in remembrance, my baby died, too – and she knew how terrible it would be to acknowledge the loss of a pet, but not the loss of a child. And so Kate’s daughter made a felt baby for me, sweetly embroidered and cuddled in a little hand-sewn pouch. They sent them both along, the puppy and the baby, with sympathies and assurances of prayers.
It was so good to have. So good. Even when looking at it made me cry, it was so much better than the pain of looking for my lost baby and finding nothing.
After a year or so, I thought we might use my little felt baby as a Baby Jesus in our nativity scene. I took it out, but then hastily put the little one back again. It was still too raw; and besides, this baby wasn’t Jesus. This baby was someone else, with a name and a human soul, a mother and a father and siblings. Hell, for six weeks, the baby was even sort of the owner of a foolish puppy named Shane.
My little felt baby wasn’t just any generic baby figure, but a specific baby, my baby. So back into the pouch the little one went. Back to the work of simply quietly existing, eyes closed, so that I wasn’t empty-handed. This baby does this job very well.
I forget it is there, most times. I keep it on the windowsill in the kitchen, where it gathers dust along with other little keepsakes, statues, and trinkets people have given me. But I went to check in on it one day, and couldn’t find it, and the panic almost knocked me off my feet. (I had moved it to the other side of the windowsill last time I cleaned. Oops!)
Does it really matter what happens to my felt baby? Not really. Certainly not spiritually, eternally speaking. We are not ancient Romans, superstitiously locating dead spirits in wooden figurines; and we are not Buddhists, clinging to a heartbreakingly vague hope of our children sneaking into blissed-out extinction.
As Catholics, we know that all the bodies of the dead will be resurrected and transformed when Jesus comes back. We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognised and called by name back home by their Father who made them.
Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths. Doctors and nurses, be gentle with women who have lost a child, even one too small to bury. Husbands, be patient, even if you don’t understand the depth of grief. Priests, take the time to acknowledge what happened, and do not be cavalier when answering spiritual questions or inquiries. Friends of a grieving mother, make it clear that you know the child she lost was a real child, irreplaceable, unlike any other.
Even as Catholics, we are one and the same with the fictional Maximus, because it gives us strength and hope to be able to touch and hold something connected to our dead. God made us with five senses, with hearts that reach out and seek comfort from earthly things, because these senses and these hearts can help remind us of what is true: That our lost children aren’t truly lost. They were really here, and they haven’t vanished forever. God willing, we will see them again.