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Why the language we use around baby loss matters

It’s always difficult to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve lost a baby. And that’s partially because we quite literally don’t have the words in English.

In Japanese, the word ‘mizuko’ refers to a miscarried, stillborn or aborted embryo, foetus or baby, which translates as ‘water baby’. Japan is one of the only countries that has a specific word for a child who has died before they’re born.

The idea of the ‘water baby’ stems from Buddhism which believes in a gradual shift from liquid to solid rather than a sharp line between life and death. They believe that a water baby stays a liquid, leaving the amniotic fluid and returning to the original liquid state for eventual rebirth.

Unlike Japanese, the English language puts the emphasis on the process (miscarriage, stillbirth) rather than the people who it has happened to. We tend to add words like ‘lost’ to existing nouns like ‘baby’, which hints at a kind of going wrong or failure. Instead, a mizuko is a complete and specific kind of being, supposed to go through that liquid-to-liquid journey, and existing entirely in its own right.

Why does it matter? Not having a word to describe the children we’ve lost makes it even harder for society to acknowledge our pain and support us. In other words, language impacts the kind of rituals (or lack of) we put in place as a society.

So to anyone who is struggling but cannot find the words, this is for you. We see your water babies, we see your pain, and we’re here.