Beyond the taboo of perinatal mourning

by Claudia Ravaldi
Mercury Press
Mercury Press

A few years ago I left, together with other CiaoLapo mothers, for Genoa. We were supposed to go to greet a little boy, Nicholas, the infant son of one of our mothers, who had passed away after two weeks of intensive care. After learning that he was dead, we were assailed by despair and disbelief. It was not possible for one of our rainbow children to die. It was not possible for another child to die to an already special mother. It wasn’t possible and it wasn’t fair, and it was scary.

Looking, holding and dressing a dead baby, beyond the taboo of perinatal mourning

by Claudia Ravaldi
(loosely based on an article by Alejandra Díaz Mattoni – translation by Sarah Goldman and Claudia Ravaldi)

We felt alone, helpless, afraid. We did not know what to do. We thought nothing made sense. That nothing could make that mother understand our closeness … except, perhaps, our closeness. And so we left, not knowing what we would say, or do, what we would find, and what it would be like. For many of us, this was the first encounter with death after the loss of our own child. The first authentic reflection with our pain, through the pain, different but the same, of one of us.

When we arrived in Genoa at the mortuary, the attendant had just let Nicholas out of his cell. He was wrapped in an operating sheet. He looked like he had just gotten out of surgery, there were still patches and gauze. Bandages, gauze and nothing else . I have been allergic to green sheets since I discovered they are the “clothes” of most of our children. The body of a dead child, so still and composed, is evidently extremely tiring to look at and very difficult to handle. It must be, otherwise this widespread need to wrap it in a sheet in bulk and pack it with adhesive tape cannot be explained. This practice is not written in any textbook or guideline.

This practice, however, is practice.

Certainly not in geriatrics (packing a grandfather, probably, would consume too much adhesive tape), but certainly in obstetrics. And many parents, desperate for the death of their children, fail to propose alternatives to this custom, and simply take what comes. For better or for worse.

Nic was there, with his determined face, his strong-willed chin, and his cold little hands.

It was there. He asked to be re-known, and then greeted, worthily. None of us had ever looked at a dead child for more than twenty seconds before. None of us had touched him, or dressed him.

At best, others had dealt with it separately.

At worst, it was all left unfinished, inside the green cloth.


Yet taking care of that dead child, and through him of his parents, seemed to us certainly not an easy and obvious act, but a duty. We have made simple gestures, with our hearts heavy with pain but relieved of this opportunity that has been offered to us , and that we have grasped without delay, moved by a sisterhood that does not need words.
Around that child, on that cold December day, there were many hands, of as many women from many parts of Italy. Those hands that welcomed, pampered, massaged and dressed a beloved child in the best possible way, then returned to the arms of their parents, incredulous and heartbroken.

That time we were able to be next to the mother and to comply with her requests for help. What would have happened if we didn’t get to go, or if we didn’t make it in time?
What happens when there aren’t the right times or the right people and parents can’t make requests for assistance?
If no family member takes the initiative, what happens to a stillborn baby or a stillborn baby?
Whose task is it to be with the parents and to facilitate the meeting and greeting with the child?

In most of the virtuous cases, and I have met many in these nine years of courses and training around Italy, it is the midwives , the NICU nurses together with the families who dress the child. At other times this task is delegated to pathological anatomy technicians , at other times to funeral directors. Still too many times, no one takes on this task, which in cases like ours is a meeting and greeting at the same time, it is the only possible opportunity for treatment, in the face of a whole life that of missed opportunities and unattainable dreams.

It is not just a “funeral ritual” for us parents affected by perinatal bereavement, but a ritual of meeting , welcoming into the family , re-acquaintance , even before leaving .

How can we, in fact, perform a funeral rite without first having recognized the appearance and features of the one we are crying? Bydlowsky herself reiterates, in more than one writing, the impossibility of carrying out the mourning process without having given a face to the expected and precociously missed child.

Therefore, dressing a dead newborn, or a stillborn child, has a double meaning : not only funeral, but even first of all celebrating the sacredness of a bond, the parent-child bond, which is not interchangeable, not viable, not reversible. We might as well come to terms with the experiences, testimonies and researches on thousands of parents and recognize that a gesture that is still so frightening and macabre for many today, is actually a rite of life and death, a total celebration that is and over time. it will be remembered above all as joy and belonging, and not just as pain and grief.

However, participating in this step as a witness is very difficult and complex, also for ministers of worship and professionals trained in emergency management, the article we have read and which we report in part below is a good example of how good will is not enough, and it is necessary to think of a support network not only for parents but also for the operators involved.

Alejandra Diaz Mattoni ( @alediazmattoni ) is a trainee pastor. He is becoming a pastor, and to do this, he carries out an internship in the hospital, where he brings spiritual and / or religious comfort to the patients and to their families. In a recent article, she recounted her experience with a couple of grieving parents and their dead baby girl . The mother, after an afternoon of dialogue, asked Alejandra if she could be the one to dress the child.

Alejandra tells us, with lucid pragmatism, what she saw and what she heard that afternoon. It speaks to us of a preparation that cannot be absolute, and cannot be non-specific. It reminds us of the opportunity to be present , and explains the task of those who assist a bereaved couple. He tells us about the difficulties associated with being there: it is possible to feel torn apart by those little bodies wrapped in mystery, it is possible to feel responsible for the well-being of parents in their difficult path of mourning and for what will become of them.

How to dress a dead child

“Usually it should be the funeral home attendant or morgue assistant, not a shepherd-in-training like me who dresses the dead, but this time I’m dressing the baby because her mom asked me to . The family I am caring for has just lost their baby and is different from the usual families I meet. He is grieving for the love of someone he lost minutes after meeting him. I don’t feel prepared for this load.
Their pregnancy was physiological. The labor lasted 12 hours, and went on at a normal pace, with no indication that the worst could be expected. The baby was born, breathed, and then went into respiratory distress and died during the afterbirth of the placenta. The nurse spoke to the mother, saying the usual ritual phrases . The sadness I heard in the nurse’s voice reminded me of a line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on a Wire”: “I have torn apart all those who have tried to come close to me.” I don’t know if the nurse realizes that the newborn didn’t want to destroy him at all: I’m becoming more and more aware of the fact that I could be the next to experience this state of mind. The hospital where I study treats the different types of pregnancies according to standard protocols. Since this appeared to be a “healthy” pregnancy, with no signs that the baby might die, the whole team, including the nurse and myself, were not prepared to deal with this eventuality .

They called me to visit the family in the late evening, after I had spent most of the day in the corridors of the emergency room. The contrasting calm of the room, a place where I have already come to bless a healthy born baby, is reassuring but also disturbing. The girl is in a cot at the end of the bed. The dad is sitting to the left of the mom. Both are exhausted, but they don’t cry. They whisper when they talk, as if they don’t want to wake their daughter. They do not ask me to pray for them nor do they ask me to celebrate rites. Their priest is due to arrive shortly, and they only called me because they thought it was the right thing to do. I feel the tension slide down my back with a sense of relief.

I am aunt to many grandchildren and have an endless vocabulary of words of joy that come out when I see children. However, despite all my training and experience as a pastor, I never knew what to say when children die .

At the heart of my aphasia are these words: “I’m sorry. This is the worst thing there is and I’m so sorry it happened to you, and no, I don’t know why it happened to you and I can’t really understand it, ”to say correctly. I can’t express how grateful I am when I feel I don’t have to pray for them.

The roots of my aphasia stem, in part, from the difference between what I believe – that this child is with God, that God shares their pain, and that this is God’s will – and what I am required to do: comforting a family that has just lost a daughter. I would be a “theologically correct” ass if I told parents that their daughter’s death is God’s will . Also, even though I’m sure God shares their pain, expressing it like this to them would be like saying, “Look, you are so sad for your little girl. But I am too and He is too. ” True, but definitely not very useful.

Like the other team members, I don’t think so much about the immediate situation as about the long-term health and well-being of the family. I was able to understand this pain a little better thanks to the Old Testament description of David losing his son, from the image of a person crossing the River Styx in Greek mythology, and from today’s theories on the stages of mourning. And therefore, when I look at the family, I see a couple on the river bank , weighed down by a static, miasmatic pain, a pain that makes them feel isolated .

On the other side of the river is their love, the possibility of a future child, and a life built without their little girl. In whatever form the parents express it, my role is to channel the pain so that I can allow them to look into these emotions, to get them to the other side of the river wet, but not drowned, under the weight of their loss.

My aphasia is therefore a choice.

The baby in the crib does not need my prayers but the parents must have someone walking by their side .

I don’t have to urge them to talk. The couple, as happens when people share a healthy and peaceful relationship, speak in turn and each is able to articulate and expand the thoughts of the other. They tell me about the pregnancy and their hopes for their daughter. The mother and father support each other by emphasizing the gestures – small and large – that the other has carried out in preparing for the birth.
Mom describes to me what went wrong during the birth, and dad tries to reassure her that everyone – including her – did everything they had to do, and that what happened was inevitable and in God’s hands.

Quickly, the conversation changes, and now I hear the hopes they had for their daughter and how they envisioned their lives together. If at first we were a group of people in an oasis of reflection and apparent calm, at this point the room becomes a lake of tears .
After the tears there is a pause and the father and I go to the crib. With his thumb, he caresses the little girl’s ear, back and forth, as one does when one would like to soothe a troubled child. I ask the Creator to hug the child in the same way as a parent. And then, the parents talk about their love for her, and how they would like her to be happy. Each of them talks about what they will do when they get together again someday. We cry again, all three of us, as I say “Amen.”

I’m about to leave when Mom takes my hand and says, “I asked the nurse to bring the baby so I could dress her. But I don’t think I can do it . ” He looks at me and I look at the little girl. It would be cruel of me to ask a direct question, and even if there is a part of me that would like to ignore the unspoken question, I offer, “Would you like it if I dressed the baby?”

She nods.

The girl has her head full of hair and someone has put a small yellow bow on her. She is beautiful and perfect like all the other children I have met here. With the baby in my arms, I go to the other side of the room, away from mom and dad, to a large plastic bag full of new clothes left as donations to the ward. There are many white petticoats, each with an ark full of animals embroidered on the cotton. I see beautiful suits, but I focus on the most beautiful clothes. There is a pink linen sundress and a “princess” dress in blue. I take a simple petticoat along with a yellow dress, which is also simple except for the broderie anglaise and the pleated lace around the wrist and hem.
I open the snaps on the girl’s pants and then move my hand to my shoulder, so I open those buttons too. Out of habit, I try to hold the baby’s head still when I take off the leotard. Someone before me put a cloth diaper on her. I leave this one, partly because I don’t have another diaper available, but also because I’ve never been good at putting them on. The dress slips easily over the head. Instead, it’s a little bit harder to get my arms and hands in, which have gotten stiffer since I first picked her up. Soon, the little buckles on the back are closed and the slippers are on the feet.

I look to the parents, just moving the baby so they can see my work, and then ask if they want to keep it. They nod no. Before I put the baby down, I instinctively kiss her on the forehead. Parents don’t say anything. I hope the gesture was not inappropriate. I greet them and leave the room.

When the door is closed, I lean against the wall and breathe with relief. “

I dedicate this article to all the operators I have met in recent years, who carry out this meeting and greeting ritual with respect and attention , without receiving any support from colleagues or their superiors, moved only by their desire to support bereaved parents .

My gratitude goes to you.

Claudia Ravaldi

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