The experience of mourning: a social question but not (yet) social

by Claudia Ravaldi
CiaoLapo Onlus
CiaoLapo Onlus

Spain, Italy and Greece are among the European countries that today show the greatest cultural difficulty in approaching death, mourning and mourning.

The experiences of parents affected by perinatal bereavement in these three countries are in fact still very far from those narrated by the parents of the Anglo-Saxon countries, but also, surprisingly, from those narrated by our grandparents.

“A bereavement that is not spoken of is a bereavement that does not heal”

Spanish proverb

to Gisella, to Veronica, to Elena.

With equal mourning and events, in fact, until the early 1960s, especially in towns and small villages, there was a deep-rooted “social” culture of mourning, for which those who were part of a community participated in the mourning of others, children I understood, and those in mourning knew they could count on the sharing of the farewell rituals and on the emotional but also practical support of those close to them.

The “rites” were well codified, both in relation to the body of the deceased, and in relation to the support of relatives and friends.

It was perfectly obvious, then in our country as today in Northern European countries, the importance of “staying close” to the painful person, making available one’s time or energy, physical or emotional: it was considered normal to provide practical help, and repeated over time, and maintain a respectful distance (read: don’t intrude, and don’t override the mourner in his or her decisions about grief and afterlife).

Thinking of the context at the time, I would like to say that the right distance is an active distance , allowed by being close in a vigilant, open and available way, without overwhelming people with their experiences, their advice, their exhortations to get better. . Without having to persuade or convince. Next to, but not on. Close enough to allow the mourner to appreciate our presence without feeling tossed about in emotions or thoughts or decisions out of time, out of place, out of proportion for the acute situation he is facing.

At a certain point, I don’t know how, it happened that three of the countries in the world cradle culture, literature, the natural passionate expression of emotions in all the arts and in all contexts, (passion understood as a lifestyle, they told me the English Sands colleagues in 2007, amazed that perinatal bereavement was still a taboo for us), have lost the value of sharing in mourning .

Our grandparents were the first to “rebel against death”: too many relatives and friends who died in the war, too much hunger, too much everything. They jumped the ball of progress, they probably thought they didn’t “deserve” more pain, and they progressively moved away from death , expelling it from their homes, often also ousting “incurable” disease, denying room for more pain and more mourning . They acted in the opposite way to the Spanish proverb, keeping inside, sometimes for a lifetime, shreds of pain always alive, repressed in a corner, hidden but not defeated, beautifully ignored, with all the physical and psychological consequences of the case.

The funeral rites from the seventies onwards have often been transformed into “due acts”, replaced when possible by formal telegrams, donations and good works, and the shared space has gradually disappeared , which today ends in a visit to the mourner at the time of loss.

The next generation, that of our parents, is perhaps the first to have been deprived of the “words” of mourning, to have no historical experience of socially shared mourning, which remained the stuff of old, too religious great-grandmothers. Our generation, that of thirty-forty-year-olds, moves in an even different landscape than that of our parents or uncles. We are the generation “protected” par excellence from pain . Kept away, as far as possible, from illness and death, and excluded, “for our good” from funeral rites, from farewell rites from the sight of the dead body.

Our generation is the one that woke up one day without a child, and without mourning for that child.

Because over the years not only have social and shared rites been lost, but also the memory and direct experience, or narrated, of what mourning is, and what the elaboration of mourning means . Which has disappeared from common language, reserved only for “insiders”, and has become synonymous with weakness, danger, misfortune, irreparable damage, even mental illness. Mourning has gone from being a natural part of private and social life to a “dangerous” cancer to be eradicated at all costs. We have tried to transform it into a disease and to treat it as such, we have tried to trivialize it as a natural event which should not be given weight (and whoever does it has a problem). An attempt has been made to offer “specialist care” for a physiological event that only makes people ill if not elaborated.

To avoid falling ill from unresolved grief , and therefore to avoid turning grief into depression, anxiety, and the whole well-known spectrum of diseases that still frighten the public today, but not enough to stimulate public opinion to prevent them , it would therefore be desirable to reflect on three points:

  1. it is necessary to bring grief back into a shared social dimension , in which people who meet a few weeks after a mourning event do not have to struggle to find words or gestures appropriate to the social and relational context in which they are living. It is necessary to learn from our grandparents the simplicity of forgotten gestures, the narration around these events that is testimony and not mere gossip.
  2. it is necessary that the mourner makes a further effort and becomes responsible for himself and his mourning, without relying on the first one who passes by, whether it is a single “expert” or a “community of parents who share the same experience”, remembering that we come from a context in which the shared experience of grief and its elaboration is lacking, and in this context is easy to fall into misunderstandings or errors which, instead of promoting the elaboration of mourning, hinder it.
  3. social does not mean social . We are the “middle” generation between the early 1950s televisions and the “digital natives”. Many of us have turned to the internet out of social desperation. Finding nothing that would support us in our mourning in our cities, clinics, hospitals, churches, local authorities and so on, we opened the internet in the spasmodic need to be recognized , welcomed, supported, with the “right distance”, that of above, cultural heritage of our grandparents. We wanted someone to use our words, the ones that echo inside when mourning erupts. We wanted to understand, to deepen self-taught, alas, what you feel inside, when a bereavement occurs, if it is normal, what to expect and what to leverage to get better. We thought that from social to social it was a short step and the difference was minimal. If my karate teacher looks at me with a frightened eye and urges me to get better and do another one, if my mom asks me not to cry because that way I make her feel bad too, if I’m alone, and I feel desperate and misunderstood, my social network does not exist and the social network is so attractive that it seems real to me, that it seems safe for me and for my grief.

While mourning within us explodes and tears us to shreds, it often happens that, due to an excess of love and concern for us, or an excess of fear of mourning or pure indifference for a mourning considered “minor”, people without culture of mourning and the language of mourning do not do their choral and social part to help us elaborate. They don’t know where to go , having lost the social coordinates to express condolences and participate in a ritual. It doesn’t matter if they are best friends, the women I spent the last few years of my life with, the priest who married me, the doctor who is like a brother, or even my husband.

Illiteracy of the language of mourning affects everyone, it has affected us all over time due to the lack of a shared culture. Many moms have admitted that before it happened to them, they themselves had never thought about perinatal bereavement, the impact it has on people’s lives, and how best to approach a person in pain.

This social inexperience belongs to us culturally and we should always keep it in mind, both on a social level and above all on a “social” level:

  • it is not enough to have experienced the same type of grief to have grief processing experience , as well as,
  • the individual experience, shared in a group , has immense value only if the purpose of sharing is to mourn, a complex operation that requires up to three years of one’s commitment and one’s life dedicated to this and not to keep eternally alive a part of one’s identity, that of the grieving mother who tells her mourning to newly arrived mothers as if it were universal mourning, as if all mourning were like this, as if his point of view were the only possible one.

With respect to the social context, represented by different people with different ways and gestures and different lives, gathered around the painful person because the painful person is the primary object of care and attention, the social context, with the proliferation of groups especially on facebook, does not have as its primary focus the treatment of the mourner , because it is composed entirely of mourners, who continue to hurt and are in an acute phase of their mourning, and often they do not have the professional or experiential tools to “facilitate the group” and therefore promote a healthy mourning process, some before and some after, in all members.

Mourning needs many tools to be properly processed. A shared experience is not enough, if not supported by a good culture of mourning and listening, by an objective occurrence elaboration of one’s personal mourning and from the recovery of all those experiential passages well known to our grandparents and completely unknown to us.

A bereavement that is not spoken of with preparation , respect and culture is a bereavement that does not heal .

Claudia Ravaldi
Psychotherapist doctor

Founder and President of the CiaoLapo Onlus Association

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