The pain eaters

by Claudia Ravaldi

In Urdu there is a saying that I love: “ghum-khaur”. It means “eaters of pain”, and identifies the community that gathers around those who are grieving, to absorb the torment. In that language there are no words to define a pain experienced in solitude; the very idea of the privacy of loss is missing.

An entire village is needed to mourn.
C. Ravaldi

In recent days a well-known English TV series, The EastEnders has addressed and deepened the theme of perinatal death by telling the story of Shabnam Masood, one of the protagonists of the series, struck by death in utero at the end of her pregnancy. The argument, difficult and at the same time deeply felt by public opinion due to the high rate of perinatal death that afflicts England ( 17 children a day , according to the latest information campaigns), was faced with sensitivity and wisdom, also thanks to the collaboration of the authors with SANDS , the association that for over thirty years has been promoting correct support and social awareness on the subject of perinatal death (we ourselves were supported by SANDS in the first associative steps, many years ago). The episode, which describes perinatal bereavement in an honest and realistic way, tells the reactions of the couple, of the operators, and delicately describes the good practices of first psychological and emotional assistance to be offered in the hospital, both to the couple and to the close relatives. The reactions of the English press, of the bereaved parents and of the fans of the series have been surprising, at least for us Italians. The newspapers gave wide coverage not only to the episode, but also to the subject dealt with , both from an emotional and a practical point of view; the bereaved parents took up the news by offering support to the parents with the most recent bereavement, so that the viewing of the episode was not too stressful for them. The fans showed empathy: many of them tried to understand, enter different points of view, putting themselves in the shoes of the family and the operators.

Moving, for me, who for ten years have been trying to promote all this in a state where perinatal mourning is not spoken of, and when it does, it is often talked about inappropriately, with tones light years away from those of the press and of the international public opinion.

No one expects that in the next episode the smiling couple exclaim: we will soon have another child, life must go on.

No one expects the couple to go to the Caribbean to “get a little distracted”, or to throw away all the baby’s belongings or tear his photos, or buy two dogs to get out of this grief.

No one in England expects mourning to disappear within a week of the funeral, or at the latest with the arrival of the head of the ward.

Nobody thinks it’s just “women’s stuff,” that it’s not about fathers, and that fathers’ job is to support mothers, as if they weren’t in mourning themselves.

No one trembles for bereaved couples to “think positive”, or find, in record time, “what’s good in this event that fate / God / fate / karma has set for you.”

Incredibly, from the very first moment, the message that passes, clear, both verbal and non-verbal, is the possibility of taking all the time possible to start taking the first painful steps in this tragic and overwhelming experience of death.

I am very grateful to the English cultural movement and more generally to Northern Europe, for having managed to naturally promote what in Italy they want to pass as bizarre or pathological.

In these thirty years SANDS has worked hard, parents have worked hard, to be part of a change that is good for everyone, and promotes resilience.

Dealing with your grief together with your community creates health, even if it takes a long time.

Catherine Dunne writes it well, and it could not be otherwise, in an article in The Irish Times a few years ago, taken up and translated in a brilliant way by Federica Sgaggio in her blog .

Catherine tells the pain as it is. It tells what resilient parents know well from having lived it, year after year on their own skin. It tells without frills, without attempts at consolation, without dramatic tones, what is a possible, healthy, path of elaboration of a mourning that is a real challenge to the psyche of women and their families.

If your community of belonging supports you on this path, showing respect, interest and trust in your ability to do it, with your ways and with your times, it is easier.

To mourn, you need an entire village.

Enjoy the reading.

“It is ten to six on the morning of February 28, 1991. My pains stop and my little one enters the world slipping silently into it. Too quietly. I learn that the Gulf War is over. It seems that another battle is over here as well. My midwife Caitriona wraps Eoin in green hospital sheets and hands him to me. “It’s nice,” he tells me.

I take it, hug it to me, surprised at how warm its body emanates. But yes, of course: he only has a few minutes. The cold will come later.

I caress his face. “Poor little mouse,” I say.


Our vigil lasted all night. There was my doctor, Patricia; Caitrìona; other midwives whose names I have forgotten, and my husband.

Each of us, in turn, cried, laughed, told stories and jokes, moving in and out of suffering. It was one of those occasions when the deep meaning of things seems to hide behind the most common objects: behind a cup, for example.

A detachment of the placenta, Patricia told me. I had never heard of it. It is when the placenta separates from the walls of the uterus.

«Abruption», they say in English. And that’s exactly how it happens: out of the blue, suddenly. The child, a tiny astronaut, plummets out of his protected and self-sufficient world, spinning into an atmosphere where there is another kind of gravity.

He did NOT suffer, Patricia assured me. For him it was like going to bed.

“Why me? Why us? », I wondered silently.

When he arrived, the answer was ‘why not?’


TWO days later, we’re out shopping. Eamonn just bought a present for her little brother. He takes for Eoin an object similar to the blue blanket, what he holds most dear to his heart in his life as a child. We buy it, pack it, head home. I am amazed at the courage of this eight-year-old boy.

“I WANT to take his hand,” he said after we explained what had happened. He looked solid, determined. The nurses watched him as he unwrapped the green embossed cover, took his brother’s cold fingers in his.

They left in silence, returning shortly thereafter with sodas, cookies and a plate of leavened cakes covered in blue icing and Smarties.


People told me it was going to take me some time. And it took a while, but not in the way they intended. The days lost all clarity, fading muffled into the nights. The weeks collapsed into each other, hollowed out, like limp and shapeless objects. I washed, dressed, cleaned, drove, ironed, directed housework, cried.

The ONLY thing I didn’t do was look at the open suitcase on my bedroom floor; look at all those packages full of promises, which I had not been able to take with me to the hospital, so that I could leave them behind.

SHIRTS, rompers, diapers.


IN those first few days, I struggle to figure out why formerly friendly people pass across the street upon seeing me; because the conversation is as smooth and fragile as glass; because people keep their distance from this death as if its fragments have the power to make them bleed. I struggle to try to understand how to reply to those who tell me that I have “an angel in heaven”, or that as a child I will have another: as if children, people, were replaceable.

AND AS I laboriously make my way along the path of those first few weeks, I am overwhelmed by the desire for a sign to be visible: something that shows the world that I am a mother devastated by her grief. I am reminded of the black stones sewn into my father’s sleeve when my grandmother died. It occurs to me how people bowed their heads as he passed in greeting, squeezed his hand, touched his elbow. In those little signs of recognition of his loss, strangers and neighbors, without distinction, offered him consolation.

I miss THIS; or at least something like that.


IN Urdu there is a saying that I love: “ghum-khaur”. It means “eaters of pain”, and identifies the community that gathers around those who are grieving, to absorb the torment. In that language there are no words to define a pain experienced in solitude; the very idea of the privacy of loss is missing.

My first “pain eater” was a man named John O’Donoghue. He is a “thanatologist”, one – in short – who deals with death and dying for study reasons. He spoke at a conference seven weeks after Eoin was born and was defiant, vigorous and persuasive. He energetically lashed out at the idea that pain could simply be removed.

LISTENING TO HIM, I felt the first spark: the return to life was possible. Not simply acceptance or the ability to come to terms with events, but the possibility of a full and unconditional reinvestment in life and vitality.


A short time is ENOUGH; and I understand what it means to be a family, what it means to have friends. I understand what I can ask of one and the other during my long, slow return. I also learn that the parable of pain does not move according to a standardized timing, that there are no obligatory steps that can be clearly marked with a check mark: I have been there, this has been done. It is a process. A thing that moves like the tide; that one day takes the earth from under your feet and the next day supports and consoles you.


WHEN it comes to pain, some clichés are generally taken for granted. Kind people wanted to let me know that the first six months are the worst, then things would be easier. After the first year, you will see, there will be a turning point. You will begin to feel better.

WELL. Yes, but also no. If there really was such a thing as an automatic and linear progression towards the return to life, then what could explain, in the front row at the O’Donoghue conference, the presence of all those people in years ahead?

MORE than seventy, they confessed that they had never been able to come to terms with the death of their children. Society had accepted their mourning by falling silent in refusal to say the unspeakable.

They did NOT have the equipment, they said; they had no knowledge, understanding, support. And so they had been consumed for decades by their own private sadness. For them there had been no “eater of pain” There had been no acknowledgment that theirs was a pain that demanded to be seen, shared, softened by the possibility of talking about it and the encounter with someone’s tenderness . The return to life had remained beyond them, forever beyond their reach.

I was very struck by the understanding of how crucial the ritual is for the return to life. In its absence, we are left without a point of departure, of take-off, of separation between the past and the future. We remain suspended in the air, in the shadows, unable to go back, and without any will to move forward.

WE ARE programmed for pain, it seems. It is our reaction to the strength of the bonds that hold us together. It is a confused and complex emotional process, that of the “reabsorption” of loss and the return to life. With a child who died at birth, there is no past to regret with legitimate torment – which in itself represents a further loss – but there is still the need to make peace with all the infinite future possibilities that we will never be allowed to realize.

And THERE IS an even heavier fact to look at. Although fathers and mothers are heartbroken by the loss of a child who is a child to both, in reality they each feel their own pain separately.

SOME argue that in relationships it is necessary to become fully aware of a fundamental difference: that for mothers a child is – even if others do not perceive it – an enormous material presence throughout the period of time in which the pregnancy proceeds. For fathers, materiality often becomes clear only at the moment of birth. There is a disconnection, a deviation of perception; a different look at loss.

FOR both it is devastating, but for each it is different.


The comfort of the ritual; the company of the “pain-eaters”; learning how to live from moment to moment; the acquisition of the awareness of the power of spoken and written words: all this accompanied me in crossing that passage.

Plotting a diagram of the stages of returning to life is just as difficult as expecting to experience your pain progressively, a little at a time.

BUT taking four years into account is a conjecture that, yes, it’s as good as any other. To me, at that moment the pain stopped ambushing. It moved to a different register and acquired a new key. Eventually the strong feeling of having been spared by fate began to grow. It was accompanied by the oil spill of guilt: how could it have happened that it was I, and not my son, who had survived? But little by little, in the years immediately following, another perception gradually became prevalent: that I had been given another chance.

I BEGAN to perceive life as a gift, in a literal sense.


I BEGAN to write like a possessed woman. The sense of emptiness gradually faded away. I could concentrate again, sleep again, rejoice again at the birth of other people’s children. The world no longer showed itself to me in black and white. It was animated by more subdued colors, by shades of light that overshadowed the darkness. The revival shoots that I had once glimpsed were becoming robust plants; still at risk of freezing – yes – but, despite everything, deeply rooted in the future.

AND WRITING put me back into the world.


EOIN is still part of my daily life. Even if it is no longer that blinding light that, right in the center of my forehead, obscures everything else, Eoin remains beside me. A delicate presence, a demanding guide. Eoin taught me that pain is, more than anything else, a sense of separation so drastic and acute that even now, twenty years later, I can get back in touch with that feeling without the slightest difficulty, although is anything but a trivial emotion.


IF I wish things had turned out differently? Of course. She would be about to turn twenty now, and I often imagine her at the table with me. I reserve his personal decorations on my Christmas tree for him, and a place just for him wherever I am.

BUT it is a place that is in harmony with the rest of my life.


JOHN O’Donoghue compared the early days of grief to a huge photograph placed in the house, an image of the dead child towering over the mantel, on the walls of the room, in the lives of anyone sharing that space. Gradually, the image needs to resize; it is still where it used to be, but it is no longer dominant.

IT TAKEN time: time that has no longer been stolen, but used: in order to gain a foothold in the hellish circle of pain.

NOW, Eoin has the size of a passport photo, so I can take it with me wherever I go. My travel companion, my son, my teacher.

I CANNOT help but wonder what it would look like.

When I happen to wonder, I just have to look at his brother.

And I smile. “

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