Perinatal bereavement and children

by Claudia Ravaldi

Whose is perinatal bereavement? Who suffers the most? Is it a private and therefore unsharpable mourning? Do children notice the pain of their parents? Should parents keep children out of bereavement and the event that affected their family or include them in the process of processing? Is bereavement “grown-up stuff”? If I have lost a baby, what do I tell the brothers who have been waiting for him for a long time? How can I prevent them from suffering? How can I brace myself so that they don’t notice I’m dead inside?

These are just some of the questions that in these ten years of activity on perinatal bereavement I have been asked, by email or in face-to-face consultancy. The questions come mostly from women, from grieving mothers, sometimes from aunts or grandmothers, more rarely from fathers. In recent years, questions have begun to arrive from teachers and educators, grappling with the mourning of a child inserted in their classes.

Perinatal bereavement is still little recognized in our society and among professionals. We still wonder about the lawfulness of this bereavement, about the fact that it is good and right for parents to elaborate it with their ways and their times, often there are serious prejudices about “how much” mourning is, about “when” it should end and on the “how” this type of mourning is elaborated.

Parents are often asked to “be strong” and look to the future with optimism, quickly. Often the children already present are used as leverage, to “spur” the parents to be strengthened, to get well soon.

In all this ignorance, we very often miss the couple we are supposed to support, and all the people who gravitate to the couple.

Including any other children, often still small, sometimes teenagers from previous marriages, who remain cut off from any kind of assistance and support program, forgotten in a corner out of the grief that their parents are experiencing, yet so terribly exposed to their own. to this mourning, and its physiological consequences.

I wonder why in Italy it is not possible to think of mourning as a “systemic”, collective event, which affects and conditions not only those who are directly affected (the woman who loses the child she was expecting) but all those who gravitate around this woman, and they relate to her. Why do we “use” any children present as a means to mourn, often in a forced manner, rather than considering them, as is already the case in other European countries, as part of the mourning process, worthy of attention and support? Why can’t we see them as the end of the elaboration process?

The focus of the intervention after perinatal bereavement should be not only medical, but as I have already written hundreds of times also psychological.

This supportive intervention should be provided in hospitals and counseling centers as part of the treatment, and therefore with a sustainable cost for families, it should be addressed not only to the woman, but to the couple and children and, when requested, to the closest relatives and close friends, with whom the waiting is shared, which in turn they are affected by grief and often remain on the sidelines of any possibility of support.

If children are already present, support should always be offered to parents to deal with the bereavement with them. Not FOR them, or THANKS to them, but WITH.

Yet children after perinatal bereavement are often pushed aside. They go into stand-by , and orient themselves as they can, often based on their temperament and the bond they have established over the years with their parents and family members. They do what they can, thanks to their innate but not infinite resources, sometimes closing themselves off in a parallel world waiting for their parents to return to their former ones, sometimes taking the place of their parents by taking on the burden of looking after them, and making them smile again. How much work for a small person who is growing up and should receive support from adults, stimuli to grow and find the way to face life events from time to time.

We leave the children of bereaved families alone, from time to time “too young” to understand what happened or “too old, too adolescent” to attempt contact. We leave them alone, and we even fear them. How much sim patia we try, for those children unfortunate ! How many (bad) things we would like to say from time to time to mothers who are not done enough strength, and they can no longer go to the playgrounds because there are other babies’ prams, how much we would like to suggest to them hurry to mourn , otherwise the children they are bad .

This is the synthesis of the most frequent intervention in our society.

To be personally afraid of grief but still dispense solutions for the grief of others.

Being afraid / pitying / pitying the bereaved child.

Judging parents for their inability to “brace themselves” after bereavement.

It is quite obvious that this is NOT a therapeutic intervention.

I hope the insiders are aware of this. I hope they are aware of the damage that this social and professional “ neglect ” causes in bereaved children and young people.

I hope it is clear that asking a bereaved parent to take charge of the bereavement of others, at a time when resources are running low, is a form of sadistic violence, where offering support that aims to implement everyone’s resources allows parents to focus on both their own grief and that of their loved ones. This ability to broaden the “focus” to a more systemic and not exclusively personal dimension allows parents to more easily find stimuli and resources to mourn and, consequently, to have more tools to manage mourning and everything else. of their daily life with their children.

And then, perhaps, we should begin to view grief from a systemic and social perspective. Instead of decreeing “those who suffer the most” and offering support only to women, instead of harassing women and couples with pressing invitations to “feel good” in the name of their “children”, perhaps we could replace our sympathy with the more functional empathy. And being, being there, tolerating that grief affects the whole family and engages it in complex dynamics for a long time. Tolerate to observe in an available and present way, without intervening with unnecessary forcing. Leave the couple and their children free to experience THEIR grief, and free to ask for help and support when needed.

We need to have faith in the resilience of parents, and that of their children. We must be able to foster it, we must leave them free to cultivate it, witnesses of a process of elaboration that is also an opportunity for growth, for individuals and for the family.

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