Special mothers: parenting after perinatal bereavement

by Claudia Ravaldi

We publish with great satisfaction the Interview with Dr. MP Valentina Giuliano, who graduated with us in anthropology with a study on “special mothers”: what they are, who they are, and why they should be supported.

The research project, which lasted a year and conducted through the ethnographic method, brought to light the commemorative practices and the exercise of parenting in families who have lived the experience of perinatal bereavement in the area of Bologna and the province.

An introductory chapter is dedicated to the methodological question, where I dealt with the genesis of the research and the strategies implemented to communicate with families, in particular with mothers.

What are the main themes of your thesis?

The fundamental themes are: the processes of construction of memory, the strategies of adaptation to perinatal bereavement and the change of equilibrium within the family context. My thesis investigates the memorial practices employed by those who have lost a child during pregnancy or shortly after birth; I conducted a field research in the Bologna area, with the collaboration of the L’AURorA association which deals with the protection of prenatal and perinatal bereavement and works in the area together with CiaoLapo. I attended the self-help group of the association for a year and participated in the parties organized by it.

How did your interest in this culturally neglected topic come about?

I “stumbled upon” the reality of perinatal mourning randomly during the autumn of 2014, on the occasion of a visit of artistic interest to the Certosa Cemetery in Bologna; I noticed the presence of a space, inside a courtyard, dedicated to the burial of stillborn or deceased children shortly after birth. On their graves there were puppets, photos and flowers. I was determined to investigate the matter: in the beginning I looked for the presence of any psychological support desks for parents affected by perinatal bereavement in hospitals but I did not find any. In fact, there are self-help groups for those who have lost a family member or friend, for the parents of accident victims but there are no psychological support desks dedicated to perinatal bereavement. However, I found that this “clashed” with the practice of burying children in the courtyard of the Certosa and dedicating special funeral rites to them. In fact, the presence of fresh flowers and ever-new ornaments are proof that there is a “submerged” commemorative practice dedicated to children who died prematurely.

How did you decide to investigate the topic?

I investigated the web and discovered that in Italy there is CiaoLapo, an association for the protection and prevention of perinatal bereavement. It was founded by Claudia Ravaldi, a psychiatrist who lost her son, Lapo, during her pregnancy. Claudia was the first to define herself as a “special parent “; in one of his publications (Ravaldi 2014) he also clarified that the adjective “special” is to be understood in an etymological sense and that is to indicate belonging to a specific gender , in this case that of parents who have lost a child but who continue to feel strongly connected to it.

This meaning of the adjective “special” has become quite common in recent years among those who have lost a child in perinatal age, who thus define themselves as “special” mothers and fathers.

I also took part in the meetings of the self-help group of the L’AURorA association from the autumn of 2015 until the summer of 2016 and I observed many interesting aspects about their way of living parenting following the loss of a child. .

The grief is shared within the family, between partners and with any other children.

However, I noticed that the commemorative practices are carried out mainly by women, even the attendance of the group was all female during my field research. In fact, especially for women, the self-help group is a safe place in which to find comfort and keep the memory of one’s child alive through narration . In cases of perinatal bereavement, in fact, the lack of a shared experience with the unborn child deprives the parents of a memory from which to draw to find comfort. Within the group, however, the “special mothers” manage to build a collective memory “outside the belly” by sharing common experiences . For this reason, the self-help group is configured as a second family for “special mothers”, often preferable to the one of origin. However, there are events during the course of the year in which “special” mothers and fathers meet to commemorate their children together: this is the case of the Babyloss and the spring festival. In both cases, these are quite festive and emotionally charged events. In cases where the expectation of a new life is interrupted by a sudden death, parents feel helpless and confused. They often don’t know what to do because there is no established ritual for this type of loss . I have found that there are different types of funeral practices carried out by special parents but the most common is the use of materiality. In fact, through objects, parents are able to “activate” a relationship with their deceased child and maintain it over time. Attending graves where a flower or toy is placed on the child’s burial and buying Christmas gifts for their child are some of the ways in which “special parents” feel they are taking care of their missing children.

These are unconventional practices and are often little or not known at all; in fact, the “special parents” often feel alone in their pain and have difficulty in communicating with “others”, that is, with those who have not shared their own life experience. It must be borne in mind, in fact, that in different cultures, including ours, children become part of the world of adults through different types of rites of passage that take the form of a second birth, the social birth. Before this happens, however, the children find themselves in a liminal zone, outside the community of the adult world. We could say that in cases of perinatal bereavement there is no social birth and the child thus remains in limbo , until he is forgotten.

But the “special parents” wish to remove the memory of their children from oblivion and for this reason, through funeral practices and the activation of a collective memory, they can proceed in the elaboration of that parental relationship that is only partially experienced, little or nothing experienced. outside the pregnancy, and therefore to be able to place it in a defined and circumstantial space-time.

Valentina’s work once again puts the index on the importance of being able to “act in mourning”, through the recovery of relational practices, rituals and collective memory. This “acting” it allows to objectify that specific parental relationship, recognizing it as proper to that pregnancy and that child.

This psychic and psychosocial “work”, personal and shared, is considered by many scholars to be a necessary condition to process mourning and above all to undertake new pregnancies without projecting the ghosts of a suspended past into the unborn child and therefore still current and actualizable. With a significant advantage in terms of mental and physical health of the newborn and the couple.

In thanking Valentina for her research work with the special mothers of Bologna, I would finally like to underline how the interests of anthropology, sociology, psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry are converging on the theme of perinatal mourning, which add to the multiple interests that all artists and the arts in general have reserved over the centuries to the figure of the mourning mother or family. If different disciplines begin to reflect on such a deep-rooted social taboo as perinatal bereavement and life after bereavement, finding numerous “common” and converging results, it probably means that we are on the right path to transform the “prohibition” of speech. in “Word that Cures”. We can do it. It seems that the time has come.

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