Reading Phoebe Lambert’s article on “The Bereaved Counsellor” I felt challenged to make some shape of the thoughts that had been with me throughout the aftermath and burial of my father-in-law. It may seem like a strange thing to say but, after many years of therapy, group work and personal work with my partner, going through the aftermath of my Italian father-in-law’s death and burial were the most cathartic and healing to my “loss stuff” since the sudden deaths of my closest friends at 16 and 21 and of my beloved brother at 31. The Italians could teach us a thing or two about grieving and bereavement. As a Brit who had to face death at such a young age, I have wondered at the depth of my feelings and at how raw they could be so many years after the event.
Some of my clients are bereaved people, and some years ago I used to teach a bereavement awareness course for a local funeral directors, throughout which I have heard a rich seam of stories concerning how different cultures (both British and other) dealt with death and bereavement – many people bemoaning the fact that we have lost so many of our bereavement rituals, that death has become so separate from life, that we no longer even wear a black armband to indicate to the world our bereaved status.
Now that I have experienced the Italian way of death I can begin to understand so much more about both my own grief and that of the clients with whom I work. In the small Italian town within which my father-in-law was born, lived, raised his family and ran the family business, to be bereaved is a very public and community concern. Let me say from the start that this is in the cooler northern part of Italy where they rather frown on the breast beating, wailing, bereaved southern Italians. My father-in-law died outside his own front door – within an hour of his dying we were informed in Britain and within fifteen hours of his dying we were there thanks to the magic of booking flights via the Internet! By that time he had been placed in a coffin in the best sitting room of the house accompanied by an ever-lighted candle and was already surrounded by flowers brought by grieving friends, family and neighbours. An air conditioner was running to keep the room cool until the funeral directors arrived with a specially designed glass-topped, coffin-shaped, refrigerated unit which was placed on top of the coffin. It then became apparent that this unit was something of an obstruction to the grieving that had been happening before its arrival, my mother-in-law alternately slapping her husband’s face, berating him for dying, and weeping over him and telling him how much she loved him and was going to miss him. However, being Italians they weren’t going to allow a refrigerating unit to come between them and their feelings too much. Throughout the time we were there the house was inundated with people calling to pay their respects and give their condolences to the grieving family. Each visitor brought another story about the dead man, filling out a picture with such rich detail that an entirely other aspect was created to the man we had known. Each visitor brought more grief, triggered another cascade of tears, enabled the family to talk, laugh and cry some more. And between visits my mother-in-law reminisced about her husband of forty years, tumbling through stories of their life together, their meeting, their courtship, the hardships of their early marriage. We cried and laughed until we cried again. This went on for the three days leading up to the funeral, unseemly haste by British standards, but normal procedure in many other countries.
On the religious side (these are staunch Catholics) a priest came to the house on the first evening leading a rosary for family members (which seemed to also include neighbours with a disregard for such strictures as family only and whose presence no-one seemed to object to). This was as foreign to me, a non-Catholic, as everything else had been, but rich and full as the room full of people surrounding the deceased person intoned the well worn and oft repeated Ave Maria; my brother-in-law minding his one year old son (whose birthday it was that day) speaking the words just outside of the room within earshot of the priest and the small congregation. The next day a public rosary was held in the packed church fifty yards from the house, allowing more opportunities for people to pay their respects to the widow and family. And, on the third day, the funeral. The funeral directors arrived an hour before the funeral to take away the refrigerated unit, enabling (by standing at a respectful distance) the family to kiss, hold, stroke, water with tears the man who had died. I found my British reserve broken both by the tears and the touching of a dead body – it was profoundly moving – the respect shown by the funeral directors – the depth of feeling shown so publicly – the touching for one last time of the man who had meant so much to so many, and my husband tucking a dried edelweiss flower into his father’s breast pocket (they both loved the mountains they had grown up with). In time the men allowed us to know that they needed to get on with their job and out came the blow torch and solder!! They soldered a metal inner lid onto the coffin whilst we all watched and waited. Then came the coffin lid proper with more technology as a battery-operated screwdriver noisily screwed down the coffin lid. Then ever so carefully they placed the coffin-length floral arrangement, composed of the cyclamens that had been the flower of the dead man and his widow (the alpine cyclamens that he used to bring back for her from his many walks in his beloved mountains), sellotaping it on in discreet places so that it would withstand the walk from the house to the church. These were some of the funniest moments, interspersing the deep grief we were all experiencing. The pall bearers arrived with their leather shoulder pieces (looking remarkably like Mafia hit men!) to shoulder the coffin the short distance to the church. We followed in a procession of family members on a route lined with mourners, reminiscent of my first visit to Italy for my sister-in-law’s wedding, this was no wedding procession but the faces were the same, the sentiments and love the same, the community holding a family observing its ritual the same. I dipped in and out of the funeral service, my Italian not standing up to religious terminology, but being deeply moved by my husband reading, in his beautiful Italian, a reading normally reserved for weddings but chosen because it spoke of mountains and love which embodied my father-in-law, and by my sister-in-law reading out the prayer she had written for her father, based around what he had taught them all from childhood to pack in their rucksacks for any outing to the mountains, looking at what he had packed in the rucksack of his life, and what he had taught them to pack in the rucksacks of their own lives. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and watching her get through it with barely a tear, with so much love shining in her eyes, was inspiring. When I returned home someone said to me “I don’t know how people manage to read at their loved one’s funeral”, but I do, yes I do, watching Alessandra moved and filled with love for her father, completing this task for him, this last public declaration, with the same aplomb that she has carried throughout her life. And then there was the procession to the cemetary, to the family tomb, a walk of around twenty minutes, following the hearse travelling at a slow walking pace, the ever-present priest intoning the rosary yet again, a by now decreasing number of mourners but still enough to stop the traffic with their “Ave Maria, piena di grazie”. On arrival at the cemetary, with a family member capturing the hearse and procession on film (at a funeral my Britishness shrieked!!), we followed the pall bearers as they once again shouldered the coffin down interminable steps into the tomb (how glad I was that my husband had brought me here before because seeing his name on the tomb opposite his father’s would have been unnecessarily distressing – he was named for his grandfather). We all stood once more as the priest continued to intone his prayers and the erstwhile gravedigger directed the pall bearers in their heaving of the coffin onto a small scaffold and thence into the top shelf “plot” that was reserved for Domenico Magnino. Many people left at this point, whilst just a few of us close family members waited until he was bricked in to his new resting place, the “grave digger” taking enormous pride in this last work. Slowly the tomb was enclosed with the red bricks of the area, the white marble softly glowing around, slowly he plastered over the bricks, smoothing and soothing the cement into place. Slowly Domenico Magnino was laid to rest and with the last flick of the trowel we turned and walked back to the house to face the empty room.
I do not have the faith as others do in the afterlife, in the belief that we will meet again, but I have been profoundly affected, deeply moved, by my Italian bereavement experience. More than anything I was struck by the number of opportunities to say goodbye, the three days that Domi lay in his coffin, the enormous number of well wishers bringing their grief with them and each time enabling another goodbye; the opportunities presented by each ritual intoning of the rosary and other prayers; the stroking and kissing as the refrigerated unit was removed; the soldering down of the metal inner lid; the screwing down of the wooden lid; the procession to the church; the funeral service itself; the walk to the cemetary; the gentle handling of the coffin into the tomb, and the final bricking and plastering in. As well as all this there are announcements in the local papers and public announcements on the market square noticeboards and on other noticeboards around the town – it is really a very public affair – a very community focussed event – a family extending its grief into the very air the town breathes. The Italian way of dying is one that we could most certainly learn from, I was told that even if Domi had died in hospital a family member would have been with him constantly, and visitors would have been received there. The rituals would have been played out whatever the venue, the grief would have been present, the feelings flowing.
Working as I do with bereaved clients, wondering at their feelings, struggling to make sense of the deaths they are grappling with, I was left wondering how much of a need there is for bereavement counselling in Italy, especially since the word counselling has only recently entered their language. I also wondered if there was any way of bringing the depth of this Italian experience to those British clients who have lost themselves through bereavement – people who, like me, had been shaken to the core by sudden deaths, with little ritual (even though I was, at that time, a member of a church), and next to no support. In my own case, being told by the bible study group of which I was a committed member that it was God’s will that my close friend had died from an undiagnosed diabetic coma. I fear that the demise of the extended family, even in Italy, will soon find that even they too need the counselling and support that is now on offer in this country following bereavements, but until then we have much to learn. I continue to puzzle about how to bring this richness to our British bereaved, of course we can enable people to talk, to carry out their own rituals, but I wonder if there is any way in which we can hope to embody community support and love as they travel their journey through loss.