Yet, after my daughter died, this image assumed a wholly different meaning for me. I remember holding my own dear child in my arms, her body lifeless, and my heart aching. I understood La Pieta- the pity or mercy- in a way I never imagined.
I just finished a recent, empiric study with my colleague, Dr. Frederik Froen, on mothers who hold their children after they've died. There has been some debate, particularly with stillbirth and much-older children (teenagers and adult children) as to whether or not this should be permitted in hospitals. Some hospital staff are concerned that it may be too traumatic for families. Others believe it will prolong or protract grief.
I say that this decision is one for the mother herself (or father). Who has the right to forbid a grieving woman from saying goodbye to her beloved child? Who gets to make that choice? A doctor? Nurse? Social worker? And where do they get to go when they leave the hospital? Home, probably to their living child/children. They are not cast with the burden of lifelong sorrow, so why should they make such an important and irreversible decision for the woman?
This feels like a double-standard in our society. La Pieta is visited by millions around the world in St Peter's Basilica. Millions come to see a woman- a mother- and her baby son, Jesus- sculpted eternally in her arms. Religious icon or merely an artisan's historic expression, this work is revered by many as one of the most solemn and sacred "creations in the history of art" (Flach, 2002). It is a moment between mother and son that has been captured in stone and that is honored by others around the world.
In today's world, this very important decision, one that will be the most sacred and solemn moment in the life of a mother, is debated by the sterile institution of the academy and medicine, those who wish to hold power over such choices. It is not for them to adjudicate. Instead, this weighty decision should be left to her, while having supportive others who will patiently guide her to making the right choice for her, both in the short and long term, out of love and not fear.
In fact, the study's results (we just recently submitted to a medical journal) suggested that caregiver attitude played an important role in the decisions of mothers as to whether or not they hold their child. The mothers, overcome with fear and traumatic responses in the brain, cannot think clearly, and are unable to understand how their decisions today will affect them in one, three, or twenty years.
I can think of no greater imperative than this: others should honor the beautiful and everlasting relationship between all mothers and their children who have died. They are all deserving of both mercy and pity...