High Child Mortality in the Modern World: The Case of the Women of the Alto

Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ rich work on the families of the Alto do Cruzeiro in Brazil demonstrates the disconnect between cultural expectations of expressions of mourning and experiences of grief in the face of high mortality. In the Alto do Cruzeiro, one of three shanty towns that surround the sugar plantation zone of Bom Jesus, mothers who have witnessed the deaths of many of their own young children, describe direct causes such as diarrhea and disease, and the more indirect causes such as poverty, malnutrition, a lack of money to purchase essential components for a baby’s diet, and a lack of access to effective healthcare—in essence a lack of food. The mothers also acknowledge that their babies die of neglect when they must work and leave a sick or vulnerable infant alone. When asked about the death of their children, mothers often explained that their babies did not possess the proper “will to live”; the children lacked an internal force. They appeared weak and fussy, and lacked the will to nurse. These attributes work against the infants in many ways. The babies who appear to lack a life force are often preterm, low-birth weight, or dehydrated babies already at risk or in need of concerted care. On the other hand, these same qualities, which signal preterm, vulnerable babies, also cause mothers to withhold food and care, further hastening the child’s demise. The food earmarked for the sick infant is instead given to stronger babies; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, so to speak.21

Historically, and at present, the death of a child in much of Brazil was considered a blessing among all social classes, as its future well-being was promised. Deceased children, called anjinho (little cherub) were dressed in light blue or white shirts, with the cord of the Virgin around their bellies, covered with flowers and with a garland on their heads. They were positioned with their hands in prayer and eyes open. Parents wept joyfully, danced, drank, and played music. The celebration lasted several days. In rural Latin America some babies were handled like dolls, displayed on an altar, and even placed in a swing to signify the ascent to heaven. Mothers were expected to be joyful. These practices were found to be common in other Spanish speaking countries in both Latin America and Spain. It is possible that these beliefs were introduced by priests to console indigenous women in the face of high rates of child death after colonization. The practice of transforming a deceased child into an angel allowed mothers to idealize their children, making the journey to heaven tangible.22

In a marked contrast, in Bom Jesus, where bells used to ring frequently to signal the ascent of another anjihho, the chiming of the bells no longer sound. Infant burials are brief. The body is washed and dressed by a female child or the grandmother, and the funeral procession consists mostly of children. While previously the death of the child was met with joy and resignation, per Catholic teaching, in Bom Jesus the entire community, including the church and village bureaucracy, display indifference. The burial and grieving that subsequently follow the death of babies in the Alto is complicated. Mothers of the Alto are encouraged not to cry or grieve, lest their tears dampen the wings of the anjelitos (angels), obstructing them from flying on to heaven. The people of the Alto, especially the children, are at ease with the concept of death. Children commonly experience the death of a friend, young relative, or sibling; although in one case a child stated: “I don’t want to lose another one”.23

In Scheper-Hughes’ interviews with these mothers she notes that their emotions toward their dead infants might be better described as pity instead of grief. These emotions have complicated origins not only in the incidence of high mortality and the repression of excessive demonstrations of grief, but in cultural expectations, and reconciliation with their domestic and socioeconomic environments. Some mothers state that they feel that they are freed from a burden when their baby dies. Their emotions are not delayed or displaced, and the women are not unfeeling. The psychological literature is rich with theories of grief, whether too much or too little, and its myriad expressions and attendant repercussions. Scheper-Hughes argues that women have traditionally been attributed the emotional tasks; loving their children and grieving their children. Therefore, society is uncomfortable when women do not grieve with the intensity of accepted norms. Many of the Alto mothers, however, explained that you might weep a little for an older child, but never for a young baby. Scheper-Hughes also explains a reconciliation the women make for their domestic situations. One husband “sadistically enjoyed” seeing his wife persistently pregnant; it seems that women of the Alto had little control over this function of their bodies. Scheper-Hughes suggests that the mother’s refusal to grieve for her children is a way of stating “You can make me pregnant, but you cannot make me love all of them...or keep all of them either.”24

Marilyn Nations refutes many of assertions and conclusions drawn by Scheper-Hughes in her study of dreaming as a vehicle for mourning in a culture where mothers are expected not to grieve openly for the children. She posits that the mothers (in her study of Ceara, Brazil) tolerate the death of their infants because they imbue it with “cultural significance”. Resignation to death is a mostly Catholic belief (although examples are also seen in eighteenth century American Puritan and Quaker writings), and reactions to death are generally formed by cultural expectations. Analyzing the transcripts of interviews with forty-five women who had dreamed of their dead babies, Nations identified sixty-three themes including postmortem rituals (collecting keepsakes from each child, displaying photos of the deceased), maternal grief, and transfiguration of the dead child.25 Nations also notes that for the Brazilian mothers she interviewed, death of a child is traumatic, as evidenced by the presence of all thirteen of BenEzers trauma signals, in the mother’s narratives. These signals include: repetitive reporting of a particular traumatic event, inability to speak at all about the event, changes in voice during narration, intrusive images, and losing one’s self in the retelling of the traumatic event.26

As these mothers are seemingly unable to prevent the high mortality of their children they must “rely on culture to relieve their suffering”. Therefore, the mothers, in their dreams, transform their bruised, emaciated, and withered babies into chubby and cherubic, and often white, angels. Nations proposes that transfiguring dark-skinned sick babies into healthy white ones is a result of the inequitable social structure in Brazil, where the white skinned, blue eyed child is idolized, thereby eradicating the social stigma of indigenous status. Mothers have always dreamed of their deceased children as though still alive, although these mothers often recount how in dreams, the babies appear to be older than when they died. In this way babies continue to grow in the Afterlife. Nations also reported that once mothers received the highly anticipated first “visit” from their deceased child (about two to three months after the death), longing for their babies somewhat abated as they were able to confirm that their child continues on in the Afterlife.27

Additionally, if the child is unbaptized at death, it is believed that the child will wallow alone in purgatory for eternity. A mother has three chances to save her child’s unbaptized soul: she can listen for its cry from the grave for the next seven years and baptize it on the seventh day, seventh month, or a year after its death. Mothers also note that breastfed babies must pass through purgatory in order to vomit the breast milk contaminated with their mother’s sin. In some dreams symbols of funerals are eradicated in order “negate the irreversibility of death”.28 For example, candles are blown out; there is no corpse or casket, or evidence of the cause of death. Without these, there is no funeral and therefore no death. In this way hopelessness is alleviated because the mother does not feel that separation from her baby is absolute. In other dreams babies admonish their mothers for crying; tears weigh down the angel’s wings and make them dirty, impeding them from getting to Heaven. Therefore, the mother acquiesces to the child’s demand that they stop crying, not only in dreams but in waking-life, because it is the right thing to do. According to Nations, these dreams are a manifestation of grief, not otherwise realized. They save mothers from clinical depression, as most mothers are able to resign themselves to the death within a year after dreaming of the child, with less crying and with fond memories. “Only after the loss has been imbued with symbolic significance can the emotional pain be transcended and valued for the meaning it has been assigned.”29

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