The other day I received a message from a parent who recently lost their child to cancer, asking for a referral to someone who could help the family deal with their grief, and it got me thinking….
What word do we have to use for a parent who has lost their child?
A wife who loses a husband is called a widow; a husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child. That is how awful the loss is
‘Widow’ comes from the Sanskrit for ‘empty’; ‘Orphan’ from Greek, ‘without parents’.
Lady Bird Johnson wanted no part of the word “widow” — a Sanskrit word that meant “empty” when her husband President Lyndon Johnson died. She was not empty, she asserted. She was grieving. But at least she had a word to resist.
There is NO WORD in the English language for a parent who has lost his/her child!
We refer to the parents of children who have “gained their angel wings” as “Bereaved Parents” – “Bereaved” by the way, means ‘to be torn apart,’ or ‘to have special needs.’
Parents whose children die before them experience an inverted natural order of things – mothers and fathers have to deal with the business of burying – which should be the labour of grown children, not parents.
There is a Chinese saying that the grey haired should not bury the black haired. Of course not – it is an offense to the order of things!
This brings us to another Sanskrit word, Vilomah, which literally means “against a natural order” – which is exactly what a child dying before their parents is – against the natural order of things!!
Perhaps there is no word in the English language for parents who have lost a child exactly because a parent should never lose a child! Another reason is that whether one had multiple children and is still raising them or it was their only child that they tragically lost, they are still a parent.
When a child loses a parent, they are not treated as if they never had a parent and are no longer anyone’s child. The same goes for parents. If one loses a child, one does not stop being a parent, as if one’s child never existed at all.
Parents who have lost a child all belong to a club to which nobody should belong and to which nobody wants to belong – and sometimes when a parent loses a child they feel like they have lost their identity – they have been “vilomahed.”