Thursday, July 30, 2009


I'm so disappointed. I had always believed that the Inuit had a zillion words for "snow," a reflection of their more constant connection with all things snowy. When I googled it, I found out that, really, they have no more words than we do to express snowiness, but, linguistically, there are good reasons for the myth, reasons, I don't want to explain here. If you like that sort of thing, you can check out the following article that  I found interesting.It ends with a few references for further study. Okay, I confess, this is the kind of thing that I really enjoy reading. I'm such a nerd.
So, anyway, the whole search came about because of something that several people have written to me. That is, while we have words for those who have lost a spouse and those who have lost parents, we have no word to label the person who has lost a child. Language develops because of human need for a word to express a concept. Why is there no word for parent-whose-child-has-died? Because humans don't need it? Or because it is so unusual? Or because we don't want it?
I wonder if there is a language that has a word for parent-whose-child-has died? If such a language exists, what does that say about that culture and society? How sad is their history?


Jennifer said...

In Germany, they are called verwaiste Eltern, or parent orphans.

There are no adequate words.

Barb Carson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barb Carson said...

In an ancient language of India they used the word "vilomah."

Here's a quick blurb from the article: "It means 'against a natural order.' As in, the grey haired should not bury those with black hair. As in our children should not precede us in death. If they do, we are vilomahed."

I found this sad, yet quite interesting. I guess I'm a nerd, too. :)

A Name For A Parent Whose Child Has Died

Anonymous said...

I think our words, and lack of words, for these realities probably reflects the socioeconomic culture in which English developed. For most of our history women and children have been dependent upon men for protection and provision. Someone who lost that provider, a widow or an orphan, represented a person in need who would now be dependent on others in the society for survival. The labels quickly identified those who needed charity. Someone who lost a child, while devestated on a personal level, didn't require societal intervention for survival, so a word to label them for easy identification wasn't necesary. Indeed for much of our history, such individuals would probably have wanted to hide their pain and not be identified. Widows and orphans didn't have that option, they needed the society's help.

Anyway, those are just my random musings on the linguistic question, which I'm sure doesn't do anything for a person dealing with the reality today. I'm sorry for your loss.

Jim Coffey said...

Sadly, for most of human history the loss of a child was a very common occurance. It's only in the last 80 years or so with the invention of antibiotics and vacines that the loss of a child is unusual.

However - it is and has always been against the natural order (I love Barb Carson's comment) for a parent to bury a child.

I'm going to guess that the grief is too large and the wound takes so long to scab over (never truly healing) that society has avoided creating a word.

Love and prayers to you and yours. I loved the fact that Matt was able to be part of Kara's memorial with Maura in Paris this summer.

SLY said...

I love that India and German word mentioned. The subject matter is heavy and heart breaking. But often I find as a writer who can only speak English that I can't really express what I want because I can only speak English. I remember even in college sometimes asking Lydia words in Portuguese to describe what I wanted to say in English because the English was so inadequate.

As a write, this post and the comment by Jennifer and touches my soul. It just resonates somewhere deep inside.

You know, I watched you the whole day of the wedding. I just kept watching you and kept sending vibrations of love your way.

dhbryan said...

Love this post -- very thought provoking (and more shallowly: Long live nerds! I'd believed the "snow" myth too so enjoyed that link). Am sending this to a friend whose son died ten years ago at 14 for her perspective. When words are inadequate, will hugs do?

Erin said...

Hugs are great, unless I'm freaking out--then, I'd stay at least 5 feet away and just wait it out.

Anonymous said...

Vilomah feels right to me, a parent whose child is gone, has died. It at least can name the grief, if not hold it.