My life revolves around words. Words and, in my working life, the English language. I’m very good at explaining the meaning of a word or coming up with synonyms for it. My brain gets excited when I hear a student ask, ‘What do you call… ?’ But I draw a blank when I wonder what I can call myself. What do you call someone whose child has died?
There’s no word in the English language to describe a parent who’s lost their child. If a child’s parents die, he or she is an orphan. If your spouse dies you become a widow or a widower. But there is no word for when you lose your child. Is this because no word can capture the devastation? Is the English language itself left speechless by the event?
There are other questions we who have lost children struggle to answer. Even if the person asking the question has no sense of our difficulty.
This week was the start of a new university semester. I met several new groups of students who I’ll work with for the next few months. The first lesson is always a ‘getting to know each other’ time: the students getting to know each other, me getting to know the students and the students getting to know me. Questions abound, some study related and others more personal. I now always have a slight feeling of dread when students start wanting to know more about me, waiting for the question that I always answer dishonestly to avoid students feeling embarrassed or awkward. ‘No, I don’t have any children,’ is the easiest response. It leaves a horrible taste of denial in my mouth, preferring not to acknowledge Sofia at all, but the air in the room remains unchanged.
But, for the first time, just with one of my new classes, I actually gave them an honest answer: ‘I had a daughter, but she died’ (short, no unnecessary details, honest). Yes, there was an awkward moment of silence following my answer, but it felt good to be honest. It felt like the right thing to say. It was the right thing to say. And there wasn’t any feeling of heaviness in my heart for having denied Sofia’s existence.
Why is there no word for someone whose child has died? Because there is no way to describe the devastation of losing your child.