19 January 2022

"There is no word for the parent of a dead child"

 Excerpts from "When Children Die," an essay in the June 2021 Harper's.
"There is no word in the English language for the parent of a dead child. No equivalent of widow, widower, or orphan, even of fatherless or motherless—words denoting losses so grave that they assign people to new human categories. Do we lack such a word because that grief is the most tragic of all family losses, the hardest to contemplate? Or is it possible that the opposite is true—that throughout history, the likelihood that a parent would lose a child was so high that such a term would have been a useless distinction?

If such a term existed, it would have applied to every eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century president who had children*...

*George Washington (his stepdaughter, Patsy, died at the age of seventeen from epilepsy); John Adams (two daughters, one who was stillborn and another who died in infancy); Thomas Jefferson (of the six children born to his wife, Martha, only two survived early childhood; of the six born to Sally Hemings, two died very young); James Monroe (a son died at sixteen months); John Quincy Adams (a daughter died in infancy; two of three sons died as young adults); Andrew Jackson (his adopted son, Lyncoya, died at sixteen); Martin Van Buren (a son died in infancy); William Henry Harrison (a son died at age three); John Tyler (a daughter died in infancy); Zachary Taylor (two daughters died in early childhood; a third, who was married to Jefferson Davis, died of malaria at twenty-one); Millard Fillmore (a daughter died of cholera at twenty-two); Franklin Pierce (two sons died very young; a third died at age eleven in a train crash not long before his father’s inauguration); Abraham Lincoln (two sons died, at three and eleven).
That is an incredible statistic, and a stark reminder of life just a few generations ago.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, that lifelong loss and special sorrow were neither unnatural nor unexpected. Children used to die, and parents knew that losing children was a relatively common and even predictable risk. In 1800, nearly half the children born in the United States died before the age of five. By 1900, between a fifth and a quarter of them did; in 1915, as my grandparents were growing up, one out of every ten infants died before turning one...

Losing a child has become a comparatively rare experience, and one that everyone, including experts in pediatric palliative care, now regards as unnatural and traumatic. Does that make the grief harder to bear?.. The authors of the 2018 article consider the possibility that the very rareness of childhood death in developed countries may mean that family and friends don’t know how to respond to or help bereaved parents. The Roosevelts certainly grieved their dead son, but they matter-of-factly reused his name, unworried that calling another baby Franklin Jr. might bring up unthinkably sad memories...

Today, parents feel that if they make all the right decisions, from the right sleep position to the right car seat to the right foods, they can keep their children safe. But these good and valuable steps to ensure children’s safety can leave some parents terrified that somewhere along the way they will make a mistake, a wrong turn. My guess would be that for all their anxieties, the parents of my grandparents’ generation did not live with the same fear that one bad decision could compromise their children’s safety, because they didn’t believe their children could be kept absolutely safe—no child could be...

In our overanxious age, worrying is sometimes now associated with the problem of overparenting...  Anxiety not only gnaws at parents, he writes, but it can get in the way of children’s development... Paradoxically, there are parents who have come to take that safety so for granted that they have grown cavalier about the great gift of childhood vaccines, or perhaps have decided to be more frightened of vaccines than of diseases, and let their children ride on the back of herd immunity.

RelatedFree-range parenting punished 


  1. In 1800, nearly half the children born in the United States died before the age of five.

    And then we invented vaccines.

  2. I have to admit, the fact that in 1800 nearly half of all children died before the age of five astonished me. I have been in pastoral ministry for 20 years now, and I cannot imagine that.

  3. My mother's two grandmothers had a total of 17 children between the two of them, all but one born in the first two decades of the 20th century. Only six lived to adulthood. I cannot imagine the sorrow with which my great-grandparents lived.

  4. A significant percentage of the child mortality prior into the early 19 century can be attributed to the death of the mother during child birth. Even if the newborn survived, they were unlikely to see their first birthday, and other children in the family under 5 had the odds stacked against them.

    Public health institutions and interventions as the 20th century dawned had the biggest impact on declining child death rates. As public health authorities began to acknowledge the role of bacteria and germs in spreading disease, statutes were passed regarding sanitation, drinking water, food handling, etc. By 1915, the IMR was 10%, and in 1950 was at less than 3%, prior to the widespread use of medical technologies and vaccinations.

    This is a long read, but has some interesting information regarding improvements in child mortality. I came across this many years ago while working on a Masters Degree.



  5. Somewhat tangental to your point, probably another reason there is no word for loosing is likely you are not moved in to another category. If you loose your spouse, you have no spouse. If you loose your parents, you have no parents. But if a child dies, you, likely back then, still had a bunch of kids left.


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