No word to describe

anonymous sad woman sitting on floor and embracing knees Photo by kira schwarz on

In the wake of the holidays, January laid a heaviness on my heart.

My sister-in-law, as careful as she tried to be, is hospitalized with Covid-19 pneumonia. My grandchild is blinded by a bacterial cyst. And,

My friend lost her remaining child.

I wake up at night with grief for my friend Pat. She lost her first child and Coco’s best friend, the day after New Year seven years ago. I wrote about that loss here: The Value of A Life. Christmas time would never be the same for Pat, or her husband, or her younger daughter. And then, this Christmastime, Pat’s remaining daughter suddenly left this world.

I struggle to find the words to console Pat. Her Christmas cards remain unopened. Maybe next month, she told me.

“Widow” describes a woman who lost her spouse. “Orphan” gives immediate meaning to a child who’s lost her parents.

Is there a word that is the inverse of ophan? Why don’t we have a word to describe the profound loss of losing all of our children?

Perhaps we should not try to contain such grief with a word. Perhaps, like the unpronounceable name given for God, it’s too expansive, too all-consuming, too powerful to be contained by a single name. Yet, words help us label the incomprehensible. Naming helps us identify and share our pain and sorrow.

I thought maybe I could create my own word using words like “unrelenting emptiness,” or “barren grief.” My creativity failed me. So I looked for an expert opinion.

I stumbled upon this essay written in the wake of the Newton shooting. Karla reminded me that the struggle to label this kind of grief is not new. Children die unexpectedly in earthquakes, war, accidents, and disease. Mothers and fathers are left childless and bereft.

This idea of orderliness and the disorder of a child’s death eventually brought me back to the Sanskrit word “widow.” And as creative as I thought I might be with language, as liberal as I was willing to be in borrowing a word from another language — maybe from Swahili or Greek, French or Thai — or even creating one myself from a collection of letters that I might shape into the meaning I needed, I returned to the language that had already given us one word. I considered that Sanskrit might locate another. And I found “vilomah.”

KARLA FC HOLLOWAY, 2009 Duke Today

Vilomah means “against a natural order.” 

Say “Vilomah” out loud. It is a breathy word, almost begging to be whispered. A gentle word, praying for an embrace. A word worthy of describing the infinite grief of someone who has lost their children.