Oprah intervire Dr. William Petit yesterday. He is the sole survivor of a murderous rampage on his family, when two men broke into his house and killed his wife and two daughters.
Dr. Petit pointed out that if your parents die, you’re an orphan. If your spouse dies, you’re a widow(er). But there is no English word for a person who is not longer a parent due to the death of their children.
With respect (and going only by this OP), I’m not sure that Dr. Petit accurately characterized the English. Usages are not universal, but…
Orphanhood is usually discussed in terms of a conditional status of being a child without parents. Grow to adulthood–or gain parents–and one is no longer an orphan. Adopted children may be termed “ex-orphan.” People who lose their parents late in life, after years of independence, don’t usually think of themselves as orphans.
By contrast, parenthood is effectively conceived as an attained status. People who are no longer actively “parenting,” because their children have grown to adulthood and gone their own way, are usually still “parents” if asked. People whose children have died often still think of themselves as parents. (See references here, for example.) I certainly wouldn’t dare to question them.
True, but children who lose their parents when young often do consider themselves orphans even when grown. This is even true of some who were later adopted particularly if the adoption was not an immediate* adoption by relatives.
*i.e., one which was know it was going to occur right away regardless of how long the legal process actually might have taken.
I’m sorry, I do realize you mean well, but this turned my stomach a little.
He could have more children, but he won’t get his children back. Just like an orphan can be adopted by new parents, but they won’t be the original even if they were cloned.
After he was unable to rescue his first two daughters, what type of father could he be? How would he support them? Right now he is unable to work as a doctor.
Dr. Petit defined himself as being a doctor, a husband, and a father. He lost all of those things to two monsters in a senseless act of unspeakable violence.
He talked about going to court every day and hearing the defendant called “Mister,” while his wife and daughters were referred to as “the alledged victims.” He wanted to ask “Want to see their alledged graves?”
No, we don’t have a word for it for precisely the same reason as we don’t have a word for somebody with two legs, yet we have plenty of words for somebody with less than two legs.
Or to put it more simply, the reason we don’t have a word for it is that producing and losing multiple children has been the default state for humanity for 99.9999% of our history. Languages rarely have word for things that are universal. It might be considered somewhat odd that we don’t have a word for somebody whose children all survived, but I suspect that absence is because such an event was so rare that such a word would be forgotten before it could be used twice.
The idea that the loss of children is so horrific that it can’t be talked about is very, very modern and can’t have had this effect on language. Only 100 years ago, most children died. Discussing this was perfectly normal. Heck, read some of the Roman letters where they casually discuss killing their own infants. Not really something that people were horrified of in the pre-modern era.
People were horrified of disease, poor people were horrified of dying childless. But there is no evidence that they were horrified by the death of children. It’s kinda hard to be horrified by something that happens every few months even in in small communities.
The closest I can think of is “La Llorona” (“the bad mother”), a grisly Mexican folktale about a mother who abandoned/murdered her children and spent the rest of her life looking for them or trying to kidnap new ones. Not very close to the OP, though.
That is perhaps an exaggeration. While it is true, that infant mortality was greater for the majority of human history, it does not follow that people were somehow not affected by it. And anyways, infant immortality varied depending on diseases and other factors, I’ve read that infant mortality of 15 % was not rare and in that case, it is likely that loss of multiple children was not as universal.
There’s no doubt that their reactions might differ from ours and perhaps some people were even numb to it, but this is not say that everybody was. Your example of Romans probably refers to the idea they had that a responsible pater familias had to kill deformed or weak infants. It was a sign of weakness and effeminateness to fail to do so. This does not mean that they all did it or that they weren’t distraught by the death of initially healthy infants.
Also the Roman letters do not mention the mothers opinion in this and as mothers have a natural tendency to love the offspring they have put so much effort in, it would be hard to think that they wouldn’t grieve.
An essay by Michel de Montaigne mentions that he does not remember how many children he has alltogether, because some died as infants, which is a point for your argument, though not proof of any universal sentiment. But the same essay describes the grief of parents who have lost an older child, which you seem to ignore in your post. Surely a parent who had healthy children from 15 to 25 would be crushed if they were killed, no matter what the historical period is.
In the Iliad, the epic reaches an emotional climax when king Priam humbles himself before Achilleus so that he could have his son Hector’s body and give it a proper burial. He seems to grieve a lot which would give us cause to suspect that Homer would not agree with you. What about Lear grieving his daughter?
So to summarize, if someone would lose all his children, he might not care as much if they are very young, but they would still be horrified, in the young childs case the mother perhaps more given the gender roles in past times. If the children are adolescents or adults, the loss is as horrible to both.
It would seem that the situation would warrant its own word, but perhaps the reason there is not one is that both orphan and widow define a certain position as it comes to family in that orphan does not have parents and lacks their protection and perhaps often their material help, being in a weaker postion as a child than others. Similarly a widow is someone who is not adolescent in the sense of un-married(as often marriage is seen as the true sign of adulthood), is not a bachelor or old maid, but is also still in the game.
While I agree that it’s silly to say we don’t have a word for it because it’s too horrible to imagine, keep in mind that the OP is talking about parents who have lost all their children. That was not the default state for humanity.
Besides, we have lots of words for “default states”. To whit… “parent”, “wife” and “husband”, to name just a few that are close to the subject we’re talking about.
Upon thinking about it I am a bit surprised there is no word - for a rather different reason. For many societies a person’s children were their social security package. A person who had no children (which is clearly wider than as having lost all - but the case remains) and living past their productive, income earning, years, would be destitute. It seems odd that there isn’t a name for a person who has no children supporting them in old age. “Dead” might be the right word for such a calamity, but the situation should warrant a word by the earlier analysis. Most people would have produced enough children that some made it to adulthood - but not everyone. So it would be an unusual, but not unlikely situation.
“Barren” was a common term used to describe a childless person. And it carries the appropriate implications for the poor prospects of the barren person once they become elderly. Barren land & barren fields give no sustenance. Ditto barren people.