On being a vilomah…

Posted on January 11, 2024 by Rev. Pam Reidy under educating for grief and loss
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Today’s blog begins a four-part series that explores types of death loss. In addition to considering the generalities of grief and loss, each blog in the series will explore the distinctive impacts and characteristics of a specific type of loss such as loss of a child, spousal and partner loss, family or friend loss. By understanding specific kinds of loss, we are better prepared to empathize with people who grieve. This blog entry considers the loss of a child. Whether by miscarriage, stillbirth, illness, accident, overdose or suicide, the death of one’s own flesh and blood often results in terminal grief and most parents will grieve a child’s loss every day until the day of their own death. The impasse of not fully understanding another’s grief is conveyed perfectly in Lady Gaga’s rendition of Til It Happens to You, a song she dedicated to parents who have lost children to death.

Two things I know for sure about grief are that it is a cavernous response to loss and that no loss is identical to another. Grieving a death-loss is intense, intimate and personal. Though we may be inclined to tell another person that “we understand,” or that we have “been there;” we haven’t. Even professionals with a specialty in grief and loss, though they can empathize, do not suffer the pain a griever bears when they have lost a beloved. At best, when someone is grieving, we can show up with a little bit of knowledge and a whole lot of love.

It’s commonly held that the death-loss of a child is the most horrific of losses, and indeed it is. The idea that a child precede their parent in death is shocking, no matter what their age. I have heard people express it in many ways, but always with the same disbelief. “It’s unnatural.” “It just isn’t supposed to be this way,” or “I can’t wrap my head around it.” One mother told me, “I will learn to live with it, but I will never accept it.”

When a spouse dies you are designated a widow or widower, or if a child loses their parents they become an orphan. A parent who has lost a child is known as a “vilomah.” Vilomah is a Sanskrit word that means “against the natural order.” This beautiful word is taking hold in our culture and captures the truth that resides at the core of a parent’s grief when their child dies, “it is against the natural order.” Parents naturally consider their children will outlive them, the shock and disbelief associated with child loss is potent and often delays a parent’s grief work. When parents lose a child, death is no longer a fact of life, it becomes a way of life. The journey to healing from a child loss is more complicated and longer, the road more treacherous than other losses, excepting complicated death loss, where the trauma is a central feature.

When speaking to parents who have lost children, a great deal of pain is added to their grief because our death-phobic/grief-illiterate culture has never been taught what to say to comfort parents. Although well-intended it is easy to hurt more than comfort grieving parents. Here is a small sampling of what grieving parents reported as less than helpful, and downright hurtful:

“I can’t tell you how many times people have said inappropriate things to me, like ‘you are young, you can have more children, or you now have a little angel in heaven. I end up feeling so embarrassed for them, I feel awkward and just want the conversation to be over.”

The worse thing anyone ever said to me was, “You were blessed with ten wonderful years.”

When my baby was stillborn, my own mother, said, “Did she take any breaths outside the womb, because if she did, she can’t go to heaven unless she is baptized. Did you call the priest to get her baptized? 

Another bereaved parent shares this insight:

Grief is hard work. Be gentle with yourself.” These are words repeated to me by a dear friend after the unexpected passing of our beloved daughter only 14 months ago. Grief is especially hard work when one of your children leaves this physical world. It is not the natural order of things. Being gentle is also hard work, as self-indulgence and focus on oneself hardly seem appropriate or even possible. But I have come to realize that it is necessary for our well-being and I am grateful for that advice.”

Without making comparisons that pit one type of loss against another, it seems that the element of the unimaginable happening, inherent in child loss, expresses itself in deeper pain, one parent put it this way: “I was being drowned nearly every day by waves of grief, and even when the deep grief subsided, the waves still came just as strong, with an equal power to overtake me.” An acquaintance whose grown daughter recently died unexpectedly five days before Christmas posted this on Facebook: “It is with great sadness and excruciating grief that I share the death of my child.” Another parent, whose child died a number of years ago, said, “It’s always as if it was just yesterday.” We should keep these three quotes in mind as we accompany grieving parents for these are the deeply held truths of a vilomah’s heart.

Child-loss grief resurfaces with fresh pain for the rest of one’s life, a near constant reminder of what would have been. As the years move ahead, so do the missed milestones that will never be met such as graduation, falling in love, marriage, grandchildren and other life achievements.

Here are some tips parents who have lost children have asked me to share:

“It comforts me when people speak about my child. So many people are afraid to say his name, thinking they will make me sad. What really makes me sad is to never hear his name, especially from my family members.”

“I do like it when people remember Sally on special days, holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, but it means more to me when someone remembers her on ordinary days.”

“Please stop telling me you understand, you don’t, you can’t, it was my baby who died, not yours, and every time you tell me you understand, you move her further away from me. I need you to help bring her closer to me.”

Each year, the month of July is Bereaved Parents Awareness Month, a time to become more knowledgeable about parental loss of a child. I encourage you to join their efforts and increase your understanding and ability to empathize with this type of loss.

Resources Specific to Child Loss

Why Me? & Sherry’s House :Parent to Parent Support Group 1152 Pleasant Street Worcester, MA 01602  Telephone: 508.757.7734 www.whyme.org

Hope Lives Here: 1085 Main St. Holden, MA. Tel: 508-233-8984 Email: [email protected] – Child Loss Support: Second Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

Compassionate Friends  Telephone: 877.969.0010  www.compassionatefriends.org Bereavement counseling and support services after the death of a child of any age. Sibling support. Local chapters in Westminster and Worcester (Follow “Chapter Locator” link).

  Dougy Center, Support, resources, and connection before and after a death. Find tip sheets, activities, podcasts, and more through personalized toolkits for young people of all ages. The  Dougy Center creates safe spaces and free resources for children and families who are grieving. www.dougy.org.

 Bereaved Parents of the USA – Offers support, understanding, encouragement and hope to other bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents after the death of their children, brother, sister or grandchildren. https://www.bereavedparentsusa.org/


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