“A wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child. Lose your child and you’re…nothing.” —Tennessee Williams
Although I love “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the famous playwright got it wrong, and I feel the need to make it right.
There are many words to describe us and “nothing” is certainly among them, particularly in the beginning, but even that isn’t wholly accurate. It’s a blunt assessment of how we were feeling, but it in no way signifies who we are.
Bear with me for a moment as I reaffirm what you already know: A child isn’t supposed to die before his parents. That’s just not the way life should work. We give birth to children, or in our case, also adopt them, we love and nurture them, we raise them, they grow up, we grow old and then we die. Circle of life, sunrise sunset, rinse repeat, choose your own metaphor. That’s what every parent expects and that’s, by and large, the way things play out.
So when you lose a child—no matter what the circumstances were—it goes against the natural order of things. It’s not part of the ordinary experience. It becomes something entirely different and we become something entirely different.
When you lose a child, you are no longer ordinary parents. Ordinary parents don’t visit their child in a cemetery. Ordinary parents don’t cry themselves to sleep at night. Ordinary parents don’t wake up each morning knowing that they’ll never see their child again.
We become extra ordinary.
We become the ones who are unlike the others. We become the newest members of the world’s worst club, one that is already overcrowded and where the cost to join is the steepest price imaginable. We become “those people,” the tragic ones who are whispered about and pitied. We become the ones who are broken, seemingly beyond repair. Remember Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People? That!
But after a while, something strange takes place and it’s almost right out of a superhero movie. A metamorphosis occurs during our grief and mourning, transforming us from extra ordinary to extraordinary. A lot happens when you close up the space between those two words. So, Tennessee, there are words for people who have lost a child.
We are extraordinary parents. Not in the sense that we are exceptionally good, which is what people usually mean when they use that adjective. But look it up and you’ll find we are the very definition of the word:
1a. Going beyond what is usual, regular, or customary
b. Exceptional to a very marked extent
We are extraordinary parents who must go on living in the world with a hole in our hearts. We are extraordinary parents who, in many cases, still love and take care of our other children. We are extraordinary parents who go to work every day and function as semi-human beings, and most people have no idea about our secret identities. We are extraordinary parents who feel things that no ordinary parent has ever felt, and we have the ability to endure the deepest pain because that has become one of our superpowers.
And that’s another notable thing about us—we all have different superpowers because we all experience our loss in our own special way. Some of us have an unlimited capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Some of us can never be hurt by anything again. Some of us are masters of disguise. Some of us can turn to stone and some of us can become invisible. And then there are those of us who can open up and share it with the world.
We walk among you. We are your friends and neighbors, your co-workers, the quiet couple who were sitting at the table next to you in a restaurant last night. We are the extraordinary parents. And we don’t mind if you want to call us by our first name.