“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’ve always loved 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 my ex-wife and me and “nothing” is certainly among them, particularly right after our eldest son took his own life 14 months ago, but even that isn’t completely accurate. It’s more of a blunt assessment of how we were feeling at that time, 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 or her 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 eventually 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 — regardless of the circumstances — 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.
Ones Who Are Unlike the Others
In the first few days and then weeks, we are crushed, numb and in shock. None of it makes sense. And then little by little, the fog of disbelief lifts, and everything becomes very clear and very sharp and very painful and very real — our child is gone. Sure, he or she is in our hearts forever — if you love, you grieve, that’s the deal — but we can’t have lunch with our heart. We can’t give our heart a hug or hear the joyful sound of its voice.
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. Ordinary parents don’t dread holidays and birthdays and graduation days and all of the other days that mark a child’s life journey.
We are extraordinary parents who must go on living in the world with a hole in our hearts.
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’s us!
We Walk Among You
But after a while, a strange phenomenon takes place and it’s analogous to something right out of a superhero movie. A metamorphosis occurs amid our grief and mourning, transforming us from extra ordinary to extraordinary. A lot happens when those two words become one. So, Mr. Williams, 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
- 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, must still love and care for 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 or should ever feel, and we have the ability to endure the most inconceivable pain because that has become the most potent of our superpowers.
And that’s another notable thing about us — we all possess different superpowers because we all experience 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.
This essay was originally published on Larry Carlat’s blog, The Sand and the Water, which he wrote during the year following his son’s death.
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