A word for parents who lose an only child

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It is well known that the PRC had a one-child policy from 1979-2015.  This means that, for most Chinese children born during this period, they would have no brothers and sisters.  As such, they were inestimably precious in a country that lacks adequate social benefits for people to live on after retirement, but who — in large measure — had to rely on their lone offspring to support them.  Such a practical consideration was matched by the psychological devastation experienced when a couple lost their sole, beloved child.

"Chinese parents who lose their only child — a tragedy so common there's a word for it",

Such parents are called shīdú 失独.

The word shidu, separated into its component characters, literally means "loss of only." In this case, only refers to "only child." It's difficult to find the exact etymology of the word, but it's likely that it came to being around 2000, when the first generation of parents who gave birth under the one-child policy — which was implemented nationwide in 1980 — turned 50. The horror of losing an only child began to get national media attention around this time. (Many years later, a movie would be made with a shidu couple at the emotional heart of the film: So Long My Son, released last year, has been hailed as a contemporary Chinese classic.)

While promoting its one-child policy, the slogan most often seen was this rhyming couplet: "Family Planning is good, the government will take care of the old" (计划生育好, 政府来养老 jìhuà shēngyù hǎo, zhèngfǔ lái yǎnglǎo). But the government hasn't really lived up to that promise.

Generally, the government only provides 340 RMB (48 [US dollars]) per month to shidu parents over the age of 49 living in the city, and 170 RMB (24 [US dollars]) to those in the countryside. Parents in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai receive a little more, 500 RMB ($70) per month, which is far from enough to support basic living.

"There are three mountains in front of us: growing old without support, being sick without access to affordable treatment, and dying alone," one shidu parent told Caixin.

This community of shidu parents decided on a day, five years ago, to memorialize their children: April 2, 思独日 sī dú rì — "Only-Child Remembrance Day." The commemoration is unofficial — you'll hardly find a mention of it on the internet — but within the shidu community, its significance is undeniable.

I wonder if any other language has a comparable word.

It seems that special terminology for children who predecease their parents does exist in diverse languages.  One of the most extraordinary such terms is Japanese "mizuko 水子",

literally "water child", … a Japanese term for a stillborn baby or, archaically, a dead baby or infant….  Previously read suiji, the Sino-Japanese on'yomi reading of the same characters, the term was originally a kaimyō or dharma name given after death.

(source)

Mizuko 水子 can also refer to an aborted or miscarried fetus.  Be that as it may, there are special sections of some Japanese Buddhist temples set aside for memorial services dedicated to such stillborn babies.

[h.t. Don Keyser]



14 Comments »

  1. Marianne Hundt said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 12:32 pm

    Children who predecease their parents are a tragedy, regardless of whether they have a sibling or not, whether they are still-born, die very young, or when they are adults. For parents still young enough to have another child this in and of itself is not necessarily a consolation (my great-grandmother lost her daughter aged 28, and even though she also had a son, she never recovered from that loss).
    German has words for children who die very young (either before they are born or in their first few weeks/months of life): Sternenkinder (star children), Engelskinder (angel children) or Schmetterlingskinder (butterfly children), and parents – who are not always able (due to legal regulations) to hold a burial – have set up virtual spaces to commemorate them.

    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sternenkind

  2. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 1:51 pm

    Back in the 1960s, my mother complained about someone wringing their hands over some orphans — who were in their thirties or forties. She felt the word orphan was intended for minors. Recently I have seen a couple of uses of orphan referring to offspring in their twenties and thirties whose parents have died.

    Is the term "shidu" age restricted? It sounds like it applies to any parent whose only child has predeceased the parents, rather than just parents who have lost a minor child.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 3:50 pm

    Marianne's words ring very true in my ear. I had very good friends in Canada who lost their son at the age of 23 (he fell while climbing Mount Washington). They were absolutely devasted at his death, and remained so for several years. He was not an only child, but they were inconsolable in their grief.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 5:21 am

    As I read the above three comments, three things came to my mind.

    First, I could not help but think of all the young men and women who die in wars defending the rights and freedoms of their countrymen and countrywomen. Their fathers and mothers suffer deeply over their lives having been cut short, though often tempered with a sense of parental pride that their sons and daughters have made a noble sacrifice for others.

    Second, the mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen Massacre (1989) still grieve today, in a country where it is dangerous to express such grief.

    Third, when I was a graduate student, a man named Larry who worked in the Harvard-Yenching Library was afflicted with a congenital disease (I think it was palsy) that made his continued existence problematic, yet there he was working away at the circulation desk in his late fifties. This man was the son of a famous scientist who was an emeritus professor at Harvard. Eventually, Larry did succumb to his affliction when he was about sixty, and it was a sad day for all of us. The head of circulation, George, was a sensitive but tough man who had made it through the worst of the Korean War. I shall never forget it when George said to me with tears in his eyes, "There is no deeper grief than for parents to lose a child before they die." Those words haunt me to this day.

  5. Rose Eneri said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 7:59 am

    My husband lost his first wife to cancer, leaving him grief stricken and with 2 young, heart broken children to raise alone while working full time.

    He was deeply hurt when his mother-in-law professed that her grief was worse than his because loosing a child is the worst possible grief. She was retired, had a surviving son and daughter and 5 grandchildren.

    On the language side, I was interested in the translation of the movie title mentioned above, So Long My Son. My 2 step children tease me because I am the only person they know who says "so long."

  6. matt regan said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    In the US, we do have "Gold Star" mothers/fathers for parents of servicemen/women killed on duty.

  7. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 1:07 pm

    Another term associated with stillbirth and miscarriage is "rainbow baby." This is the child born after the loss, who represents hope after the storm of grief.

    In several accounts I have read about the organization Parents of Murdered Children, the parents have said that after a while, other people they know just want them to "get over" their grief, but often their grief is complicated by a desire for justice. Often the articles focus on unsolved murders.

    Unexpected death is difficult to deal with. I would not be surprised if the parents of victims who died in Tiananmen Square feel a combination of guilt (if only they could have kept them away from the square that day), rage that there will be no justice for their children, and the additional tribulation of aging without the child who would have been with them. To not be able to share their sorrows publicly must be profoundly painful. If they are further impoverished without that child to depend on, that just feeds the despair.

    @Rose — I am so sorry that your husband's mother-in-law treated grieving like a competition. Grief comes and goes – and comes again — differently in each person. When my husband died unexpectedly just before his 60th birthday (today he would have turned 70), my father-in-law was very, very upset. His wife was in a nursing home and was not talking or responding, but he was sure she would react to the news about the death of their first-born. He was terribly frustrated with her lack of response, even though he visited her every day and knew she was not capable of interacting. I came to believe that when an adult child dies, often death seems much closer to the surviving parents. A parent like my father-in-law, who had buried his mother only a few years before, still expected years of family gatherings and contact with his child, just as I had many visions of my future with my husband. But I did not feel like death was breathing down my neck In the way my father-in-law did. He had been grieving his wife's long illness and decline, and he was utterly blindsided when death didn't follow the expected plan.

    On a less fraught note, given I am doing a lot of remembering today, I will add that my late husband and I met in a linguistics class my freshman year in college, so Professor John Wolff was an inadvertent matchmaker, with an assist from Professor Charles F. Hockett. My husband and I had a mutual fascination with languages and their workings was an enduring bond.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 1:23 pm

    Is the "du" character the same as "doku" in "sudoku"?

  9. Twill said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 8:19 pm

    @Cody Lubliner Yes: 数独 (suudoku), with 数 for number(s) and 独 alone. The Sino-Japanese reading of the phrase in question would be shitsudoku, but it's a specifically Chinese word that hasn't been loaned into other languages in the Sinosphere as far as I'm aware.

  10. Marianne Hundt said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 8:30 am

    on the topic of 'orphans' > German uses the term 'verwaiste Eltern' (lit. 'orphaned parents') for parents who lose a child (and the term is applied regardless of whether they have other children or not).

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 11:41 am

    Here's a piece from 2009 by an academic whose son had died, felt the need for an English lexeme for "parent of a child who has died," and proposed a loanword from Sanskrit (although it's not clear to me that the Sanskrit word actually has that sense as opposed to being borrowed metaphorically). I don't think the specific proposal has caught on. I should note that, as is too often the case, the author unfortunately appears to know absolutely nothing about linguistics or the history of English despite being a tenured professor of English, and is laboring under the misapprehension that "widow" is a loanword from Sanskrit, as opposed to a venerable Anglo-Saxon word that is cognate to a Sanskrit word as well as numerous other cognates in other IE languages. I do think I've heard in other English language sources references to the same supposed Chinese proverb about the tragedy of the gray-haired burying the black-haired rather than vice versa. Perhaps vhm can identity the actual underlying Sinitic text and/or tell us that it's one of those mythical Chinese proverbs that exists only in translation in the West. https://today.duke.edu/2009/05/holloway_oped.html

    Until very recently in historical terms (maybe a century-plus in North America and Western Europe; more recently still elsewhere in the world), parents who had outlived one or more of their children were so common-to-ubiquitous that, I would surmise, there was no felt need for a specific word for such an unremarkably common situation, thus leaving a gap in the lexicon that could be filled ad hoc by multi-word phrases if you for some reason needed to mention it. A woman in 19th century America might well give birth nine times, have two children who died in infancy and another two who died in their teens or twenties (thus being herself outlived by a bare majority of her offspring) without being thought to be a statistical outlier with a remarkably tragic life. (This is certainly not to say there was no intensity of grief, just that more people back then spent a higher portion of their total life working through some sort of bereavement or other than most of us do nowadays; e.g. being widowed at a young age was dramatically more common than it now is.) Improvements in medical care and reduced family size (which are at some level probably related historical phenomena) have made what was once ubiquitous a much rarer phenomenon (at least in wealthy nations like the U.S. etc.). So now the phenomenon is rare enough and thus salient enough to need a name, but we don't have an inherited one.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 2:20 pm

    "tragedy of the gray-haired burying the black-haired"

    Sounds like pseudo-Oriental wisdom.

    As for "widow" being somehow Sanskrit, the English word is indeed cognate with the Sanskrit equivalent, but this does not mean that the English word is derived from the Sanskrit word:

    =====

    From Middle English widwe, from Old English widuwe, from Proto-West Germanic *widuwā, from Proto-Germanic *widuwǭ, from Proto-Indo-European *h₁widʰéwh₂, possibly from *weydʰ-, *widʰ- ("to separate, split, cleave, divide"), whence also wood from Old English widu, wudu. Cognates include German Witwe, Dutch weduwe, Gothic (widuwō), Old Irish fedb, Latin vidua, Old Church Slavonic въдова (vŭdova), and Sanskrit विधवा (vidhavā).

    source: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/widow

    =====

    I think that somehow people fixated on the Sanskrit because of the historical Indian practices of widow immolation known as sati / suttee and anumarana or anugamana.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_(practice)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anumarana

  13. David said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 10:31 pm

    The proverb referred to by J.W. Brewer isn't a proverb per se, but a custom in the Chinese-speaking world that parents should not attend the funeral of their predeceased children.

    The expression is 白頭人送黑頭人 ("the white-haired bidding farewell to the black-haired"), commonly used with a tone of sadness.

  14. Moa said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 7:04 pm

    I usually see (hear) the Chinese expression as 白发人送黑发人. I don't know where it comes from.

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