Editor's Note: Jeffrey Zaslow's "Moving On" column covers issues associated with significant life changes. Some of the columns, including the one that follows, do not focus on career-related topics.
Geraldine Rheingold is an orphan, having lost her parents in the 1950s. She is also a widow; her husband died in 1978. But she is something else -- a parent who has lost a child -- and there is no simple word in our language to describe that.
Mrs. Rheingold's daughter Didi died of pneumonia in 1949 at age eight. Though she has another child, for 53 years Mrs. Rheingold struggled to define herself after that tragedy. Now, at age 93, these are the 11 words she chooses: "I was a loving parent who no longer has that privilege."
If only our language offered one special word to encompass that mix of loss and love. Some grieving parents say they long for such a word, something they could say when asked, "Do you have any children?" They yearn for a word that honors their late child without inviting prying questions, a few syllables they could deliver quickly, without choking up.
Surviving parents in growing numbers are talking about rewriting the language of grief. When Mrs. Rheingold's daughter died, there were no support groups to help her. Now, the organization Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org) has almost 600 chapters -- triple the number it had in 1980 -- serving 300,000 parents who've lost children.
Still, words fail us. "Linguists say that words reflect how society thinks," says psychologist Bob Baugher, who leads grief workshops around the country. "Because there's no word for parents who've lost children, it shows how awkward we feel about them."
The English language has about 450,000 commonly used words, but more may be needed. What do you call someone who has lost a sibling or had a miscarriage? Or a gay person whose partner has died? Or an elderly person who has lost every friend and relative? So many heartaches can't be found in the dictionary.
Last year, Susan Giardina's only child, her 22-year-old daughter, died from a brain tumor. People often ask Ms. Giardina if she has children. "Answering, 'I had a child who died' rips my heart out," she says. But replying that she has no children "would feel like a betrayal" of her daughter's life. "If I could say, 'I'm a widow,' I wouldn't have to go into details."
Generations ago, when it was common to lose children to diseases, people had large families. Language researchers suspect that society didn't want to define parents by their loss. But families are smaller now, and the loss of one child leaves a void that can feel more cavernous.
Jeffrey Kacirk, author of "Forgotten English," has never come across a word for parents who've lost children. Neither has Mrs. Rheingold's son Howard, author of "They Have a Word For It," a book about words in other languages with no English equivalents. When I contacted him for insights on word derivations, he said I'd learn more from his mother. Indeed, Mrs. Rheingold welcomed the chance to talk.
From her home in Mill Valley, Calif., she told me that when her daughter died, Howard was 17 months old. "Minutes after my daughter died, my husband and I were crying terribly," she recalled. "We held hands across her bed and said, 'We won't talk about her and how she died. We won't bring this sadness into our son's life.' "
They kept the vow for decades. Sometimes, they'd speak to each other about "the beautiful red-headed girl we lost." But to outsiders and their son, they said little.
Until she was 75, Mrs. Rheingold says, she dreamed about her daughter nightly, saying nothing to anyone in the morning. She is relieved that many parents today are more open about their losses. "It's so much healthier."
Now that parents are talking more, they're more aware of the shadings and inferences of language. Harriet Sarnoff Schiff lost her 10-year-old son, Robert, in 1968. For years, when people asked how many children she had, she'd often mention only her two living children. "Then I'd cross my fingers behind my back and think, 'Oh Robbie, I'm not denying that you existed.' "
She wrote a book in 1977 titled "The Bereaved Parent," and some parents now use that phrase to describe themselves. But it doesn't work for Joyce Andrews of Houston. Her 36-year-old daughter took her own life in 1990. "I wish there was a word that did not say, 'I am continuously sad,' " Ms. Andrews says. "As time passes, and your grief softens, you don't like to put that label on yourself."
David Pellegrin of Honolulu says losing his son has shown him "the profound limitations of words." He dislikes "closure." "People say it with a hint of impatience in their voices: 'Have you reached closure yet?' "
Surviving parents also are troubled by sentences that begin with "at least." "When people say, 'At least you have another child,' it never helps," says Mr. Baugher, the grief educator. Wayne Loder of Milford, Mich., lost a son and daughter, ages five and eight, in a 1991 car accident. Among the useless comments people have made to him: "God wanted more flowers for his garden."
For surviving parents "finding the new normal" means making their own rules. For some, it helps to talk about their late children to every acquaintance. Others say that as long as their children are in their hearts, what they say out loud is less important.
My in-laws lost a son in 1982. He was 24, and just beginning a law career. "People who've lost children have a heightened awareness of everything," says my mother-in-law, Marilyn Margulis. "Words are sharper and more meaningful, because you're vulnerable and in pain."
She encourages grieving parents to forgive inappropriate comments and poor word choices. "People are clumsy and apprehensive," she says, "but whenever they extend their hands to you in sympathy, understand that what they're trying to say is, 'I'm so sorry.' "