When your spouse dies, you are a widow or widower; when your parents die, you are an orphan. But there’s no special word for a parent whose child has died. Could that be because it is such a rare event? Pediatrics professor Perri Klass thinks that, in contrast, the lack of a term could be because until relatively recently, it was all too common.
In 1800, nearly half the children born in the United States died before the age of five. By 1900, between a fifth and a quarter of them did; in 1915, as my grandparents were growing up, one out of every ten infants died before turning one—and there was no way to prevent most of the common infectious diseases of childhood, from whooping cough and pneumonia to scarlet fever and tuberculosis, which regularly killed toddlers and school-age children.
When you start looking in the margins of history for the lost children, they are present in every story, peering out from the edges of family portraits, buried under sad little headstones in old cemeteries. Among the rich and famous, dead children are noted sometimes just as footnotes in biographies. Creating a world in which children are not supposed to die may be our greatest achievement as a species, a victory over thousands of years of suffering, sorrow, and shadow.
The very rarity of childhood death today makes it appear even more tragic, and also makes parents constantly worry that any wrong decision could bring disaster and it would be their fault. An article about children dying may seem depressing at first, and indeed there are some horrible stories in it, but the main point of an essay at Harper’s about childhood death is how far we’ve come in the last 100 years in overcoming the diseases, injuries, and random bad luck that once took so many children. -via TYWKIWDBI
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