The Fetish of Parental Grief

Nothing is worse.

Nothing is worse.

I know I’ll get pilloried no matter how I approach this subject. But it needs to be approached. We live in a time of massive and ludicrous contradictions papered over by a tissue-thin wall of entertainment and other mass media propaganda.

Consider how many hours of programming you’ve been subjected to. All the Hollywood and TV movies, all the true crime stories, all the local news footage of women screaming, “My baby!” on the sidewalk after the sad event. How many Oscar turns have we seen of actresses playing mothers who sink into catatonia, cut off relations with their husbands, and live in the staling museums of their lost child’s bedroom? Meanwhile the husband buys an old pickup truck and drives around mooning after faint resemblances to his lost progeny. The end of their own lives is what’s now expected of parents who lose a child. You never ever get over it. Nor should you. It’s the new measure of the desolation of life itself. Anything less would be insufficient. Even morally derelict. Whatever moral means these days. Mull that for a moment.

My paternal grandparents grew up in Victorian times in the Philadelphia area. By a strange coincidence both came from eight-child families constituted the exact same way. An older sister, six brothers in a row, and then a younger sister. Both experienced the same loss — one of the brothers falling ill to appendicitis, operated on after peritonitis had already set in, on a kitchen table, and then his death in childhood.

I knew them both into their eighties. They could still speak affectingly of the loss, but it did not wreck their lives. Their families did not fall apart, they were not subsequently ignored in favor of prolonged dramatics of grief. They believed their brothers had gone back to God, and their own duty was to continue living.

Of course, a couple of things were different then, even as late as the late nineteenth century. Not all children made it out of childhood. Childhood, and infancy in particular, as well as childbearing were dangerous times. Grief was a real and regular occurrence, but it was also part of the routine passage of life. Why the maintenance of faith and your personal relationship with God were high priorities.

Why, perhaps, the ultimate sin in those days would have been a mother’s decision to kill a child before it was born. The odds against the babes were bad enough without the additional threat of murder in the womb.

Another difference. Men married women before they made babies. Two parents improved the riskier odds against child survival. A mother to keep watch and a father to instill discipline and good judgment. A stable long lasting arrangement, very rarely busted up by divorce, that gave children the smoothest possible passage to adulthood.

These days, I hear young women crowing about the progress of feminism who are themselves the product of broken homes and the consequent uncertainties of economics and even physical safety. I do not condone male infidelity, but how much have women given away of their ability to raise their children properly by becoming impoverished single mothers for the fleeting satisfaction of undoing their vows to husbands who strayed? They’re empowered. They’re bold brave feminists. They’re living in the No Man’s Land of contradictory standards: they love their children more than anything, but they’re willing to blight their children’s lives because forgiveness of a man is the hardest, most insurmountable peak a woman ever tries (and usually fails) to climb.

Result? They no longer believe in marriage, however much they love, worship, profess their willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for their children. So they hook up with even more worthless and promiscuous men, and have babies out of wedlock they can’t care for, can’t properly parent, and therefore don’t properly parent. So that the day comes when there’s a body in the street and they scream, as if after the fact emotion will rectify a life of selfish refusal to consider consequences or the evidence under their noses. “My baby!”

That lonesome wail does not a mother make.

Not making this up. There’s a street in my hometown I creep down at 15 mph. Because small children are left alone to play on the sidewalks, and sometimes a ball or a doll bounces into the street. There is no time to react when a child darts between two cars after a toy. “My baby!” Where were you ten minutes ago when a scream might have made a difference?

“My baby!” Not said about the countless abortions sought by the poor and unmarried. Just about the unintended consequences of careless life with no acceptance of real parental responsibility. How a big athletic teenager manages to become a drugged up thug who attacks a police officer and gets gunned down. Never your responsibility, never your fault. The Man murdered “my baby.”

Reason enough to reorient your life around exacting revenge for your tragically ruined life. Yeah. Not the child’s tragedy. Yours.

But you have your correlatives in the middle and upper classes too. Neglect and narcissism take many forms. The medical profession actually has a term for the maternal ailment it represents: Munchausen’s By Proxy, meaning a mother who seeks sympathy via the ills that befall her children, accidentally or willingly.

Death comes to us all. If it comes to your children and you feel guilty, confess the guilt and seek forgiveness. If you feel no guilt, repair the hole in your life and resume your responsibilities to the dozens of other people in your life. If you kill your marriage, your career, your family relationships, you are tantamount to a suicide, a lost pebble that sends out unending ripples of pain, and loss far greater than your own.

O Entertainment Industry! Please quit extolling this kind of histrionic martyrism. It’s death in a very thin disguise.

We ALL live with loss. What life is. Not living with it is the sin.

  1. Ron’s avatar

    We are softer and more spoiled than our ancestors were. Go a few generations back and it was hard to find a family who hadn’t lost at least one child, often more.

    We also have fewer children. I’d imagine losing one of two, or an only child, leaves a bigger hole than losing three of nine.


  2. Instapunk’s avatar


    Knew I’d need this quote but I cannot find it with the limited search capability of the iPad. Guy de Maupassant wrote about this in the aftermath of the Franco Prussian War. Two fathers arguing about loss. One a father of three who lost one and one a father of only one. (Do your own search. You’re making me mad tonight.)

    You give all your love to every one. It’s not divisible, not math. Ever seen or read Sophie’s Choice?


    1. Instapunk’s avatar

      Ever known a family with eight or nine children? I have. An extraordinary parade of kids who went to my elementary school before and long after me. Each and every one a distinct and talented individual. Didn’t like Peter the oldest but he was dad’s boy and doomed thereby. Stanford etc though and smart as a whip. The eldest daughter, Madelyn, I had a crush on for years. I think she went to Madeira, where she would have been a jewel. Then there were the younger ones, all of whom achieved brilliantly, including David, a solemnly polite student, and Ira, who was maybe the cutest most impish little boy you ever saw. He also knocked’em dead in some pursuit or other. May have made my mistake of going to Harvard. And on and on. They kept coming after I graduated, so I can’t remember all their names, but they all had the same bright eyes and broad smiles.

      Tell me again how losing three of these would be easier to take than losing one of one or one of two. Not how it works.

      I grew up in a family that had two dogs. Since my wife, I’ve lived in a house with four dogs and four cats at our peak. The loss of every single one has been a catastrophe. After each death, we don’t do any arithmetic: “At least we’ve got ‘n’ left. ”

      What the hell were you thinking?


      1. Ron’s avatar

        I’ve known large families that suffered loss. And I’ve known very small ones. The large ones seem to have survived better than the small ones. There really is strength in numbers.

        It isn’t about “arithmetic”. But it *is* about how many people there are left to cry with you. Having other children doesn’t make the loss of one any easier. But perhaps it can make the healing easier. Or do you think there is no difference between coming home to a house with one less voice and coming home to a house with none at all?


      2. Ron’s avatar

        I’m a father of three, Robert. I understand a thing or two about loving children.

        My point was that with a larger family, I suspect it would be easier to carry on. The grief is shared by more, who can support each other — and there are more who remain. As hard as it would be to lose one of mine, I would at least still have the other two to love. If I had only one, there would be nobody left at all.

        My grandmother had to lose nine siblings before she was alone in the world. I will be there after only two. I do think smaller families make loss harder to bear. Perhaps this is one way that our ancestors, who tended to have much larger families, coped with the vastly higher rates of childhood mortality.


        1. Instapunk’s avatar

          I suspect you’d carry on regardless. Just don’t make math of it. That misses the point. Misses the point of life and my post. Losing them is not something done to us but to them. Everybody showcased in the media seems to forget that.

          You can look down on the love of dogs but we get them knowing we will probably outlive them. And we do. Heartbreakingly so. (Yes, my wife has three children so she’ll correct me if I state this wrongly.) They’re children throughout their lives. They remind you that death and life are intertwined. The notion that any parent who outlives his child is a tragic figure strikes me as fatuous and egotistical. I’ve been there for the puppy and the dying geriatric, holding him as he fades away. It’s crushing. But not as bad as feeling you might have been negligent. It’s a comfort to have been there at both beginning and end.

          I understand it’s different with the fruit of your loins. I’ve never cared about perpetuating my genome. Maybe that makes me a freak. But it makes me suspect some people experience grief about that as much as their sense of personal loss.

          I have lost and lost and lost and lost — grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, truly close friends, and well over a dozen dogs and cats. Not to mention the losses represented by divorce and the loss of a stepdaughter, including the families associated with those.

          Really large numbers when you think about it. Each costs me a chunk of my own life, once pleasurable and now hard to think of. Memories that are required to be retired.

          But I accept. This is the way life is. No math. Just renewed emphasis on the importance of being conscious, grateful, and humble.

          It was not easier for old time families. They had more of the wisdom needed to bear it. If you can’t understand that, you’re living in a cave, no matter how technologically comfortable it seems.


        2. Barbara’s avatar

          There is no loss — not parents, not siblings, not beloved pets, not even one’s adored spouse — that can be compared remotely with the loss of one’s biological child. Your comments here, RL, make me sadder than even your most raw and painful political insights have in the past, but at least those I could accept as valid.


        3. Instapunk’s avatar

          I said I’d be pilloried. So I am. Can’t and won’t stand up to your argument. But I won’t change mine either. A pillar of pure emotion is its own universe. My universe contains God and Jesus Christ. Quaint old notions. There is meaning. The meaning will be revealed in time or out of time. If you haven’t already, you should read all the comments here so far. I don’t take losses of children lightly. I believe in God. I believe in the afterlife. Everyone who insists that life becomes meaningless when a child is lost is, to my mind, confessing a lack of faith.

          Sorry we have to disagree about this, Barbara. Deeply sorry. Won’t bore you with how devastated my wife was by the loss of her father in her childhood or me by my loss of my grandfather in my childhood. Not every inconsolable death is a child. It’s just the most spectacular and mediagenic loss.

          All kinds of inconsolable losses. Obnoxious to pretend there’s only one kind of irremediable death, that of a child. If you insist otherwise, I’ll come back at you. As I said, sorry you want to fight about this.



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