“This book is a dictionary with a single entry, the search for a word that does not exist in my language: the one that names the parents who have seen their children die.” This is how the writer Sergio del Molino begins his work the violet hour (Mondadori, 2013), a story that narrates a year in the life of his son Pablo, from when he was diagnosed with a rare and serious type of leukemia until his death. “The loss of a child is an indescribable pain. Perhaps that is why there is still no word in any language in the world that represents all those of us who had to face nothing for having lost everything ”, the prologue continued.
Like Del Molino, there are many parents who do not find comfort in language with a term that makes visible and names their sad reality. If those who lose a husband or wife are called widowers; If those who have been left without a father or mother can be named as orphans, why isn’t there a term that defines the parent who loses a son or daughter? The last known figure that has reminded us that there is no word to define it has been none other than Ana Obregón, who in 2020 lost her son Aless hers at the age of 27, after two fighting cancer.
“The term helps parents who have lost a child to be able to verbalize and manifest it, and make sense of the tragedy we have experienced,” explains Juan Antonio Roca, president of the Spanish Federation of Parents of Children with Cancer (FEPNC). He also lost his son at the age of 17 after four treatments for bone cancer. It was this same association that decided in 2017 that it was necessary to demand that the Royal Academy of Language (RAE) include a word for this reality and, after a long study with philologists and language scholars, they proposed that the institution will accept the word orophile.
However, and despite adding 60,000 signatures that they received in 15 days through the portal change.org, In addition to the support of familiar faces such as Silvia Jato, Ana Belén, Melani Olivares, Carlos Hipólito and Juan Echanove, the term is still maintained, six years later, at the Observatory of Words of the RAE. That is where the words that still do not enter the dictionary due to their lack of widespread use remain parked.
“The voice orophile is a neologism not generalized in use. In this sense, it can be used in Spanish orphan (in its second meaning) or, more specifically, orphan of son(s)”, argues the academy on its website about why it is still in that state of latency. “The initiative is very well intentioned, but a word cannot enter the dictionary to be used; it is their use that endorses them. And it could enter when the time comes, as other lexical innovations have done, some of them foreign words or creations of a person, such as aporophobia or mileurista ”, explains Lola Pons, language historian and professor at the University of Seville.
“It is not nonsense that orphan can be used for when a parent or child is lost. He thinks that, for example, renting is valid for both the landlord and the tenant and teaching is valid for both the teacher and the students”, Pons explains about the richness of the lexicon and the different meanings that the same term can have. In this case, an orphan as a person whose children have died. However, the expert linguist also argues that if there is no word dedicated exclusively to defining this situation, it is also due to a bureaucratic aspect. “There is no administrative reality in which that term is necessary. In other words, there have been pensions for widows and orphans for centuries. Actually, the character of being a widower or an orphan has been relevant to the administration, at least in the West and Europe, and this has led to its use being more widespread.
Language helps healing and mourning
This invisibility through language does not help the healing and grieving process for parents. “The vast majority of therapists consider that putting words to pain and emotions is essential to prevent grief from becoming pathological and not being resolved on many occasions,” says Adela Martínez Gómez, a therapist specializing in accompanying grief and loss. “The parents themselves reveal both in support group sessions and in individual therapy that giving them a name would make it much easier not to have to explain their loss if a word defined the reason for the pain in which they are submerged,” adds the psychologist.
“For those who have lost a child, naming it goes beyond a word, it allows them to identify a part of themselves, it allows them to order part of that forgotten personal identity, and it allows them to name their new reality,” explains Martínez Gómez. A new nameless reality and a kind of emptiness and limbo that Del Molino lamented in his book: “Children who are left without parents are orphans and spouses who close their eyes to their partner’s corpse are widowers. But the parents who sign the papers for our children’s funerals do not have a name or marital status. We are parents forever.”