In a National Public Radio essay nearly three years ago, I pondered the lack of a word for parents whose child has died. I remember I said it must be a quiet word, like our grief, but clear in its claim.
I recalled the word that Lady Bird Johnson wanted no part of when her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson, died - widow, related to a Sanskrit word meaning "empty." She was not empty, she asserted. She was grieving. But at least she had a word to resist.
On this Memorial Day, when we remember those who have died in war, we are still without a word that identifies their survivors' loss. That denies them whatever notice words like orphan and widow may provide.
Grief leaves a melancholy and sometimes nameless company.
I've noticed this absence for each of the days, months, and even years since our son's death. I've leafed through the letters and e-mails from parents whose children have died, through the photographs mailed to me of T-shirts with the faces of dead children on them and images from sidewalk memorials.
These were sent and shared by parents whose children's deaths inverted the natural order of things and forced their mothers and fathers to do the business of burying. That ought to have been the labor of a grown child, not a task for their parents.
I have heard there is a Chinese saying that the gray-haired should not bury the black-haired. Of course. It is an offense to the order of things.
This idea of orderliness and the disorder of a child's death eventually brought me back to the word widow. And as creative as I thought I might be with language, as liberal as I was willing to be in borrowing a word from another language - maybe from Swahili or Greek, French or Thai - or even creating one myself from a collection of letters that I might shape into the meaning I needed, I returned to the language that had already given us one word. I considered that Sanskrit might locate another.
And I found viloma.
Viloma means "against a natural order." As in, the gray-haired should not bury those with black hair. As in, our children should not precede us in death. If they do, we are vilomaed.
Each Memorial Day, there is a mourning that defies a natural order. But it extends beyond war. We need a name because of what happened at Columbine and Virginia Tech, for when a child is found beneath the rubble of an earthquake, or for dusty children who starve to death in Darfur. The numbers grow daily - with drive-bys and carelessness, with genocides and accidents, illnesses and suicide.
Viloma is a name for the grief we represent. It might sound odd at first. But we have grown used to the word widow. It's not much different, and it shares the same etymology.
And unfortunately, these days can give us ways and means abundantly to grow accustomed to a viloma. A parent whose child has died is a viloma.
Watch the evening news and you will see a viloma. Scan the news on the Web and you will read about a viloma. Walk through your neighborhood and there are homes with vilomas inside.
The difference between today's grief and tomorrow's is that now there is a name. Viloma. A parent whose child has died.