Christine Rhyner

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Losing a Child is Like...
Saturday, September 12, 2015 by Christine

My grandmother and grandfather emigrated from Italy to the US in the nineteen twenties with two young girls in tow.

After giving birth to twins—a boy and girl in this country, my grandmother delivered a fifth child, a son in hospital. I remember her to be a diabetic when I was small. Perhaps due to her diabetes or some other medical or genetic circumstance, she gave birth to her second son who weighed in at a whopping sixteen pounds. The hospital proudly claimed “Will” was the largest baby to have ever been born there.

His sheer heft had him passed around quite a bit so that everyone could hold the huge newborn. A nurse is said to have lost her grip on the giant Will and dropped him onto the floor. Will did not make it. In a twisted irony, this was said to have been the first child my grandmother birthed in a hospital.

I do not know how this was justified so that there were no attorneys involved, no lawsuit, and no liability on the part of the hospital. This was approximately in the late nineteen twenties or 1930. My grandparents were struggling immigrants without a firm grasp of the language.

When the doctor came to her bedside to inform my grandmother of Will’s death, he made the following observation, perhaps in a feeble attempt to console her,

“Well, you do have four other children.”

Through the grief and her tears my grandmother responded,

“Doctor, if someone cut off one of your five fingers, wouldn’t you feel pain? Wouldn’t that lost finger be a part of you forever gone and missed?”

This came from a woman who had suffered two incredible losses that nobody should have to, but do. She was a child that lost a parent and a mother that lost a child. At the age of twelve her mother died. Perhaps she was still in her twenties when she lost Will.

Those who lose a child say there is no word in the English language to define what this is. An “orphan” has lost parents. A “widow” or “widower” has lost a spouse. Even a “divorcee’” has lost a marriage. But there is no noun in existence that explains just what a parent whose child precedes them in death is.

I think my grandmother gave the doctor the best analogy possible even in her terrible state of loss, pain and confusion. The loss of a child is a cruel, painful excising of a part of you, always noticeably absent.

When asked how many children they have, a majority of parents will include the child that has died among the number of those that live and grow into adulthood. When posting pictures to Facebook of a recent family reunion I honored my grandparents’ loss, my Uncle whom I never had the privilege to meet by including him among their descendants.

After Will, my grandmother gave birth to her sixth and last child, my father. They were very close. Perhaps she cherished him in a special way that only a mother who has lost her son before him does.

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