A gentle note to the reader: This guide speaks to miscarriage and pregnancy loss. Support services and resources are available below.
When a person loses their spouse, they become a widow. When a person loses both their parents, they become orphans. Every year, 100,000 Australian families experience a miscarriage, almost 3,000 have a stillbirth and a further 700 babies die within the first 28 days of birth. Despite these tragic statistics and growing awareness for Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day, International Bereaved Mother’s Day and International Bereaved Father’s Day, to this day, there still isn’t a word in the English language that describes a parent whose child has died.
The origins of the word ‘vilomah’
When Duke Professor Karla Holloway noticed the absence of a word to describe a parent who had lost a child, she began using the Sanskrit word vilomah. Sanskrit is the primary sacred language of Hinduism and has been used as a philosophical language in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. (The word ‘widow’ is also derived from the same language, which translates to ‘empty’.)
In a 2009 article, Professor Holloway wrote that “Vilomah means “against a natural order.” As in, the grey-haired should not bury those with black hair. As in, our children should not precede us in death. If they do, we are vilomahed.” Holloway shared the meaning of the word – how life has a natural order, in which children are supposed to outlive their parents. However, there are instances when parents must endure the heart-wrenching experience of burying their children or facing a miscarriage, disrupting this expected order. This is what it means to be a vilomah.
How to pronunciate vilomah
There are two ways to pronounce ‘vilomah’. One is VEE-AH-LO-MAH and the other is VEE-LO-MAH. The difference arises when attempting to pronounce the "L" sound in Sanskrit, where it is less audible than in English.
The importance of vilomah
Until recently, parents grappling with the challenge of finding meaning in their altered reality faced the dilemma of how to classify their new status without having to go through the motions of explaining their loss and their grief.
For those who were parents to an only child who had passed away, questions arose about their identity post-loss. Could they still refer to themselves as parents, and how could they talk about it? These complex scenarios underlined the need for a word that could accurately and respectfully describe the experience and the aftermath of losing a child.
Although ancient in origin and found in scripture, ‘vilomah’ was not present in the English language until recently. For a long time, the absence of a term made it challenging for those navigating this difficult path. However, since ‘vilomah’ is becoming a more widely understood term, parents now have a meaningful way to convey their transformed identity to the world.
Finding the right words to express a situation, especially the deep pain of losing a child, is a delicate journey. Recognising your purpose and identity as a vilomah is, therefore, an important aspect of navigating through the challenges of such a loss, and can help you on your path toward healing.
Support and further resources are available
Red Nose Australia - Bereavement support for those affected by miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of a baby or child.
Sands - A volunteer-based association providing support and individualised care for those affected by miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death.
Miscarriage Australia - A researcher and clinician-run body that aims to help all affected by miscarriage.
The helplines below provide free, confidential telephone support and counselling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Red Nose Grief and Loss Bereavement Support Services - 1300 308 307 (interpreter services are available).
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement – 1800 642 066
Lifeline - 13 11 14
If you have been affected by miscarriage, early pregnancy loss, stillbirth or SIDS and you would like to recognise a dedicated charity in your Will, you can leave a bequest. Start today at willed.com.au