Widow, Widower, Orphan, ______ - what if you outlive your children?
March 8, 2013 3:38 PM   Subscribe

Is there a word for a person who outlives all of their children? Widow:Widower :: Orphan: ??

There probably isn't a word for a person who has outlived _A_ child, because infant and child mortality has been high enough throughout history that having lost one or more children would be more common than not.

But perhaps there is a term for someone who survives _ALL_ of their offspring?
posted by bartleby to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There's a relevant Six Feet Under quote:
You know what I find interesting? If you lose a spouse, you're called a widow, or a widower. If you're a child and you lose your parents, then you're an orphan. But what's the word to describe a parent who loses a child? I guess that's just too fucking awful to even have a name.
posted by phunniemee at 3:50 PM on March 8, 2013 [28 favorites]

The closest in English is probably "bereft parent(s)" or "bereaved parent(s)".
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:56 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Empty nest?
posted by invisible ink at 4:01 PM on March 8, 2013

I have seen the term 'relic' used to describe the widow, or the remainingsurvivor of a family. It does not seem a very happy term, but it certainly is descriptive.
posted by Cranberry at 4:01 PM on March 8, 2013

In genealogical terms, it's the end of the line. In real life terms, unfortunately, it's probably lonely.
posted by goo at 4:03 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an ex-girlfriend whose great Aunt had 5 children before she was 25 all of whom died before she was 30. She never got over it. All of the family of her deceased children's generation called her Mother [Last Name]. Although I only met her once when she was old and infirm, I am told that she really loved being called that. Many of the children of the next generation, what would have been her grandchildren's generation were named after her kids too.

Related, but is there some age after which when you lose your parents you are not considered an orphan? If I am 50 when my parents pass, am I still considered an orphan or is that only for minors who lose their parents?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:11 PM on March 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think 'empty nest' is appropriate: that's usually used for when the kids grow up and move out and the parents are left to themselves, not when the kids die. I don't think there IS a term for a parent who outlives all their children, other than goo's suggestion of 'lonely'.

And as far as a cutoff for the term 'orphan'? Our parents died when my siblings and I ranged from 46-53: yes, we all described ourselves as orphans (and still do), but pretty much only within the family.
posted by easily confused at 4:21 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by mermayd at 4:35 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Widow:Widower :: Orphan: ??

That is not what "widower" means. It's the male form of "widow", not the person in a marriage who died.

Anyway, getting back to your question, there's no single word, but "bereaved parent" covers it neatly.
posted by w0mbat at 4:43 PM on March 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

@w0mbat - analogy marks were perhaps not the best choice to convey it, but the idea to express succictly was
term for lost husband:term for lost wife::term for lost parents: term for lost children
as name for one thing: name for its relational converse::name for another thing:name for its relational converse
posted by bartleby at 4:57 PM on March 8, 2013

posted by vers at 4:57 PM on March 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

The only word I can find which has had any currency is "child-bereft", but even then it is marginal.

You could also say "unchilded", which comes from the old and dead verb "unchild".
posted by Jehan at 4:58 PM on March 8, 2013

I prefer "survivor"
posted by Postroad at 5:06 PM on March 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seniors who have outlived all their family have been referred to as elder orphans, although that term does not specifically refer to outliving one's children.

Child mortality rates were high enough in the days before public sanitation and vaccination that many parents could expect to outlive one or two children. But to outlive all of one's children must have been a) rare, b) horrifying to think about and c) an upset of the natural order of things (the old die before the young) so it didn't give rise to a common expression.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:13 PM on March 8, 2013

I came across a family grave with an obelisk in an Edwardian/Victorian-era cemetery in Liverpool. The couple outlived all eleven of their children, most of whom died before adulthood. Heartbreaking is what sprang to mind.

But as far as I know, there is no widely used or acknowledged term in English. I wonder if other languages have one?
posted by rtha at 5:35 PM on March 8, 2013

If you visit cemeteries in the US that were established (settled? populated?) between 1650 and 1880 in the US Northeast, relict is often on the headstones of both those who lost their spouse and those who died after all of their children. Relict was actually a well-known word.
posted by vers at 5:46 PM on March 8, 2013

bereaved parent
posted by thatone at 5:55 PM on March 8, 2013

Other languages have more terms for bereaved relatives than English does.

The Australian language Arrernte, for example has yurlte or ywerlte for someone who has been bereaved of a child. (Not necessarily of all of their children.). And it also has wayetyewaye for someone who has been bereaved of a sibling. There are a bunch more bereavement terms from Australian languages in Palmer, E. 1884. Notes on Some Australian Tribes. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.13:276-347

If you wanted to coin a word for a mother who had been bereaved of all her children, you could call her a "niobe".

I have a little file buried deep in my computer with these exact notes on it - I once thought I might write a paper on bereavement terminology across languages. I never did, but the file has been sitting there all this time waiting for you to ask this question.
posted by lollusc at 7:20 PM on March 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Oh, and in anthropological kinship studies, the term you were looking for rather than "analogy" is "reciprocal". Husband is reciprocal of wife; grandparent is reciprocal of grandchild; husband's brother is reciprocal of brother's wife. You find the pairs (and sometimes sets rather than pairs) by saying, "If I call him X, he calls me Y". So you are looking for the English reciprocal of orphan.
posted by lollusc at 7:23 PM on March 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I wonder if relict is part of the inspiration for the nickname Relic in the Canadian TV series Beachcombers? Relic had no family that I can recall. Also the actor who portrayed him was the sole survivor of a WWII bomber crash.
posted by srboisvert at 1:03 PM on March 9, 2013

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