By Suzanne Berndt - 09/09/2021


I went looking for a word that describes a part of who I am. This aspect is so integrated into my being that not having a word to describe it felt like I had to have a script in place at all times in order to explain it to others.

How many children do you have? Well, there is this thing I need to tell you. Sentence upon sentence had to be spoken while I watched people’s faces fall and felt their energy stiffen. This would be followed by my ingrained coping mechanism of caretaking people, telling them it was okay and that I was okay when in fact it wasn’t and I wasn’t and I really just wanted to howl.

This special word needed to encapsulate how I fit into the fabric of a community. It had to allude to my experience of having more than a broken heart and more than a fear of living with it. It had to suggest the idea of straddling two worlds – the gut wrenching “here” and the veiled and mysterious “there.”

The word had to evoke a sense of a shattered ego and a complete distrust of the world. Its definition would include words like alienation and loneliness and the feeling of walking through fire every day. Apathy for life would also be listed. The definition had to include the daily climb through the rubble of anxiety that chewed at my body, countered by the unexpected slide into valleys of muddy despair. There would be terminology to address the fervent hope of reconstituting the self and discovering a new meaning and mission in life. It also had to hint at grief morphing into gratitude.

That’s a lot to ask of one word, but I found it. VILOMAH. VEE-LO-MAH. Vilomah.

I am a vilomah. I am a parent whose child has died. The epitome of an archetype for grief. The worst loss in the human experience. Vilomah means “against the natural order of things.” It comes from Sanskrit, the same language that gave us the word widow which means “empty.” I have lived, “against the natural order of things,” for almost 11 years now. My son’s name is Kieren. I use the present tense because he is not gone. I feel if I could just turn my head fast enough he would be standing right next to me. He’s always been a little evasive.

Vilomah. When I found this word, I experienced a peaceful resignation. At last, a word that I could use that could bring a label to my experience and illuminate a part of myself that is often not discussed. It meant the possible communion with other vilomahs. I was part of a group, defined by a simple utterance, “vilomah.” It is the password to an exclusive club to which no one would want membership. The word helps us to identify each other beyond looking into the eyes of a stranger and having a weird sense that “they know what this is.”

Vilomah. I am not a fan of labels but this one fits. Grieving in community can move the process of healing in ways that are difficult to describe. Learning that other people experience crowds to be overwhelming and that skin can literally ache. Understanding that having a friend with a shop vac is invaluable after the plates I used to love somehow ended up smashed against a garage door. Discovering that it is normal to make sounds not found in nature when grieving on the kitchen floor.  Normalizing how our family took turns sleeping in his bed for weeks. Confirming that Mother’s Day is a day to survive. Thanking the universe that my other child announced they were gay shortly after Kieren’s death because my therapist told me, “They are looking forward instead of back.” And realizing closure is a fever dream that comforts our dear ones with the belief there is a finish line in sight. 

Vilomah. The trailhead where the journey and communion begins. Spread the word.

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