I highly recommend viewing Penny’s website documenting her show LOSS: An Exhibit of Quilts from August 20-26, 2016. Her quilts eloquently investigate the process of grieving for her son, Jeremy Gold Amor, who died in July 2004.
Penny Gold: There was quite a bit of online response (Facebook, Instagram) to my “Self-Portrait, Year 2” quilt. One thread developed after a question was posed about why I chose the words “I AM A WOMAN WHOSE CHILD IS DEAD” rather than “I AM A MOTHER WHOSE CHILD IS DEAD.” I answered, “Because I am no longer a mother; Jeremy was my only child.” Many people responded, “But you will always be a mother!” This seems a misguided response to me, people thinking it’s supportive, but it’s really a denial of the nature of the loss.
kK: If there were a word to describe being a parent who outlives their child, would you want to have a separate word for a parent whose only child dies? I guess I am wondering if part of the loss for you was different because you lost Jeremy and a huge part of your identity.
PG: I think that most of the experience of being a person who has lost a child is the same, whether there are other living children or not. For example, I think that the quilts I made about loss are likely to resonate with anyone who’s lost a child. When I chose words for “Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface,” it didn’t occur to me to choose, “I am a woman whose only child is dead,” and I’m glad it didn’t. The word “only” would emphasize distinction from others, and the power of the quilt is that its message reverberates with people who have experienced a variety of losses; one can readily substitute “mother,” “husband,” “friend,” etc. for “child.”
On the other hand, there are some significant differences in losing an only child.
- I am no longer a mother, which is not the case for someone who has other children. That role, that way of being in the world, is no longer mine (even while there are other young people with whom I have a role that draws on my past experience as a mother).
- I no longer have the kind of direct connection to a long-term future that I felt when I knew my child would be living in it. This is sad, but also a kind of secret relief – I sense that I have less acute distress about global warming and many other hazards on the horizon because I will be gone and my child won’t be having to live in them.
- I won’t have the comfort of a child’s caring and concern in my old age. I know that’s not something a parent can count on, but I was able to contribute to the care of my parents in their last months, and it was a blessing—for me, and I think for them also.
- In the wake of Jeremy’s death, my husband and I could fall apart and look to others to care for us and help us, without having ourselves to care for other children. I’m sure other children can be a comfort for parents in the wake of a child’s death, but to have to think about one’s other children – who themselves have suffered a huge blow in their sibling’s death – would be an additional burden.
And the fear that what happened to one child could happen to another; we were spared that. But here I’m imagining others’ experience, and can really only speak of my own.