Arts, Culture & Humanities

Lost children

Claude Fischer

I’ve been to a few – and any is too many – funerals of and memorials for children. One often hears at such at such moments is the comment that this death is particularly wrenching, because it is “unnatural” for a parent to bury a child; it is “not the way of the world.”

Lincoln family photo

Lincoln family (Library of Congress image)

The social historian knows, of course, that parents burying children is all too “natural” in much of the the world today. In many African countries over 1 in 10 babies dies in the first year of life. And it was all too much “the way of the world” in the United States until recently. Only in the last couple of generations has that terrible experience become so rare in America as to feel “unnatural.”

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had four sons. They buried two early on: Eddie at age 4, a victim of tuberculosis; Willie at age 12, a victim of typhoid. Later, the widow Mary buried a third, Tad , who died  at age 18 also of TB. Only one child, Robert Todd Lincoln, grew to old age. And the Lincolns were, of course, even before his election to the presidency, an advantaged family, among the well-off elite of Springfield, Illinois. The experiences for most Americans of that era were yet worse.

As I wrote in an earlier post, before the Civil War, the average woman would have buried four children by the time she had reached middle age. Not until after World War I did the typical mother live to see all her children grow up. Parents, particularly mothers, struggled to cope (see here for interesting study), but perhaps the commonness of the experience partially numbed earlier Americans to the pain.

Any such numbness is much less available in our day as the experience has become so much rarer. The graph below shows the tremendous decline in infant death rates since 1900, thanks in great measure to public borrowing and investment for clean water (see here). A century ago, every year one of every 6 to 7 infants died before his or her first birthday – about the same rate as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone today. In 21st-century America, about one of every 150 infants dies in the first year, over a 20-fold reduction in risk (although still double the infant mortality rate in northern Europe today.)

graph on infant mortality

Newborns, we know, are in precarious circumstances. Perhaps more striking are the changes in the risks faced by older children.  The graph below shows the death rates faced by 5-to-9 and by 10-to-14 year-olds. The rates of death for them dropped from about 300 and 450 per 100,000 (one in 330; one in 220) in 1900 to about 16 per 100,000 (one in over 6,000) around 2007, again about a 20-fold improvement. Such a death is now a truly rare event.

childhood-mortality gaph

For a parent to bury a child is indeed “unnatural” for our country in our time; it is “not the way of the world” we live in now. All the more painful.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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Comments to "Lost children":
    • Crystal

      Just in my observation – and I wonder if there are scientific studies to back this up? – there is a new trend of child mortality coming to the fore in the 21st century which isn’t really “child” mortality. It is the phenomenon of a VERY old parent outliving a middle-aged or young-old child. You see the ninety-something women (usually) who have buried a 60-something adult child who died of cancer, heart disease or whatever. The late Queen Mother outlived her younger daughter Princess Margaret.

      This must be even harder on the very elderly outliving a middle-aged child – first, because the elderly may not have the cognitive ability to cope with such a loss, and two, few expect to outlive an adult child.

      Is this something I am just seeing and it’s confirmation bias or is it really happening?

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    • Phillip Fucella

      Maybe one reason parents find this loss particularly difficult is that there is no single word that identifies this experience. There are words that identify someone who has lost a parent (orphan) or a spouse (widow or widower). The historical fact that the loss of children was so prevalent might have meant there was no need for a word to distinguish parents who had a child die. Apparently Sanskrit and Hebrew do have words for parents who have lost children (http://wordsmith.org/awad/awadmail278.html).

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