Vilomah: Meaning and Origin of a Powerful Word

Published February 1, 2021
Grieving parents standing near a small casket

Grief experienced after the loss of a loved one floods the soul with intense, diverse emotions. For many, such grief produces an incredible feeling of alienation and loneliness. The feeling of going through these emotions alone, with no one who quite understands for support, can be overwhelming. By identifying a parent who has lost a child as a vilomah, the parent who is experiencing an enormous amount of pain and sorrow often finds comfort through identity and community.

What's a Vilomah?

Vilomah is a word gaining acceptance to describe a parent who has lost a child. Expectation from the natural life-cycle is that a child will out-live the parent. There are times when this is not the case and the child passes away before the parent. Duke Professor Karla Holloway begin using the word "vilomah" when she realized that there was no single word to describe the loss of her child.

Common Hopelessness

A parent who loses a child immediately experiences a disruption in the natural cycle of life. It is expected that a child will outlive the parent. The disruption and trauma felt from the unxpected traumatic loss of a child cause intense suffering and diminishes hope and the will to live. Daily routine activities become tasks that take complete mental, emotional, and physical dedication. Failed marriages plague couples who first experience the loss of a child. The pain stays with the parent the rest of life. Grief, bereavement, and depression often set in. Support from others is limited because so few perceive the depth of the loss.

A New Identity

Understanding who you have become once an incredible life-change occurs is vital for progress and recovery. Someone whose spouse leaves is labeled as "divorced." Someone whose spouse dies is now a "widow" or "widower." A child whose parents have died is called an "orphan." The term "vilomah" provides an identity and a degree of understanding for both the vilomah and their families and friends.

Understanding the Etymology of Vilomah

Vilomah is a Sanskrit word, from the same language that gave us the word "widow," which means "empty." Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world, sating back to about 400 BC. Today, Sanskrit is one of the official languages in India, but it is only used for religious purposes. Vilomah means "against a natural order." Professor Holloway began using the term when she discovered there was no English word that gave meaning to a parent whose child had died.

Parents grieving over infant casket


There are two accepted pronunciations of the word "vilomah." The word may be articulated as "VEE-AH-LO-MAH" or a simpler "VEE-LO-MAH." The variance comes about in trying to Anglicize the "L" which makes a less audible sound in Sanskrit than in English.


Most of the time, society considers talking about death a subject to avoid. Because there has been no way to easily identify the one who has lost a child without a detailed explanation. Communication about the incident and the process of grief helps bring about a certain sense of closure.


Some parents who have lost a child desperately need to identify with others who have similar experiences and feelings. While every bereavement is a different path, some parents need comfort and strength from others who have suffered the same time of loss. Some are able to suffer alone, but may find that even a label helps them understand that others are feeling the same thing.


Honoring the life of a child and recognizing the meaning and purpose they bring to the life of a parent often brings comfort over the passing of time. Many find that a label for the process of time, quickens the pace of the progress.


The more that an individual learns about the different types of grief, the stronger the chances are to find a path toward healing. By hearing the stories of others and knowing that a community and network of support exists, a grieving parent can begin to feel the restoration of hope. While there is no absolute end to the suffering, glimpses of reason and purpose in living begin again to surface.

Finding Meaning and Hope

Finding the correct word to describe your circumstance, particularly the pain and suffering endured through the loss of a child. Understanding your purpose and identity as a vilomah is a vital part of surviving loss.

Vilomah: Meaning and Origin of a Powerful Word