The first BC Family Day is upon us, making this weekend a long weekend at the beginning of February dedicated to families. What is great news for some might not be so great for others. Holidays are always hard for bereaved parents. Some more than others, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. Each one of them serves as a stark reminder of what we as grieving parents have lost. Often one cannot escape. In the case of Christmas there is no hiding. Christmas spirits are everywhere, music non-stop, prescribed happiness. Luckily there are many individuals and organizations that have recognized holidays as challenges for some people, e.g. older people with no relatives who have noone to celebrate with. However, I am not aware of any recognition of bereaved parents during these occasions.
So how will a day play out that is dedicated to families? After starting to think about it, the question came up if this day is really intended for us. We definitely self-identify as a family. We have two kids who both happen to not be alive anymore. But would we be perceived as a family by others? I think that the friends and colleagues who know us and our story see us as a family, but to the general public we do not have any kids to present. We are a “regular couple” without children. Does it really matter what others think? I think it does, especially in the case of children who passed away as most parents will hope to acknowledge and honor their children. Will Family Day become a curse for bereaved parents?
People in slightly different situations than ours might have similar questions and thoughts. Families who lost a child, but have other living children might have to find the right balance to celebrate this day with their living children while coping with their emotions of loss and grief for the deceased child or children. Parents who might not be able to conceive children or who lost babies very early without anyone knowing might get through this day in isolation. Single parents where the partner might have separated or even died, might question their status as a family.
Let’s start by looking at the definition of a family. I am fully aware of the fact that every person always has a family. If we consider a family tree, each individual is connected to someone somehow, either upwards to one’s immediate parents and grandparents or through marriage to one’s spouses parents or downwards to one’s own children. However, I am looking at this in the closer definition of your spouse and potentially children, apparently called a nuclear family. There are other days that honor mothers and fathers so this Family Day seems to target this closer group. After browsing through various dictionaries, family turns out to be differently defined everywhere. Here are a few examples:
Oxford Dictionaries defines family as “a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit“. Possible modifications are “a group of people related by blood or marriage“. Is this the first indication that a family requires children? I am not sure why they have to be living together, but that would further exclude dead children to count as part of a family.
- a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not: the traditional family.
- a social unit consisting of one or more adults together with the children they care for: a single-parent family.
- the children of one person or one couple collectively
- the spouse and children of one person
They lift the requirement to be living together, but each option requires children. It doesn’t really say if the children have to be alive, although it would be difficult to argue that one can care for dead children. At least they are more progressive and include single-parent families.
Wikipedia’s definition is way to long to repeat here, but this sentence stood out to me: “In most societies it is the principal institution for the socialization of children.” Again, it is all about children and socialization of children suggests they have to be alive, right? The Free Dictionary might be the most open by having an option for “two or more people who share goals and values, have long-term commitments to one another, and reside usually in the same dwelling place” and “all the members of a household under one roof“.
Well, from these definitions I do not get the sense that my wife and I with our two dead children necessarily qualify as a family. Let’s now check how BC has presented this day. I went through a couple of news releases, e.g. Family Day Date Announcement, BC Council for Families News, CBC, as well as the official BC Family Day website. I have to admit that I am positively surprised. The BC government seems to have focused on the extended family, not the nuclear family, and at several occasions the diversity of families and uniqueness of each family situation are highlighted. Kudos to the officials for not making this day only about traditional families with children, but being inclusive of all the diverse family constellations, including cases like ours where we have lost our children. Although we are in no mood for celebrations, we at least do not feel excluded.
Update: today on the actual Family Day (Feb 11, 2013) I listened to the CBC radio show BC Almanac during which they asked listeners how they define family. It was interesting to hear the different approaches. A researcher from UBC Okanagan was in the studio to share her insights as well. They differentiated between the statistical definition, the blood-related family and the social family. One caller mentioned unconditional love as criteria who belongs to your family.