“I used to enjoy having dinner with my friends, but since my son died, I no longer want to go,” says Wang, a woman in her early 60s who lost her only child in a car accident four years ago. “People my age like to talk about their children,” she explained to me during a sit-down interview in 2019. “My son was a very good child. How can I go to these dinners and listen to my friends talk about their kids?”
As Wang spoke, she showed me a photo of her son taken at his graduate school commencement, not long before his death at age 27. Her son’s premature passing drastically changed her life, leaving her grieving and childless just as she entered old age.
Wang was just one of over 100 people I interviewed for a research project on grief among Chinese parents who had started families under China’s one-child policy, only to later lose their only offspring. Known as shidu parents — literally “having lost their only child” — the majority of them are unable to have another child due to their advanced age. According to a 2010 estimate, 1 million Chinese mothers over the age of 35 later became childless. Although China announced a two-child policy in 2015, the number of shidu parents continues to rise, as parents of that generation exit their prime reproductive years.
While grieving the loss of a beloved child is an emotionally traumatic experience for parents anywhere, this loss is exacerbated in contemporary China by the country’s evermore child-centric family structures. Under this new dynamic, which was reinforced by the one-child policy, parents feel a need to ensure their only child is successful, fulfilled, and ideally also able to support them in their old age. Consequently, they have devoted increasing financial resources and time to support their children’s educational, professional, and familial goals.
Like their peers, the shidu parents I spoke with recounted their own adventures in intensive parenting. Not only did they provide financial and emotional support for their child growing up, but they continued to help their child’s transition to marriage and parenthood, such as by financing weddings and offering extensive child care assistance. Wang told me how she had paid high tuition fees to send her son abroad for school, and at the time of her son’s sudden death, she was trying to help him find a high-paying job.
In the process of supporting their child’s educational, professional, and personal development, Chinese parents come to share their child’s life goals and identify strongly with their child’s successes and failures, joys and sorrows. Research participants whose child was considered successful, at least by the usual standards of having been a good student or received a high-paying job, expressed a particular sense of pride in their interviews. But their only child’s death abruptly severed this sense of identification, leaving some shidu parents dealing with a profound loss of meaning and purpose in life. “It hurts me when I see his diploma,” Wang told me, “I supported him wholeheartedly. Now all I have is that diploma.”
Exacerbating the grief among shidu parents are feelings of guilt and powerlessness for not being able to prevent their child’s premature death. Such feelings have often left my research participants feeling as though they have failed as parents. And in a child-centered society, in which close parent-child relationships are not only held up as an ideal, but also a metric of success and happiness in one’s personal life, the loss of a child can leave some feeling as though they failed at life. As one shidu mother put it: “Whenever I compare my life with my friends’ lives, I feel like a loser. I no longer have a happy and intact family.”
Another challenge of living in a child-centered society after losing an only child is how to socialize with peers who do not share that sense of loss. Many of my interviewees had reached the life stage when their peers were celebrating a child’s transition to marriage and parenthood. As proud grandparents, their friends often engage in lively conversations about their grandchildren and the joys of grandparenting. Even those who had not yet become grandparents still enjoy exchanging news about their children. For shidu parents like Wang, socializing with these peers often reminds them of their loss and aggravates their pain.
Many of the shidu parents I interviewed solved this problem by isolating themselves from their social circles and avoiding close encounters with the country’s child-centric society. When they did meet new acquaintances, they often did not disclose their child’s death, partly to avoid inquiries about their loss or revealing their self-perceived failings. But for the most part, shidu parents preferred to form new social circles among themselves. Often finding each other through social media or introductions by mutual friends, they’ve provided each other emotional comfort at times of severe distress, and practical assistance, such as cooking, when they fall ill. Some have even discussed how they might spend their old age together. One shidu mother explained to me why she preferred to socialize with her shidu friends rather than her other friends and relatives: “My relatives and friends don’t understand how I really feel, because they do not share my pain. But when I talk to my shidu friends, I feel they know exactly how it feels to lose an only child.”
While shidu parents are able to engage in collective healing through mutual aid, they also want government support in their old age. What this looks like should reflect the unique challenges of shidu life. Currently, the Chinese government has initiated multiple programs for shidu parents, most notably a monthly allowance and hospital care insurance, but the experiences of this group suggests a need for programs that address their specific needs, possibly even including shidu-exclusive elder care facilities.
“Many of us hope to live in a nursing home just for shidu parents,” Wang told me. “If we share a nursing home with those who have children, when their children visit them and when they can turn to their children for support, it will only make us feel sad and desperate.”
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: EyeEm/People Visual)