Hopeless and alone: Spring Festival a bitter reminder for China’s elderly parents who’ve lost their only child
In the third of our four-part series on how people across China are spending the Lunar New Year, we talk to a Shanghai woman who is part of a Chinese phenomenon so common there’s even a term for it – shidu fumu
The English language has no term to describe a parent whose child has died. When fathers and mothers die, their children are called orphans. When a husband or wife dies, the spouse left behind is a widow or widower.
In China, however, it has become so common for elderly parents to lose the only child allowed to them under the government’s stringent one-child policy that a term has been coined to describe them – shidu fumu.
Shanghai widower Shi Hongbao is one of them. Her only daughter died of cancer four years ago.
As people across the country celebrate joyous reunions with their families this Lunar New Year, Shi is spending it alone. The annual affair is always a bitter reminder of how much she has lost.
“I don’t like the Spring Festival [any more],” the 68-year-old said. “I feel terribly sad during the holiday.”
Shi’s daughter died of lymphoma – a blood cancer – in 2013 at the age of 36 after battling the disease for years, unbeknown to her mother.
Afterwards, Shi moved out of her apartment in the city’s Pudong district and into her daughter’s home in suburban Minhang, about an hour away by subway.
The home used to belong to her daughter and her daughter’s husband, but Shi said he moved out soon after her death and remarried. The couple did not have children.
Now the elderly woman lives alone. Her husband died a few years before their daughter.
This Spring Festival, as she has done since her daughter’s death, Shi is staying at home alone, watching television and reading newspapers and books. She has some relatives in Shanghai, but no longer joins them to celebrate the holiday as she did with her husband and daughter.
“I don’t want to bother my brothers, sisters and their families,” she said. “I also don’t want to expose myself to seeing other families’ happy reunions. Witnessing the contrast between them and me will only cause me hurt as I’ve lost my only child and now I’m alone.”
Shi is among more than a million families in China with parents aged above 50 who have lost their only child. The number of such families grows by 76,000 a year, according to official data.
The social phenomenon is the result of the country’s stringent one-child policy, instituted in the late 1970s, which restricted most couples to a single offspring through a system of fines for violators and even forced abortions.
The policy was relaxed for some families in 2013, and then lifted altogether in 2016, allowing all couples to have two children, after the government grew concerned about the country’s ageing population and shrinking workforce.
But it was too late for families like Shi’s, with parents too old to have another child by then. Shi blames fate but also the state for treating her generation unfairly.
“As teenagers, we were deprived of education because of political upheavals like the Cultural Revolution,” she said. “When we grew up, we could only work in factories with low pay, and after we got married, we were allowed to have only one child.”
Two years after Shi’s daughter was born in 1977, Shi got pregnant again. Officials from the state-owned factory where she worked visited her home to talk her husband and her into aborting their second child.
“We followed that order and didn’t give it a second thought at that time,” she said. “Violating the one-child policy meant you would be punished and lose your job.”
The authorities offer such families monthly compensation for their loss. Since her daughter’s death, Shi has received 500 yuan (HK$566) a month from her local government. The amount was raised to 720 yuan this year.
But the monetary compensation does little to alleviate their loss in a society where parents traditionally depend on their children to care for them in their old age.
Many such families suffer not only financial difficulties with the loss of their child, but are also left without kin to help them in their old age such by performing tasks such as signing documents when they are admitted into hospitals or nursing homes.
Shi did not find out about her daughter’s cancer until a few weeks before her death. The daughter kept her deteriorating condition from her mother for years even as she struggled with the disease.
It wasn’t until her daughter could no longer continue working and had to be admitted to hospital that Shi was finally informed.
Shi said she blamed the cancer on her daughter’s unhealthy lifestyle.
“She worked at an airline company,” she said. “She was a workaholic and often worked overtime all night.”
Shi said she kept all her daughter’s belongings at home – from framed photos to her blouses and dresses – the way they were when died four years ago.
“I keep everything related to my daughter. I will not dump them. Over the past few years, I’ve missed her every single minute,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.
“My biggest problem in life is loneliness. Doctors say I have depression.”
She said she also suffered from insomnia, hypertension and heart disease.
Shi has tried to come to terms with her grief. Under her doctor’s advice, she has joined various group activities to keep herself busy. Once a week, she attends free English lessons and classes that teach people how to use a smartphone. She also travels with her friends.
Most of the friends she spends time with these days are also shidu fumu and they avoid talking about the loss of their child. “Mentioning the topic is like pouring salt on our wounds,” Shi said.
They find solace spending time with each other as they are not comfortable going out with “normal families”. They feel an unspoken pressure, believing elderly people who have lost their only child are considered inauspicious.
“My daughter was very filial. She bought me many gifts whenever she travelled abroad,” Shi said. “Now I have no hope for my future. Life is meaningless for me.”