“Hi, are you Imogen’s Mom?”
“Yes, nice to meet you.”
“You too! Is Imogen your only child?”
“How many kids do you have?”
Sometimes I wish time would freeze so I could take my time figuring out how I wanted to answer this time. This question is guaranteed to come up, I’ve prepared for it, and it still makes my heart skip a beat. Do I tell the whole truth? A partial truth? Avoid the question? Lie through my teeth?
Honestly… those are all legitimate options. Let’s take a closer look at them.
The Whole Truth
There are absolutely moments when sharing your family history – including children who have died – feels right. Maybe this is the only option that ever feels right to you, and that’s OK. You are not responsible for someone’s reaction to your family’s truth. They asked. One option is to use a transitional phrase to give them a little bit of warning, at the same time giving yourself a moment to collect yourself. “Well, it’s actually a difficult question for me…”
Sometimes, we reserve the whole truth for people who are going to be in our lives for a while. Teachers, neighbors, potential friends… they all will find out eventually and it can feel best to just simply tell them at the first natural opportunity. There may be tears, or not.
As all bereaved parents know, telling the stories of our babies who died often results in being told about other tragedies. Perhaps a true connection will be formed over a shared understanding of loss. In less fortunate interactions we are made to listen to a totally unrelated or tangential sad story (e.g. “I saw on the news…”).
One habit I got into was listing facts without answering what they actually asked. As an example, I’d answer, “How many kids do you have?” with “Everett is 4 and Imogen is 2.” It gave them enough to go on for follow-up questions without discussing my son who died. Maybe it was small talk at a park and I just didn’t feel like talking about grief. Maybe I’m feeling emotionally fragile and don’t want to share that with a stranger.
This is the one I use the most in casual conversation. I have a hard time just lying and this feels honest without sharing something deeply personal. It gives me more freedom when to talk about my son, rather than feeling goaded into it with a standard small talk question.
You don’t even have to give the half-truth if you’re comfortable skirting the question entirely. This is likely to be much more awkward for both you and the other person, but if you’re cool with that this is a fantastic option. How can you avoid it once it’s been asked? Some options are, “That’s actually a complicated question for me and I’d prefer not to talk about it,” “I’m just focused on little Imogen right now,” “I’m sorry, will you excuse me?” or “Why? Do you have other kids?” That last one can buy you some time to decide if you want to do a partial truth, “Oh! Your Jane is the same age as my Ryan!” or tell the whole truth.
You also can just walk away without saying anything. Maybe you didn’t hear them, or maybe you’re just rude. While it’s probably not great advice to come off as rude all the time, it is totally an option when you need it.
While it can feel like lying, replying with the count of your living children doesn’t have to be considered a lie. People won’t usually ask, “How many children have you had?” They ask, “How many kids do you have?”
You can mentally add to it to make it feel more honest, “How many kids do you have right now?” or “How many kids do you have living in your house?”
Depending on the circumstances, you can also just straight-up lie and make up a different life. “I have 10 kids, it’s crazy over at my house!” or “Adelaide is my only child.” I’ve met some bereaved parents who even pretend for a conversation that their child didn’t die. They talk as if everything is as it should be.
Make The First Move
If you find yourself stressing about this question, or knowing you’ll be in a situation where it’s likely to come up, you can try to take control of the situation. Maybe that looks like discussing your living kids before they can ask. “Oh, yes, I’m Hera’s Mom! My son Ares is over there, and baby Juno is at home.”
Or, you can offer the whole truth before the question pops up. Maybe you just want them to know, maybe you want to avoid the uncertainty of when the question will come. This can feel a bit blunt, and one way to help that is by doing it in writing. This saves you from bearing witness to their initial reaction and allows you to come back to the conversation when you feel ready. Setting up a play date over e-mail? Add in, “Before you come to our house, we wanted to let you know that our son, Oberon, died as an infant. His pictures are up and we are open about it with the kids.”
It does not matter what you choose to do with this question. There is no right answer, no wrong answer, just the “works for you” answer. If you don’t discuss your child who died, it does not mean you love them any less. It does not mean they don’t count. If you answer completely, including your children who died, you are not oversharing. If you use different strategies at different times in different places, that doesn’t make you wishy-washy. You are grieving and you are learning to navigate life after loss, however works best for you.