How many children do you have?

My husband and I went out to dinner the other night with my bosses, their spouses and an out-of-town businessman whom I had only met once previously. In the course of conversation,  the businessman asked me, “How many children do you have?” “Three,” I answered. “How old are they?” he asked.

Most parents proudly rattle off the names and ages of their kids or grandkids, where they live, what they do, where they go to school, their latest accomplishments, and the like. To a parent who has had a child die, it’s not that easy or carefree any more.

You would think, after all these years, it would get easier to answer these questions than it used to be in the years following Jason’s death. I thought I had it figured out what to say, but then I stumble on the words.

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that, no matter how long it’s been or what the situation is, they’re never easy questions to answer when you have lost a child. Some questions just prick that tender spot in your heart. Sometimes it hammers the place in your heart. Sometimes tears are so close to the surface that it takes everything you have to keep yourself together.

As a person who generally sees both sides of every coin, part of me wants to stay absolutely true to who I am and the experiences I have gone through. I want to honor the memory of our precious son – the most wonderful young man in the world – no matter how uncomfortable it makes others. But, I also know that saying our precious son was killed by a drunk driver when he was 19 years old is conversation stopper. Conversation comes to a screeching halt and things get really awkward all of a sudden. It makes everyone uncomfortable. Conversation gets stilted and everyone tiptoes around the topic of a child dying while working to find a comfortable flow in the conversation again. It’s hard to be the one who makes people so uncomfortable.

One thing that a bereaved parent learns very early on is that, if you want people to stay around you and to interact with you, the responsibility falls on YOU to make people comfortable. In spite of everything we have gone through, WE have to work to make people comfortable around US. And sometimes that means that, in certain circumstances, I don’t mention the fact that I have lost the most awesome son in the world. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is.

And so, I talked briefly about Jenna and what she’s doing…and about Eric, where he lives, what he does, how many kids he has…silently asking Jason to forgive me for avoiding talking about him. It’s just not easy any more.

I read an awesome post recently concerning the topic of bereaved parents hiding their pain. She talks about our reality being different than what we show people around us. I highly recommend reading it:

© 2015 Rebecca R. Carney

12 thoughts on “How many children do you have?

  1. Rebecca I’ve not lost a child so I can only stand on the periphery of your chronic grief and comment. Part of me wants you to tell the people exactly how Jason died — yes it may be a conversation stopper but would also serve as an eye-opener when, later, that person (or someone he/she is close to) takes one drink too many. Knowing how someone dies provides a lesson to use all. My oldest sister died of breast cancer and, 3 years later, my youngest sister died of malaria — my grieving mother never failed to share this information. Yes, some became quiet before moving away but others remained with a comforting arm and word and later became energized to find out more about the diseases that took two of the most beautiful women from this earth.

    And then there’s the part of me that fully understands the need to moderate our responses given certain earthly circumstances.

    Suffice it to say, you have broadened my understanding of grief and the strength it takes to continue in the face of extreme parental challenge.

    All the best to you,

  2. Yes, I hate that question!! So if I don’t think I’ll ever see this person again who is asking, I give the short version of my living children. If they are someone that I may see again, I say I have 3 surviving children and one angel. It is really difficult because my son died by suicide. I don’t ask other people that question anymore either.

  3. I remember well have the exact response and feelings as you. Grief isolated me so much and over time I shifted. I didn’t want to make things awkward so I hardly ever mentioned my dead son. I wanted to fit in with those people who handn’t suffered from grief. After about 15 years, I settled in with that as my habit. When I rediscovered music and writing in 2010, I felt joy again in life and changed my approach. I am able to speak of my son in a way that feels comfortable now. The knife isn’t stabbing my heart like before and I am not pushing things down. It might cause other people to squirm, but because I am okay – I think it brings him back to me in a very comforting and beautiful way. He is right next to me and before he was in the shadows. I hope that transition will happen for you, too, Becky. You write your feelings well and it’s wonderful that you do.

  4. I’m 100 per cent on this one with you. Each situation has to be weighed individually. You have to be able to stand back and look at the circumstances, appropriateness, whether you want this person to know more about you, whether it will be an awkward situation you have unnecessarily created, etc. It takes a long time to get to the point where NOT mentioning the child who died in response to a casual question doesn’t feel inauthentic or disloyal or like denying of the precious child you had who died. But when you get it’s an important milestone of grief, I think. We talk about this all the time in my groups.

  5. I often do as you did: I say I have seven ages 19-31 and hope to leave it at that. If they ask questions, I speak of my living children. Especially in business situations I try to avoid the subject. It does make for awkward conversation when I share that our son died two years ago. I pray that when I share, I honor my son and bring glory to God.

  6. I completely understand. This happens so often. If you don’t give the “complete” number….you feel like you are acting as if the child/children didn’t exist…and they did. I find that people, when they first ask….are just being friendly. I usually answer this way, “I have five children.” Then, when asked their ages, I politely think and say, “Well….let’s see… Cody would be 30….Cory would be 29 in September, then Caleb 27 in October…and then Bryce is 15 and Breanna is 12.” I’ve never had anyone catch on to the “would be” part of this… And to me…this allows me to represent all of my children. Then….it’s up to me if I want to share that my oldest 3 are angels and my 2 youngest are still at home. I feel empowered by the fact that I’ve shared all my children with them and it is up to me if I want to continue to share more from that point on.
    I totally understand the butterflies you feel though. Because the next question is always… Where did they go to school? or Where do they live now? And to that….the answers are never simple!
    Trust your gut and know that whatever you say is what is right for your emotional health at that very moment!!!

  7. I lost my little boy 6 months ago and I’ve only been asked this question once. I have no other children so I always answer yes I do. I don’t lurch into telling them he died, only if it comes up. But I agree it’s a conversation stopper. It’s so hard. You get to a point where you know if you explain your baby is in heaven that you have to explain the circumstances. I feel sometimes I bring people down, I haven’t got a comfortable answer and it’s comforting to know that others even further on this journey than me have that problem too. Prayers to you x

  8. This is always the most difficult question. I agree that I also hide most of what is going on inside. It is far to hard to bare it all. Regardless, of who that person may be, friends or family or stranger.

  9. i went to a new Dr. recently and had to fill out the paper work. One of the questions was how many children I had and their ages. I was stumped. I had no idea how to answer. Our Artie took his life last year.

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  12. I know exactly what you mean. Even ten years after my daughter died, whenever I get that question I have to pause and consider how much I can share in the current situation and how it would impact people around me.

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