Saturday, June 21, 2014

For Bereaved Parents: How Many Children Do You Have?

Such a simple question, here in middle-class America.  Kind of like asking, "Are you cool enough?" in the middle of a midwestern summer.
This post was occasioned by a parent asking on the Compassionate Friends' FB page how others respond.  She lost a son a year ago and has just begun a new job, so the question is a frequent one. I think she's outrageously gutsy in taking on a new job at this point in her life, but most people at her work would have no idea about that.
The answers vary, of course.  Mine was:
"I would say that it depends on the situation. If I can get away with it, I say three and immediately ask about their family. Most people are more interested in talking about themselves anyway! and warm to the change of subject. Sometimes I say that I have a son who lives here and a daughter in a nearby city and don't mention where the other son is. Sometimes I say the exact truth. But after six years, I have become so "comfortable" with the topic of suicide that I am wary of the latter approach, because I have lost my patience for dealing with others' shock and discomfort."
It was FB, so I didn't elaborate, but I might have added:
As a pastor, I am often in situations which are all about the other person.  Not my time to share my life story, and so I don't.  When I am asked, I try one of the first two alternatives above.  On Mother's Day my answer to a friendly parishoner was admittedly extremely awkward; I had almost made it through the morning and was feeling quite pleased with myself for having done so, and then there it was, that question, on one of the worst days possible.
If it's a professional, public situation in which I can offer suicide prevention education, I go for it.
If I think it might help someone in a similar situation, I tell the truth, but tread cautiously.  We all grieve so differently, on such different timetables, and find comfort in such different ways.  Personally, I find it a lot more palatable to wonder where exactly God wandered off to when my son needed God most of all than to hear that God needed another angel in heaven ~ a God who gets lost or busy is a lot better than a God who steals children ~ but I have found that many others do not share my viewpoint!  I was honest this past week with the mom who had just lost a son to suicide, but I told truths that I thought might make her path a tiny bit easier.  I did not grab her by the shoulders and scream "This is the F-----G worst thing ever and when the shock starts to wear off you are going to want to DIE!"
Yeah. No.
I don't know a single person who wants to say a number of children one (or more) less than he or she actually has.  But that question ~ it's a minefield.  How are you doing with it?  And what about when it is your only child who has died?


  1. My sister died four years ago this June. I tend to say, "I have four sisters," and then if/when they ask, "Older or younger?" or some variant thereof, I say, "Three living and one deceased." I'm a pastor also, and walking that line of appropriate self-disclosure can be tough, especially around her birthday and the anniversary of her death, which fall in the same week. Thank you for your writing--I have been searching for ways to support my parents since they've lost their child, and your perspective is very helpful.

    1. That birth/death date problem is awful isn't it? My son died the day after his birthday, which is also, of course, his twin brother's birthday. As for your parents, a week of unsurpassable joy transformed into a nightmare. My deep condolences to you and your family for the loss of your precious sister.

  2. I do my best to avoid getting asked the question in the first place. I change the subject whenever I sense it is headed in the direction of that catastrophically loaded question. When I am asked, my answer depends on the situation, and whether I want to open myself up to that person. My tendency right now is to want to protect myself and my son from the careless judgment of others. Sometimes I just mumble an indistinct answer and sometimes I burst into tears (a real conversation killer).
    I do (did) have two children. Now, I'm extremely conscious of the fact that I no longer have kids. I have one kid or one child and the plural forms of those words stop me short every time. I am now much more reticent than before.

    1. The most ordinary of conversations transformed into a landmine, as all such conversations have become. Sometimes I wonder how we manage any interactions at all, always so alert do we have to be to the potential for a wrong turn. When I went to that shiva last week, I went with a former colleague, who was full of happy information about the jobs and marriages of her four children, all once students of mine. I am happy for them, especially for one who was deeply troubled during high school, but she had no idea how difficult that car ride was for me.