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!"
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?