How many children do you have?
How many kids you have? For a bereaved parent that is such a loaded question. In an instant a hundred thoughts can run through our minds. How do we answer? What do we say? Do I share about ALL my children? How will they react? I want to honor my baby. I don't want to make them uncomfortable. I don't know if they're worthy of knowing our story. I don't want to be pitied. And much more, I'm sure.
It's a simple question, in many cases just small talk. It's not malicious, it's not insensitive and not a question people give more than a thought. But we (bereaved parents) think about it a lot, and for a long time. Our answers evolve as time passes, our answers change depending each situation and also dependent on who is inquiring.
In our society death is very private and when the death is a child, it almost feels to be a shameful secret-mostly because the thought of one of our children dying is so extremely terrifying that if we don't ever mention it, then perhaps we can pretend child/infant death doesn't exist. But it does. And, it's not contagious, especially not by talking about it.
We want to talk about our children. We love our children. We are proud of our children. We hesitate because we want you to feel our pride and unending love, without our child being know as "the child that died". They are so much more than that, and although hard to fathom, our babies whether they took their first breath outside the womb or not, are our perfect sweet child and we want you to know that about them, too.
Before I continue I want to be clear, this is how I have decided to honor my daughter. I have utmost respect and understanding to parents who honor their child by not sharing the sacred existence of their baby. Both sharing and not sharing are very personal decisions that us bereaved parents have decided on after much contemplation. So the answers that follow are mine and mine alone (unless you choose to borrow them!) and there is not one ounce of judgment for you who answer differently and especially those who choose to hold your child quietly in your heart. Our decisions are as unique as we are.
So, how many children do I have? I have two. I always have two. One time after Ruthie Lou died, the first time I was asked this question, I denied her. I said none. And my heart nearly fell to the floor. I felt sick to my stomach and in my head I was crying apologetically to her. It was awful. I swore never to do that again. But, I am creative in my answers because in some cases I don't want to share the sacredness that is her life.
When we were leaving George Mark Children's House without her for the first time, it was suggested we role play some conversations to be prepared for when these questions begin. In being prepared, although in the beginning it still felt devastating each time we were asked, at least we had a standard answer to blurt out as we fought our tears and walked away. Now although we call them "grocery store conversations" it's really just a general title that we give to a person who we may only see once and never see again or someone you don't or won't really know. These people while well-intentioned, probably aren't very interested in the answers they're just having casual conversation so in these situations I don't feel the need to bear my soul to them. But, I do always want to honor my daughter and include her in our family so I choose my words carefully.
Also, there are many different ways that people inquire about your family. When pregnant the most often asked question was, is this your first? After Reid was born that question changed to something along the lines of, is he your only child or do you have any other children?
Typically in the grocery store conversation, when I'm answering these questions, I keep the responses to be short and concise. I do this for my sake and their's, I'm never trying to make anyone uncomfortable with the fact that my daughter died and I'm also not immediately sure if the person asking will get the privilege to "know" my daughter. In having conversation with them, I quickly determine if it's someone to whom I want share Ruthie Lou or if it's best to keep it short and sweet.
Here are some examples of my rehearsed responses that I use today with my short answers first. Then I'll explain what I say when they persist in the conversation, as often happens.
The Grocery Store Conversations-
If I don't want to share Ruthie Lou, I am choosy how I answer. I am not dishonest but I'm not forthcoming either.
"Do you have any other kids?" "He's my only kiddo at home."
That pretty much shuts down the conversation. I didn't answer him yes or no and I stated the truth, Reid is my only child AT HOME.
But, if I've decided I'm open to the possibility of this conversation, here is how I quickly answer the questions when asked, still short, sweet and to the point. Here are some examples, all said with a proud smile on my face:
"How many children do you have?" "I have two."
"Is he your only child?" "No, I also have a daughter."
"Is he your first?" "Nope, my second baby."
(Most times these simple responses satisfy their question so they stop there, remember it's just small talk and it's the same way we answer "fine" to how are you, when we're really not fine. At this point, if they continue to inquire, then they either must really want to get to know me, they're just keeping casual conversation or they're just nosy in which case they're going to hear our story.)
So, these are the continuing type questions that follow:
"Oh, is his sibling a boy or girl" "He has an older sister."
"How old is she?" "My daughter passed away the year before he was born." -or- "My son is three and my daughter would have been four this year."
Uncomfortable moments can follow as the person decides which way they're going to go with this conversation as I stand there hoping for the magic to happen-when two people are real and honest and share a human moment.
"I'm so sorry." "Thank you so much. And don't be sorry, I love to talk about her."
That's my favorite line to share,"I love to talk about her" because it opens the opportunity for the person to inquire more if they desire. It gives them permission to know that I want to talk about her. Sometimes the conversation takes another turn. Sometimes in my vulnerability to share my life experience it allows the other person to also be truthful to share their loss as well. Both of those are so magical when two people come together and are real with one another. And just as much as I like to talk about Ruthie Lou, I equally as much love for the opportunity to share human moments with another person. To be authentic with them. For them to share something authentic about themselves that perhaps they don't often get to share either.
Now I'm not saying that I don't trip over my words in these conversations. I still get those nerves in my stomach, I'm still not sure how the person will react, I still don't know if on any given day if tears may well in my eyes. But I do know, that when I choose to share Ruthie Lou, my stomach doesn't hurt because I haven't mentioned her and that's the decision that I've made to feel most comfortable in my own skin.
Other than grocery store conversations, there are those instances where you're meeting someone worth getting to know, a new friendship is evolving, or perhaps getting a new job, or you know that eventually you'll want to share your truth this particular person. These conversations can go very differently, they may start out the same but my answers are really clear instead of being vague, as I am in a grocery store conversation. I always leave space for the conversation to continue but I never push more than they are willing to receive. Sometimes a person is ready to delve right in, sometimes it's not the right time/place and it gets continued another time and some people while I want them to be aware of my experience, we may only have the conversation that one brief moment and never broach the subject again and that's ok, too. For me, I just want to be true to Ruthie Lou as well as myself and allow the other person to be met wherever they feel most comfortable in the conversation. But mostly, I want to model that I am not ashamed, she is not a secret and leave the conversation so that should they want to talk about her in the future, I would love and welcome that opportunity.
Really simply, when asked how many children do I have in a general setting I answer, "I have two. My daughter lived 33 days and my son is almost three." That simple response will either open the conversation or shut it down but I put it out there and then I follow their lead. By doing so, I have opened the door and they can walk through it any way they choose. I don't get into "the story" ever, unless someone asks because that doesn't need to be pushed on anyone-they may not be prepared to hear it. But, in sharing that Ruthie Lou's existence matters-that all our babies matter and it gives them the opportunity to take the next step and I feel like in sharing her, I am helping to shatter the stigma about infant loss. It's my own way of educating others through the beauty of my daughter and what a beautiful gift she continues to be.
I am mama of three beautiful babes; two sons whom I have the privilege of raising and my daughter who lived for 33 sacred days.