Some consider these types of questions and comments personal and simply not appropriate in many situations. I get that. Others would furrow their brow in confusion if you tried to convince them of this.
Raising children is undoubtedly a bonding aspect of humanity – one that equalizes every culture and even time itself. So, as a species created for community, it only makes sense that a thing that threads us together is a thing we use as our bridge – our connection into relationship. That being said, humans have an uncanny knack of really messing things up, and what ‘could be’ often turns into something that ‘shouldn’t be’.
Regardless of your version of right or wrong in this case, the only thing we have any control over is ourselves. So, what questions do you choose to ask? Why do you ask them? And how do you answer?
While my mother-in-law was in the hospital, I chitchatted with a very pregnant nurse who was loving our family well. I asked her lightly if this was her first child, and then was quickly reminded that discussing someone’s children is never really a ‘light’ topic.
“This will be our first living child,” she answered directly.
I was so proud of her. Surprised, yes – even I wasn’t expecting this answer – but she didn’t apologize for the truth she shared, she didn’t even take a deep breath before unveiling a piece of her pain with me. I asked and she answered.
I gently expressed sorrow and asked a simple followup question about her lost child’s name, just as I would have if she referenced a living child at home. She described her small daughter, now missing from the world, with a resignation of loss and love that I recognized. We didn’t share a sobfest, no intense or uncomfortable words or silences. Her vulnerability opened the door for me to share a glimpse of my own loss, and together we bridged the divides of humanity in an authentic and meaningful way. I’m glad I asked and I’m glad she answered.
I wonder if most people, when pressed, wouldn’t have any idea why they’re asking a question about the nature or number of my children, and it probably doesn’t really matter to them if I have 3 kids or 2. But it matters to me, and to be blunt, if you’re going to ask the question, it should matter to you too.
As for my response, I’m still working on that… Three. Two. Three minus one. Two living, one dead. Two living with us. Three, but…
On the occasions I’ve answered with ‘three’ there is invariably a follow-up question. If it’s their names, I’m in the clear and things can remain simple. But if they ask about ages…. We’ve gone too far and I can’t keep it simple anymore. I suppose I could try 6, 4 and almost one. But this feels too much like a lie…
He’s not almost one, he’s dead.
Revealing the secret is often difficult, but invariably it’s the follow-up that proves to be the most challenging. What subsequent information matters most? The age he was? The age he should be? How long he’s been gone? How do I blurt this all out casually and carefully without losing the natural rhythm of the conversation the overall intent? How do I package up something which can’t possibly fit in any box?
There is no perfect way of course – and I suppose that’s the point. My story is a messy one. It’s shocking and painful… yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The brokeness is mine to bear, and I often remind myself that my pain is not caused by an unsuspecting stranger or even the inappropriate ones – for even if everyone said all the right things at all the right times, I would still hurt… I also try to remind myself that it is not my responsibility to shield anyone from the pain that drips out of me…
That being said, I do wish that folks would understand that a question about someone’s children is a sacred question, even if we’ve been conditioned to think of it as casual. If you ask the question in a grocery checkout line, fine, but it is no less sacred, and if you had forgotten that we live in a world where babies sometimes die, where apparently happy people carry brokenness inside them, then perhaps today is a good day to remember…