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Question of the Month

How do I answer the question, "How many children do you have"?

Ann DouglasFrom Ann Douglas . . .

I remember struggling with this right after Laura was stillborn. It somehow seemed disrespectful not to mention her when someone asked me how many children I have, but, on the other hand, I found it difficult to have to re-tell my story over and over again to complete strangers, particularly since some of those strangers didn't quite know how to handle my news and, in many cases, reacted inappropriately.

Over the years, I've found that what works best for me when I meet someone new is to initially talk about my four living children, and then, if the person seems to be someone I may want to get to know better or if he or she seems to be generally interested in my family situation, I may decide to tell them about Laura, too.

Each parent who has experienced the death of a baby has his or her own unique way of responding to this particular question. There's no "right" or "wrong" way to respond, nor is there anything wrong with answering the question in different ways at different times -- my particular modus operandi. What's important is that you honor your feelings.

Ann Douglas

Marilyn HeavilinFrom Marilyn Heavilin . . .

How many children do you have? I may give an answer any where from five to two, depending on the setting. When I am introduced as a speaker, it read in my bio, "Marilyn Heavilin is the mother of five children." If it's a situation where I think the people really want to know and I feel I can trust them with the information, I will most likely say, "I have given birth to five children, and three of them have died." If the person just says something like, "I'm so sorry," then I just continue with our conversation. However, if they ask specifically , "How did your children die?" I will answer any questions they put forth. I have found that I always end up having to explain myself if I answer "two."

In one instance, shortly after Nathan's death at 17 years of age, I said I had two children. The couple then proceeded to tell me how difficult their teenage son was being and how they sometimes wished they could give him away! Later that evening, someone introduced me as a woman who had recently buried her 17 year old son. I looked over at the couple who wanted to give their son away. Of course, they were turning pale, and I felt foolish.

One friend gave me an amusing answer that I occasionally use. "I have five children; three perfect, and two still here!"

I guess I would suggest you do what you are comfortable with. There are no set rules. If you state that your child died, then you need to be prepared for the other person's response which may be anything from shock to avoidance.

Much love,
Marilyn Heavilin

Sherokee IlseFrom Sherokee Ilse . . .

This is a most important question that can be simply answered - if you wish. The first thing to ask yourself is, "Am I ok with wearing my love, grief and baby on my sleeve as well as in my heart?" Or, "Can I feel comfortable doing this at least some of the time?" Then if you decide you want to acknowledge to your family and those who ask--here are some simple thoughts you could share.

The first one is mine . . . the one I use most often. "I have two living children and three who live on in my heart." Another option is "I have three babies in heaven and two who live with me on earth." Or Kellan is 20, Trevor is 18 and I have had three babies die, Brennan, Marama, and Bryna.

Or simply "I have two living children." You will note that this one is not as forthright, but leaves the door open if the other person wishes to walk in and talk about it. On occasion I might say, "Two." It doesn't seem honest or true, but there have been a few times when I do that - usually I am in a hurry and don't want to engage in conversation about it at that time. And if you don't have any living children at the time you could say, "I don't have any living children at this time, but I do hold 2 closely in my heart."

Why is it wise, necessary, and good to honor our babies this way? It helps them stay alive in other people's hearts and minds. It allows others to know that sometimes babies die. It could be that they know someone else who needs help and our honesty may give them a chance to learn more or even connect us with that other hurting parent. It might be that they have a secret pain in their lives and our modeling says its "ok" to talk about such things. It teaches our other children that they are not the only ones and no matter what, we'll always remember their brother/sister, which by the way is a message to them. If, heaven forbid, they should die (remember they have such fears) they could feel secure that we would always say their name and remember them too.

While there are probably many other reasons why the answer to this question is important, at least I've shared a few with you . . . not to ever make you feel guilty if you don't physically say their name out loud, but to encourage you to know it is ok and there are good solid reasons why this can be a good idea.

Blessings in the New Year,

From Laura Randolph . . .

This is such a difficult question to be asked, especially soon after a loss. Like so many questions dealing with the loss of a child, there are several possible responses. Some parents choose to always mention the children they have lost and others choose to only mention living children. Many bereaved parents say that they answer differently depending on how they are feeling and the situation in which the question is asked.

Personally, I almost always say that we lost a son due to a heart defect and we have a one-year-old daughter. Reactions to this have been on a wide spectrum. Some people ignore the comment about our son and ask about our daughter, others remark how sad and hard it must have been to lose a child. On occasion there have people who responded by telling me that they, too, have lost a child.

Unfortunately, some people do not know what to say and end up making hurtful statements about our sons death. While I try to use this as an opportunity to educate, their words often still sting.

For me, the question was especially hard when we had no living children. After I mentioned our son had died the conservation often stopped, or became very awkward. I remember several times comforting the people who asked and reassuring them it was all right they had asked. This is the reason one friend of mine with no living children does not mention the child she lost; she feels it only upsets her and the people who are asking. Another friend with no living children who has had two miscarriages deals with the question by saying, We have had two miscarriages, but hope to someday have a child in our arms. This way she feels as though she is ending with a hopeful statement.

If you feel strongly that you want to mention the child or children you have lost I encourage you to do so. Just be aware of the many reactions people may have, not all of which will be comforting. By the same token, if you feel strongly that you do not want to mention the child or children you have lost I would encourage you to say whatever feels right to you. Some people worry that by not mentioning their child who died they are being disrespectful toward the memory of that child. This is not necessary true. A bereaved mother once told me that she often no longer mentions the child she lost. When asked this question she responds by listing her living children then silently whispers, I love you and have not forgotten you.

Unfortunately, many modern societies do not discuss death openly and mentioning pregnancy loss or the death of a child is considered taboo. In spite of this, I encourage you to search within yourself and find the answer that you are most comfortable giving. Remember, as always, to be gentle with yourself, understanding that it may take time and trying different responses until you find an answer that feels right for you.

Laura Randolph

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