Should I Talk About My Son in the Past or Present?


When talking with people who may not be familiar with your loss, there comes a moment every parent who has lost a child dreads. The question, “So, do you have children?”

If you have children who are alive, the answer is a bit easier to come by, but for me, Jake was our only child, so how do I answer that? In the past or the present? “Have” or “had”? It is a bit of a dilemma. Even though Jake isn’t alive, I am bound to keep his spirit and memory alive, so for me, there isn’t really an accurate response. I am not willing to relegate my fatherhood to the past, but technically, I no longer have a son.

Do I say, “Yes I do”? That invites more questions such as: “What does he/she do?” How old is he/she?” etc., and the conversation gets dicier as it goes on.

Do I say, “Yes I did”? More accurate but invariably triggers the second dreaded question, “What happened?” I have been somewhat circumspect in this second answer for the past two years. Mostly I just say “It was an accident,” and let the asker assume I mean an auto accident. I don’t get into the details; it is still all too painful.

The third answer, “I did once, but he died,” is a sure-fire conversation stopper. Direct, yes, but depending on who is asking, can end the conversation in an uncomfortable silence or can trigger the “what happened” inquiry, and we’re back to square two.

Perhaps, the answer, “Yes I have a son, but he passed away,” might be the best, albeit somewhat contradictory, choice; past and present all at once. All of them have the ability to unleash the emotions that bubble so close to the surface, whether I can keep them subdued is a random and unpredictable affair. Sometimes I can talk about Jake with a clear and rational tone, dry-eyed as I relate some anecdote or other, or depending on the vagaries of my feeling that day can talk about the how and why of his passing. Other times, I can barely mumble a reply and excuse myself from the conversation. I never know which one will show up.

Black and white photo of a man wearing glasses with his arms crossed

For me, he is still such a vital presence, or as has been observed, his absence is such a massive presence, that to talk about him in the past tense doesn’t feel quite right. I am reluctant to let him go. And yet, it happened. What’s past is past, and all the equivocating won’t alter the reality. I had a son, and he is no longer with us. Had. Past tense. It’s as if I have to keep repeating that to convince myself of the truth. His death, and my life without him, is still so surreal that some days I cannot believe it happened. Still in the WTF stage. Still so bewildered that our lives came to this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But it is. The past is past.

Cliché? Yes. That bright future we all looked toward has been shattered forever, overwritten by events of that past. I am unsure of my own future now.

So we only have the present. Each moment ticks away, the days flit by, weeks pile
up and the years grind on — more than two now. Soon enough it will be five, 10, 20, and yet each moment is “the present.” There is really nothing else, and in each of those moments, Jake lives. If only in our memories, the memories of those who loved him, whose lives he touched, but he lives.

So I think that third answer will suffice. I have a son. He is no longer with us, but I have a son. Will always have a brilliant, beautiful boy. In a way, he is immortal now, as long as we remember him, remember the past he so vividly inhabits and keep him close to us in the present. Past and Present all at once.

How do you answer that question? Past or present?


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