4 Common Questions That Have Complicated Answers for a Bereaved Parent
A dead child. It’s a taboo subject. People either don’t want to or don’t know how to talk about it. Before I lost my son, Dylan, to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) at almost 9 months old, I felt the same way. I had only met a handful of people who had lost children and even fewer who were willing or able to discuss it. The problem with continuing in this manner is that it isolates the survivors and creates an atmosphere where common questions manifest complicated answers.
1. “How are you doing?” Everyone asks this question when they run into people. Most respond with the automatic, “I’m fine.” I realized quickly after losing my son, I wasn’t really fine anymore. But with over-packed days, few people have time to listen to how we are really doing. If I’m checking out at the grocery store and the cashier asks, “How are you doing today?” I know they don’t expect to hear the answer, “I just cried my eyes out for two hours because I came across the sock of my son who passed away.” The person behind me doesn’t have the time for it either. So you get used to giving the contrived response, “I’m fine.”
That’s not to say I haven’t blurted out how I’m really feeling, especially in the beginning when the emotions were so raw and uncontrollable. Over time though, I figured out how to manage my responses. But even now, two and a half years later, sometimes, the pain is still so overwhelming, I respond without a filter. Even with friends and family, I wonder if they really want to know the brutal details of how I have flashbacks, nightmares and sobbing spells.
This leads to the other cliché response I got used to saying: “As well as can be expected.” Writing it out, it seems so silly a response; how does anyone think a person who just lost a child is doing? Most people literally say, “I can’t even imagine” because its unimaginable. Even when you are living it, it feels that way. You feel like you are living someone else’s life because in no way does it resemble the one you had imagined for yourself. The truth is, once you have lost a loved one, how you are doing can no longer be summed up in one simple sentence.
2. “How many children do you have?” When meeting new people, this inevitably comes up. It’s a routine question asked when trying to get to know someone and before my son passed away, it never bothered me. But now, when I find myself in new situations, I feel myself tensing up waiting for this question. I know if I answer fully, it’s going to become uncomfortable for both of us.
They expect a standard response, which is too complicated to be answered by just “Four.” And if I do say just that, they inevitably ask, “Boys? Girls? What are their ages?” Then that common question is quickly regretted by the other person because it comes with my new standard answer of “Three living daughters and one infant son in heaven.” Immediately, a pitying look appears on the other person’s face, and I can tell they wished they hadn’t asked the question. There’s usually an awkward, “I’m so sorry.” And then the worst part comes, the sub-question: “What happened?” You’re probably thinking, people don’t really ask that, do they? Yes, often, especially when they are trying to fill the uncomfortable pause in the conversation or simply because they are in such disbelief, they want to understand. My reply depends on how I am feeling and generally dictates how much detail I give out.
I had a sales person in a maternity store ask me when I was pregnant with my rainbow daughter about my son. I didn’t want to turn a happy occasion into a sad one, so I didn’t go into much detail. Another time, I was picking up clothes for the new baby, and I felt led to go into more detail. It turns out, that mother had lost a child to stillbirth at 36 weeks. I was able to share with her and create a friendship where she felt safe to talk about her loss.
Among the many positive experiences with this question, it inevitably opens the door for hurtful follow-up questions to be asked as well. One mother asked me if my son had vaccines before his death as she was a firm believer in vaccines contributing to SIDS deaths. She barely knew me and wanted to pass judgment on decisions I made for the care of my child. It takes great resolve not to react in anger in those situations, and I am still doing my best to figure out how to handle it when it happens. I have been asked by many people, “Why don’t you just say you have only three children and save yourself the pain?” My response is, “Because when I became a mother to an angel, I made the decision never to deny my son’s existence.” He is as much my child as my other living children. That doesn’t just go away because he died. Yes, it can make situations uncomfortable at times, but I refuse to pretend he doesn’t exist simply to make life easier.
3. “Are you planning to have another child?” Because I only have girls, I get asked this often. It opens up mixed emotions because I feel like I have to explain the fact that I have a son, he’s just not with us any longer, and I did have another child after him, she just happened to turn out to be a girl. We have always seen ourselves with just three kids; we can’t have anymore of our own and I don’t want to keep chasing the idea of having more children to fill a void I have come to realize can never be filled. Especially since I finally made peace with the fact I know I will never have a living son on earth again. It took me a long time to accept that, to be able to say it out loud and a find a way to not be angry or disappointed when someone says, “Oh, you have all girls. You think you will try for a boy?”
There is one thing that does give me comfort: the possibility that one day I might have a grandson. It may seem odd to think of something so distant in the future since my girls are only 10, 8 and 17 months, but it gives me solace to think that one day, I might have a little boy in my life again via one of my daughters.
4. “Do you want to come to my baby shower/child’s birthday/son’s wedding?” Milestones are painful, whether it be the ones our own living children reach or the ones of friends’ and family. Invites to events that used to be reflexively yes become difficult to decide whether you are able to attend. The old you would have said yes with no hesitation but the new you knows these type of milestone events create triggers sparking upheaval. Going would be like walking through an emotional minefield, and when you already hurt every day without triggers, how do you muster up the courage to purposefully walk into a situation rife with them?
For the first few months immediately following my son’s death, I couldn’t even be around other babies without crying. I didn’t know if I could ever be normal around them, let alone hold one or be at an event for one. Then around six months, things changed for me. I started finding joy again in other people’s celebrations. I even decided that I wanted to try for another baby, something my husband had wanted right away, but I couldn’t think about. I helped plan and attended my sister-in-law’s baby shower, went to two first birthday parties for little boys and a dear friend’s wedding where he danced with his mother all within the first nine months. These were huge milestones for important people in our lives, and I wanted to be a part of them.
Their special moments made me smile with happiness for them, but if I am honest, they also brought twinges of deep pain. It was the first shower I attended since my own for Dylan, and I found myself constantly forcing myself to push away thoughts of him. Dylan never made it to his first birthday, and one of the cousins was the little boy with whom he was supposed to grow up. When our friend danced with his mother, I realized I would never get to dance with my son at his wedding. All of those moments were ripped away for me when my son died. With time, it gets more bearable, but it never changes. I was recently at another shower for a baby boy and the same thoughts floated across my mind. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be invited to your baby shower, child’s birthday or son’s wedding. But when you see me at your event and I have a sad look on my face or a tear in my eye, realize that it’s not a reflection of what you have but as a result of what I have lost.
Basic answers becomes labyrinthine after deep loss. It causes one to live a duel life in which two sets of emotions are simultaneously felt, happiness for others mixed with sadness for what will never be.
Follow this journey on Jenna Brandt’s Blog.