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'How Many Children Do You Have?' A Bereaved Parent's Dilemma

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It’s a question that eventually rises nearly every time you meet someone new, “How many children do you have?”

Seems pretty simple, right?

But for millions of parents, the question is a little more complex than counting beds.

According to a CDC 2014 report, more than 9,000 children died between the ages of 1 and 14, another 24,000 pregnancies end in stillbirth, while more than 500,000 known pregnancies end in miscarriage within the first 20 weeks of gestation.

And then there are those parents who outlive their young adult and adult children.

If you fall into any of those child loss categories, you may well understand the dilemma and anxiety that comes with that getting-to-know-you query.

What can the millions of grieving or previously bereaved parents do to make this situation a little easier on everyone?

Every parent handles the reply differently and sometimes differently depending on the situation.

In the past 27 years, I’ve encountered many second and third hand stories about mothers and fathers who choose a silent vigilance following the death of their children.

I struggled for many years following my newborn’s death from unexpected delivery complications. Talking about my dead son caused most people to avert their eyes, glance to their watches, and stammer some sort of apology. I felt awful for their pain and equally lost as to what to do with my own. I wanted to remember and honor my son’s life by including him in my own.

Nothing — not even death — can destroy the beautiful, positive and promise-filled moments I shared with my child.

I eventually found my stride, one that thousands of parents I’ve met similarly walk. If I am short on time or I sense the person is simply making polite conversation, I will often answer I have three children. If I feel a genuine interest, I will usually reply I have four children. If asked further questions about them, I will begin by sharing information about my youngest and working my way to my eldest, thus creating connections and bonds before letting loose what is for many people an uncomfortable truth that my eldest son resides in Heaven.

Though this approach does not derail the inevitable discomfort, it does soften the news because other bonds have already been established with the previous stories. Sharing the death first tends to create a sort of shock, one that seems to shut down the receiver’s systems for a few minutes, thus halting how the listener will hear everything else you say. Though this is what works for me, a comfort level I spent years figuring out for myself, there are countless ways to approach your reveal.

In addition to those parents who share my approach, I’ve also interacted with just as many who find it easier to count only those living children in casual conversation.

There is no right or wrong way to handle the question, Journeyer. What is important is you find a way to honor your needs, your grief and your eventual healing. And that you remain open to potential changes in your thoughts, emotions and desires.

If you or a loved one is affected by infant loss, you can find grieving resources at The Grief Toolbox.

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Originally published: April 3, 2017
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