Dealing with the loss of a child may be the hardest thing a parent ever has the face. The pain and struggles associated with this overwhelming loss are numerous. And sometimes, they come out of the blue, knocking a grieving mother to her knees.
If you have ever been caught off guard with this question, you know exactly what I'm talking about. I’m sure you’ll never forget where you were or what you were doing. You probably even remember the feeling in your chest and gut.
“How many children do you have?”
No one warned me about this. It was like a punch in the gut the first time I heard it and it still makes me hesitate now, even more than six years after my daughter died.
I never used to think about this question before. When people would ask how many children I had, I would smile, say “two”, and then start talking and boasting about both of them.
The first time someone asked me this question, after Katie died, I remember stumbling on my words, tears erupting in my eyes, and saying, “I don’t know how to answer that.” I ended up vomiting my whole painful story. This uncomfortable situation happened with a stranger, in a store…and it was beyond awful. The poor woman excused herself and practically ran in the other direction. I'm sure she thought I was crazy. I had been caught off guard and didn't have a clue how to handle it.
After that terribly uncomfortable day, I learned that I needed to prepare myself for the next time it happened. Let’s face it, this question is a normal part of conversation. People ask this at the grocery store, at community BBQs, and in the lunchroom.
Guaranteed, this question will come up and more than once.
Fast forward to today and I will always say I have two children - Katie and Ryan. If I don't say two, it feels like I am deleting her out of my family. I just can't do that - it doesn't feel right to me. I will always be Katie’s mom and you’ll always be your child’s mom. Always. That will never change, so why would I not include her when I answer this question?
I remember one time I thought I would be ‘smart’ and avoid further questioning. I answered this question, by saying that I had one child and completely avoided any mention of Katie. I have to admit that I felt like I was going to be sick afterwards. I felt guilty. It felt absolutely gross and wrong to say ‘one’. So, now, I always say two.
But here’s the thing….you might feel differently and there are many ways you can handle this situation.
First, when someone asks ‘how many children do you have?’, you can say the number that you are comfortable with then immediately ask the person about their kids. People love talking about their own kids and will probably not realize that you have avoided giving them any more details.
Next, if someone presses you for the ages of your kids, you can answer something like this: “I have a 21 year old son and a forever 17 year old daughter in heaven”. To be honest that might stop the conversation right there. The person you are chatting with will likely blanch with horror and apologize profusely. I always try to give them grace and say, “You did know. Please don't feel bad. I like to say my daughter's name whenever I can”.
Last, if at that particular moment, it feels ‘easier’ to say one (or the number that does not include your angel) that’s ok too. Your angel and your journey are a very personal story that not everyone needs to know. Honestly, if it’s a person you’ll never see again OR you feel like you’ll fall to pieces and it just isn’t a time that you are prepared to do that, then it is completely ok to say one, or whatever feels ‘safe’ at that moment. Sometimes we just don't have the mental capacity to handle to other people's discomfort. It's our special story and it's ok to keep it private and close to our heart without sharing.
The key here is to think about how you might respond before it happens or before it happens again, because it will happen.
It's hard to believe that such an innocent questions can cause so such a flood of emotion and pain. Even though it's been more than six years since Katie went to heaven, this question still stops me in my tracks.
My grief journey has morphed and changed over the years. Even though this is the hardest question ever, I now see it as an opportunity to share about my daughter, because when I talk about Katie, it's like she's still alive.
PS: You might also be interested in reading A Mother's Greatest Fear after Losing a Child
About the author:
Lisa lost her daughter Katie in a car accident in 2015. After serious consideration of ending her own life, she began crawling out of the depths of grief through writing and connecting with other grieving moms. In 2019, she published her book Journey to HEALING, and in 2021 created The Angel Moms VIP Community where she helps other bereaved mothers find their way out of the darkness.
If you are struggling after the loss of your child, you might be interested in a free video series that I created just for grieving moms. Topics include: managing guilt, parenting after loss, dealing with the heartache, and how to go on. You can the free video series here.