Recently, I was at a gathering where the guest of honor was the only person I really knew. As I sat eating dinner with Isaac, a opportunity for small talk opened up with a young couple at my table. They had a small child in a high chair and the wife was obviously very pregnant. (Very pregnant ladies are great for small talk!) After we had exhausted the requisite questions about their family, they asked, “so do you have other children besides him (Isaac)?”
How to talk about your dead child? I remember distinctly asking this question a few days after Peter’s funeral to a friend of mine who is also the mother of a baby saint. She had flown out from California to support me and shortly before she left town we met for coffee. “What will I say to people when they ask how many kids I have?!” The thought was occurring to me for the first time as I processed with her. “You’ll know, Libby,” she said, “you’ll figure out who to tell and who not to”.
She was right. As I’ve muddled through the past two years, I’ve worked out a system for how to handle “the question”. Not that I ever sat down and drew up procedures or anything, but I’ve figured out how I am most comfortable handling the question. Here it is:
* People who I will likely never see again. For these people, like those at the party above, or clerks, people in waiting rooms, etc, I answer their question without lying. For instance, if they say, “Do you have kids?” I will often answer, “I have a preschooler at home”, and proceed to talk about Isaac. If they ask a more pointed question, such as the folks at the party did, I will answer honestly. Morally, this is not necessary. It is not a lie to withhold information from people who don’t need to know it. And perhaps someday I will leave my saints out of the answer. For now, though, it feels almost like betrayal to not include them in such a direct question.
* People I will see often, or be in relationship with. I don’t say, “Hi, I’m Libby and my babies died”, but I do talk about them even if the question is only indirectly asked. I would rather them find out up front then tiptoe around it.
* Amount of disclosure. I have no problem talking about my kids. What mom doesn’t want to brag about her babies? I realize, though, that death is a touchy subject for people, and stumbling upon a story like mine over sheetcake and coffee is not what most people are expecting when they arrive at someone’s party. When people seem freaked out, I quickly change the subject. If they have questions, I answer them.
* I make sure people realize they were infants. I realized after a few tries, that when you say “we lost a baby” people think you had a miscarriage. I understand that the loss of miscarriage is great, so it’s not a grief snobbery kind of thing. It’s just not what happened to my family. Plus, Isaac talks about his brother and sister sometimes, so I think it’s an important distinction that he actually held them and touched them and met them. Again, not neccessary for the folks in the first category, but something I still feel is kind of important.
* I have accepted the awkwardness. Let’s face it. Dead babies are awkward. No one knows what to say or do when they come up. It is part of our cross that we have the power to bring the most pleasant conversation to a screetching halt. I just try to ease the burden of the subject on the other person, and be gentle with myself as well.
Like many parts of grieving, I don’t think there is any right or wrong to this question. Are you a grieving parent? How do you handle this question?