“Do you have any kids?”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Do you just have the one?”
It is almost certain that you will be asked some form of the “do you have any kids” question occasionally, if not quite often, during your childbearing years.
To most, it is an innocent question. A logical one. A way to get to know someone. It is a bridge to a club of sorts – the Mommy Club. If you have living children, you’re in. You get to discuss current trends in parenting, daily struggles, cute anecdotes, etc. That club is then divided into sub-groups depending on the number of kids you have, their sex, ages, etc.
So what about us? What about the parents who gave birth to a child that is no longer living and breathing? The parent who carries the heavy burden of not being able to raise the child(ren) that they delivered? Well, we are in a category of our own.
How do we answer that question of how many kids we have? There is no easy answer, in my book. We are left to make an impossible decision. We either give an answer that includes our dead child or give an answer that excludes them.
The spectrum ranges from being very free and open in sharing your loss to being very conservative and cautious and not sharing your loss. Where we fall on that spectrum might vary by the moment in the day. It might vary by our mood, the person that is inquiring, or even the weather that day. So many variables come into play. While I do believe it is important to share our little ones with the public, to speak their names and to let others know that it’s ok to speak their names too, I also know that sometimes we may want to keep them tucked safely in our hearts. And that is also ok.
The how, why, when, and with whom anyone shares their loss is a very personal matter. We owe no one an explanation as to how we answer this question. Ever.
In the year after I lost Marco, I wanted everyone that I met to ask me if I had any children so that I could share Marco. I practically wanted to wear a sign that read that I was forced to say goodbye to my firstborn child, all 1 lb 10 oz of him. That I had to kiss his perfect head, fingers and toes for the first and last time all in the same day. That he took his last breath on my chest with his daddy holding us. That I had to watch him be wheeled out of my sight permanently just a few short hours after I met him. I wanted the world to see the massive, gaping wound in my heart.
As time went on and I told more and more people about Marco, I started to tune into something. If I told Marco’s story to a stranger or person I didn’t know very well, it was usually a very short version of the story. And it would usually end with me trying to make it neat and tidy by offering some kind of platitude like “but it’s ok”, or “but we’re at peace”. And then I’d walk away feeling empty inside.
No, it actually was not ok that Marco had died. Not in the least. And in terms of being at “peace”…well, I suppose we were at peace as much as one could be in our situation. It was more that we told ourselves we were at peace, otherwise we might have crumbled. But it seemed a bit too painful to let the perfect stranger know these dark secrets, and so I’d try to put icing on it for them to avoid it tasting too horrible on their palates.
I realized that I didn’t like putting that icing on anymore. I realized that it was nearly impossible for me to share the complexity and depth of love involved in Marco’s story in a 90 second conversation with a stranger. I realized that most people who ask the question are really just trying to make casual talk and want an actual living body count of how many runny noses you have to wipe and how many little ones you have to tuck into bed at night. Most of them haven’t given much thought to our club.
Despite the fact that my general practice now is to not share Marco with a random stranger, I will say that every single time I say that Lucia (my only living child) is my only child, I feel something. Guilt? Pain? Whatever it is isn’t as acute as it once was, but it’s still there. “Ouch,” I hear myself whisper inside when I give my reply. It’s like the edge of my heart, where a piece was ripped off on that fateful day, flares up a bit. Or maybe it’s a dash of salt or splash of lemon juice making the wound a bit more tender for that moment.
I now mostly share his story with those who I feel will really appreciate him. Yes, it might be that I share the 90 second version of our story with a perfect stranger, but maybe they have a tenderness in their heart that I can sense, and I feel safe sharing with them. Maybe it’s someone who I will be seeing on a more regular basis as time moves forward or with whom I am developing a friendship.
Grief is a wild ride, and I am doing my best to flow with it. That’s all we can do – flow with the grief. Our hearts will tell us what we need if we just listen. What we need sometimes changes by the day or even the minute. Does your heart need to share your little one today with someone? If yes, share – share that beloved little being. Does your heart need to keep him or her to yourself today? If yes, that’s ok too – that little one knows of your love no matter what, even if you don’t acknowledge his or her existence to the stranger who asks. It’s ok, my friend. Go where your heart needs to go.