Small Talk

February 21, 2017

When you’ve lost a child, starting conversations with someone new can be difficult. In the beginning of your loss, small talk can even feel overwhelming because you are on constant guard to avoid the inevitable question.

“How many kids do you have?”

Nearly nine years later what I can share is that it never gets easier to answer. At least in my experience.

Regardless of the situation, someone is left uncomfortable.  Sadness or pity lingers over the table where before light chit-chat filled the room.  There is always an awkward pause.  Most people aren’t sure where to go next.  After sharing the unthinkable, changing the topic feels forced and impolite.  But necessary.

Children are the primary topic of my day now, due to my career.  It is expected that I share about my boys but I normally don’t go into the details of our loss.  I’m in a parent’s home to bring them support and sometimes my visit may be the only positive they feel in a week.  So, I tend to focus on childhood stories that bring smiles instead of tears.

But another part of my position includes letting new employees or nursing students shadow me.  In the downtime of driving across country back roads, small talk is just part of the ride.

This past week I found myself answering the seemingly innocent question over chips and salsa.  Because we were eating, and being face to face when trying to explain the day my heart was shattered seemed even harder, I chose to answer simply and move on.

“Two boys.”

A short sentence compared to her loving stories scattered through our morning.  Having just met I’d learned paragraphs about hers.  I know she felt the uneasiness.  The mood shifted noticeably, despite my efforts to seem distracted in getting refills.  Inside the guilt was heavy and I tried to swallow it down with food.

Once back to the car, I pondered on explaining more to her but it was on to the next house and happy faces were needed.  Yet I wondered, as she left that day, how it changed her thoughts about me.

I experienced this again, later in the week, this time through my husband.  A standard question in the doctor’s long list of history.  My husband’s response.  A pregnant pause.

Tim’s shaky voice and sorrowful look was a glimpse of what others see in me across the table.

No matter the years, the pain comes flooding back.  Emotions flicker across the face.  Volumes spoken without words.

Temporary relief brought only in continued conversation, as you feel small in the talk.



Heather Blair
Author Details
In 2008, my world as I knew it changed forever, with the sudden loss of our 14-year-old son, Austin. The journey to my blog (and attitude toward life) was bumpy and tearful, beginning at a memorial blog for my son. I later chose to take another path, challenging myself to find the JOY in every day, despite the sadness I still felt. I love and miss him daily but I’m living my life to honor him – and celebrating every moment it brings. My goal…to find and share the joy in every day. You can find me at Joyful Challenge


    • Kate

      February 21, 2017 at 11:54 am

      I think the awkwardness is amplified when the choice is between talking about a deceased child or saying you don’t have kids at all. Often the easiest answer for me is to say, “No, we don’t have kids.” which is not the same as saying we have never had kids. It is a way I can honor my son’s existence in my own mind, while not having to talk about him in that moment. Though I know the assumption people jump to is that we have never had kids. I often wonder if this conversation would get easier if we were able to have another child and could fill the awkwardness with stories of a living child, but from the essay, I think it is just a universal moment of awkwardness that happens no matter what our circumstances are. It is one of the universal truths of losing a child. Thank you for sharing.

    • Debbie

      February 21, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      My answer is always, “I have 3 girls.” If they ask where they live, I describe where the 2 living are. Just because we have lost a child does not mean they never existed or that they are still not loved by the family. I could never act like she just disappeared one day, never to be mentioned again. If they want to know more about what they do in detail, I will explain.

    • Lisa

      February 21, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      Thank you Heather for this article. I feel like this every day as I work in community nursing and often have students with me. My patients nearly always want to know about my family.
      My beautiful Son was killed in an unprovoked act of violence at age 18. There’s no easy way to get by, no matter how you reply to well meaning questions. I often talk about my Daughter hoping the subject will change. Sometimes I say my Son would be 22 but yes the awkwardness and pity are hard to bear. It’s been nearly 4 years and it isn’t getting any easier I just dread these questions and try and steer the conversation away from me.

    • Cindy Dickey

      February 21, 2017 at 3:22 pm

      I put it out there early in a conversation because it is a big part of who I am. It helps me weed through new acquaintances by how well they handle it. Those who are comfortable exhibit compassion & empathy – soon we are friends – and I need ‘safe’ friends. I have met many who have also lost a child but are hesitant to mention it until I do – those are instant bonds.

    • Rose

      February 21, 2017 at 8:18 pm

      When asked how many children we have, I always respond by saying that we were blessed with three.
      I never want to not include our son who died when he was 19.

    • BAM

      February 22, 2017 at 12:11 am

      I haven’t learned to navigate these conversations yet. I suppose I will adopt a strategy at some point. I’m not there yet. In the mean time, long pauses and awkward maneuverings wilt my resolve to have an otherwise simple exchange. Alone seems to fit very well.

    • Paula

      March 19, 2017 at 5:31 pm

      It’s only 17 weeks since my 18 year old Oliver died. When I have been asked the question in my new job, I answer it litrally. I have 3 children. I am always Olivers mum that hasn’t changed. The question isn’t how many living children do you have.

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