“How many children do you have?”
It’s a simple question. For most people it has a simple answer.
For those that have lost a child (through death or, like us, an adoption that was reversed by an appeals court, after having our daughter for years in foster care), the question is full of emotion. If you don’t include the lost child, you feel guilty. You feel like you’re betraying their memory. In your mind you say to the child, “I’m sorry. I haven’t forgotten you.”
But if you include them, then you might have to explain. Most people, just trying to be polite and show interest, will ask more. And as they ask about ages and what the kids do, they’ll realize that one of the number is unaccounted for. Then you’ll have to tell the story again.
Some days you long to talk about it. But if you do, it will dominate everything. Maybe you’re at someone else’s event, where they should be the center of attention and not you. The story of losing the child instantly changes the mood. No one knows how to respond. But you want to talk about your child. To show that you still think about her.
Some days you want to avoid talking about it all. All the pain comes up with each telling. You certainly don’t need to hear the empty platitudes: “maybe it was for the best”, “this is part of God’s plan”. For parents that have lost a child through death, I know now that that it tears them up to hear something like, “She’s in a better place now.” You want to scream, “She’s supposed to be with me! That’s her place.”
I just had to fill in the information on the About page of this web site. And once again, for the hundredth time in the past year since we last saw our daughter, I had to make the decision of how many children to put. I put five since that is the technically correct answer, but I did it with same now familiar ache of guilt. I’ll go back and forth, editing it to six one day and then back to five another.
With grief people often, usually wisely, say that after some time you have to move on. But after losing a child, you feel guilty for moving on. Even moments of happiness seem wrong. You share a laugh with your family and then think this isn’t right.
My point isn’t to leave you with guilt. Of course you’re going to ask someone how many children people have. For most it’s an opening to talk about the thing they love most in their lives. But understand that sometimes even simple questions may have complicated answers. The next time you ask someone a seemingly straightforward question and see them pause, recognize that there may be more behind it. The act of saying a simple number out loud may be one the most painful things that they have to do.