How to answer a difficult question.

I’d like to respond to a comment left by a friend of mine that I just had the pleasure of seeing this morning after a few years of working in different areas.   Since I don’t seem to be able to get my comments to show (unless one clicks on the tiny link under the post), I’ll repost it here.

Patricia, you describe the reaction to those surprising conversations that happen so well that I was immediately drawn back to a conversation that took place in Costco several years ago when my 5 year old son was introducing his baby sister to the people standing in line behind us. He was very proud of her and happy to answer their questions about her name and age. I was content to let him show her off and not become involved in their talk until he added that he had a brother also but that brother died so there was only him and his sister. Of course, the couple who had been talking to my son immediately offered me their condolences. I waved them off and got out of there immediately, trying all the while to catch my breath, see through the long tunnel that had just appeared in my vision and get to the car so I could hug them both and cry. I wasn’t mad at my son who was just exploring where he fit in a family that had been altered by grief, but I did remember feeling so guilty because up until that point, I had spared other people and myself the discomfort of sharing the fact there was someone missing from our life. My son had no such reservation. I still don’t share with everyone, but when appropriate, if I am asked how many children my husband and I have, I say ‘three’.

First and foremost, thank you for sharing something so painful.  I confess that I had no idea about your son and wish I had been more of a friend at the time.  I’m so glad you told me.

When you said “I still don’t share with everyone, but when appropriate, if I am asked how many children my husband and I have, I say ‘three’”,  it resonated so deeply with me.  Thank you for sharing that.

When asked about how many children I have, I feel like I’m excluding Stefanie if I don’t add her in the numbers, but then inevitably I’ll be asked the kids ages.  Then I start to feel very uncomfortable because I’m not sure what age to assign her.  The age when she died, or what she would be now?  If I say the age when she died but then it comes up that she’s the eldest, then that doesn’t add up either.   If I say 18, then I might get “is she going to University this year?” and then what?

It feels awful to not include her because of what an important part of my life she was and still is.  For me (for us), our children are very much alive and their experiences and memories live in our homes.   But it’s easier for everyone else (except me) if I say 5 children rather than 6.  I secretly tell her I’m not forgetting her and remind myself that she wouldn’t blame me.  Just having those thoughts hurts more than anything.  When you feel like you’ve let someone down already, it’s like adding insult to injury.

This post has been very hard to write.  I think it’s because these are the times that we have to admit to ourselves that our loved ones are truly gone and for the benefit of those around us, we omit them when they are already absent enough.

I’d very much like to hear other people’s experiences or thoughts on this.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the family member who has lost someone, or the person asking and left feeling uncomfortable.  Please share if you can.

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2 Responses to How to answer a difficult question.

  1. I think it’s a question that gets somewhat easier to answer with time and practice, but I’m not sure that it’s ever really an easy question to answer. For me, it usually depends entirely on the situation. Here, after many years of grappling with this question, is a solution that works for me most of the time: If someone who is a stranger asks me how many children I have, I don’t give a number. I say, “I have a son who is 32 and a daughter who is 27.” In certain circumstances, I will add, “I also have a son who was killed by a drunk driver at the age of 19.” This seems to suffice in most circumstances. If the questioner is uncomfortable with the subject, he or she usually moves right along to another subject. If someone really wants to know, he or she will as further questions regarding what happened to Jason.

    For me, Jason is always in my heart. I never forget him, no matter how I answer that question.

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