Sunday, July 22, 2012

Death Talk: How many children do you have?

When people first meet us there is the eternal question of what to say when they ask, "How many children do you have?" 

I have done it two ways.

1. Say, "Two. Lucy, who just turned two, and Peter, who was born in October and died in November."

2. Say, "One. Our daughter Lucy just turned two."

Now, there are obvious problems with both approaches I've used. In the first approach there is an immediate need to clarify and explain that your second child just died- it was a chromosome abnormality, but it's okay, thank you for your condolences, but really, it's okay- we're okay.

This is really awkward for everyone involved and then you have to decide whether to go into the whole story  (which can be a bit much), or just change the subject. They don't know what to say, you don't know what to say, but at least they know now. You got it out of the way and you can move on with your lives and friendship/conversation.

The second approach is probably more appropriate etiquette-wise, but it is so hard emotionally to not count that missing child. You have a pressing need for them to know about him, that he existed, and that he is no longer here, and that it all happened so recently. You almost feel that not counting him is an insult to his memory- you don't want to forget him and go on like he never existed. He mattered and still does. He counts to you.

The second approach leaves it up to others to find out about your missing child as time goes by. When they become facebook friends with you and notice pictures and posts about your dead child, or when it comes up during a discussion about picking baby names and you mention a child they don't know about. Or when you give a talk in Sacrament meeting on Father's Day and talk about your experiences with Priesthood blessings, the blessing of eternal families, and the importance of the Temple.

What should you do if you are the friend and find out the second way? I would suggest mentioning it to them later and expressing a short, "I'm so sorry" and then letting the grieving parent take the lead and decide if they would like to continue that conversation. That way it gives them an opening to talk about it if they would like to, and for everyone to acknowledges the loss and life and not feel like it is a topic that has to be avoided or is taboo.

It makes sense to use the second approach and let your dead child come up in a more natural way as a friendship progresses and you invest in one another. But to me it feels like this underlying conversation that needs to be had if the friendship is going to progress very far.

One way I deal with it is to have pictures of Peter and our family of four up in our home so that when people visit they can see them and it can be an opening for them to ask about the picture and in turn, ask about Peter.

I also wear my locket when I am feeling particularly down, and missing Peter. People almost always notice the necklace and comment on it, sharing a thought or memory about him, or even telling me how much they like it and how cute Lucy and Peter are (which always makes me feel better).

Mother's Day 2012

I also write about Peter here on my blog and post pictures of him so that as I meet new people and share my life with them, they can explore the blog and learn about Peter themselves and even feel like they have a safe place to post comments if they are not sure what to say in person.

I try to make it easy for people to ask me about Peter and give them openings to talk about him if they would like to.

What other tips do you have? How would you answer this question?


  1. Tracy, you're such an amazing person. I almost understand Your feelings towards not wanting to leave out Peter when people ask how many children you have... I say almost because there's no way I could ever completely understand, not having gone through the same thing. When people ask me how many children this is for us I feel a moment of sadness when I say "two" and then I usually add in that I've had a miscarriage and we feel like we have a child waiting for us with Heavenly father. I've been so amazed at your journey through everything what's happened with Peter and I know that you have the strength of a mother's love keeping Peter's memory alive and thriving. As always, my prayers are still with you and Zach and Lucy. I hope one day we get to meet again.

  2. one of my best friends and roommate at college had a younger brother and everytime I ever heard someone ask about her family he was always included. and she always includes her testimony of eternal families and most times she would just then ask about their family or whatever.

    1. Yeah, eternal families are so important.

  3. We run into this problem in our family, and I still debate how to respond sometimes, after all these years. Usually I just say we have four kids, and let it go until there's a reason to bring it up. However, my kids are extremely fond of telling people there's actually SIX kids in our family, which leads to the explaining of two stillborn girls. I find it really depends on the conversation that's being had, and try to just go by the spirit as best I can.
    Oh, and the kids also draw the girls in their family portraits, figure out what grade they'd be in if they were still here, include them in their make-believe play, and pray for them. I guess all that sort of takes the place of being able to have photos around the house, huh? It makes it feel like they're still sort of active in the family, even if we don't have them physically here with us. Kinda hard to explain.

  4. I really don't know the answer. I do have some friends who say "I have 7 but only 6 are still with us" or "We have 5 and 1 in heaven". I know that I, personally, wouldn't think it weird or be upset if someone said any of the above or anything you mentioned. Either way works. I think it's great that you have lots of pictures of him in the house and that you talk about him and write about him. It will help other people be able to talk about it and it helps you too.

    From having known your family, I've learned that if I found out a child had passed (or a spouse even) I'd probably say, "I'm sorry. If you ever want to talk about it, please let me know." I'm more aware now that people DO want and need to talk about it and I hope I can be more sensitive to that.

  5. I went through something similar when I started college. I had just lost my older sister and kept getting asked "how many siblings do you have?". It was hard to answer with a number so I ended up just saying "I have an older brother and a younger sister". I still avoid using a number because for some reason I feel bad saying 2, but awkward saying 3. And I agree that it is easier to just let it come up naturally.

    1. I completely relate to that. Stating a number is hard. Thanks for sharing that insight.

  6. I've also had the same questions about how to introduce my dad and step-mom. I feel that sometimes I need to clarify how they became married (no divorces, but spouses both passing away) but then there is that awkward moment you mentioned.
    Thank you for your thoughts. I need to get more pictures up, post more memories of Mom on my blog, etc. I'm so glad we have reconnected, Tracy!

    1. Me too, Laura! Thanks for your comment too.

      I even feel the need to clarify and specify when introducing live family members whether half-siblings, step-siblings, step parents etc. I am being so precise and factual, but also recognize that to me, they are all just family. But still can't help but be so specific!

      I look forward to reading more memories about your mom. :)


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