Who ever would have thought that such a simple question could cause so much heartache, confusion, guilt and pain. It's a natural question to ask anyone new that you meet, but if you've ever noticed someone briefly hesitate before answering this basic question, this is what may be going on "behind the scenes" as they answer the question.....
First of all is the visceral grief that this question evokes. Panic as you realize that you have to answer, and quickly, or your entire ability to communicate will break down. If I can't answer this question, the conversation ends, and if all conversations end at this point, I will never be able to function in society. So how many kids do I have? My heart and my gut tell me I have four children. They are all beautiful children, loved beyond any love I could have imagined before I had kids. My Jayme, Carter, Kaity, and Thomas. Such a simple answer. I have four kids.
But that isn't the end, and as I deal with the instantaneous grief and panic, I have also gone ahead to the next step that this conversation will have..."wow, four kids - you must be busy! How old are they?" mmhmm. how old are they? This question at least has only one possible answer right? One would think. But no, one must then decide how much truth to provide - the answer could be "9, 6, 4 and 6 months".....but the answer is really "9, 6, 6 months, and our third child would have been 4 but she died when she was a baby". So if you go for the easy but less than truthful answer, you open yourself up to more questions that become impossible to answer "Do you find that the girls are a lot alike and the boys are a lot alike? Does your younger daughter try to imitate your older daughter?...." At some point you find yourself either fessing up to the full truth, or just simply trying to escape. Fessing up makes you feel that you are slightly crazy, as if you were trying to deny the fact that one of your children has died...it's awkward. Trying to escape could be a solution, however if the person is someone you will come across again - a parent at the school, for example, the escape will likely only be a temporary solution.
So when that first simple question comes, the decision has to be made in an instant how to answer. The grief and panic come in an instant but at the same time the other side of your brain must asses "will I ever see this person again? might this become a relationship in which I would want the basis to be truth and openness? Is this the time to say "3" and leave it that, "4 - truthfully" or "4 - fudged"?!
It may seem like a no-brainer. The simple solution is to just say "3", and if this turns out to become a relationship that lasts longer than a few minute chat, then deal with the truth later. But it's not as easy as that. I have answered "3" in the past. And I have suffered through guilt that brought me down to a sad, dark place in my heart. Like Peter denying Jesus, I felt that I had betrayed my little girl who I love dearly and always. I felt like I had stolen something from her life and her memory - to not acknowledge that she lived and is a part of me still, feels wrong. But is it fair to the person you are facing who has no idea that this simple question has wrought such a storm in your soul, to make them face the sadness and grief that you live with each and every day?? Is it better to do what is easy for them, despite the pain it causes in you; or is it better to do what is awkward for all but feels right in your heart?
I often think I should decide once and for all how to answer this question so that I can avoid that instant of panic, but I think that it is something that can't be decided ahead of time - it is too reliant on your mood at the time, how close your memories and grief are, and whether your intellectual or emotional self is in control. So the next time you ask this question, think of those who don't have a simple answer, and send a happy thought up to all of those children in heaven who are watching over us, to let them know that they aren't forgotten. Even if the answer is "3".