Back in 2014, I was asked to contribute an article to a daily newspaper around the question,
“How many children do you have?” This is invariably awkward to answer when you are a bereaved parent and indeed, it came up for discussion in the feedback session after my recent online talk to The Compassionate Friends. So, I thought I would revisit the article’s content, six years on, and share my current thoughts around the topic. Hopefully this input will be helpful to those who are more recently bereaved, or who are supporting families who have lost children.
If I am in a social situation and a stranger asks me, “How many children do you have?” I usually make a quick assessment. Should I deflect it? Or answer it honestly and wait for the silence that will follow, as I am well aware that the enquirer will have no idea what to say.
Over the years, I have perfected a stock response, one that I feel comfortable with … most of the time. I avoid a direct answer because if I say, “I have two children, but one is ‘no longer with us/died/passed away’”, I know that the lightness of the mood will be lost. So I say something like, “Well, we’re a bit of a blended family and the children and stepchildren are grown up with their own families now. How about you?” I then get to hear all about this other person’s children. It may be a bit of a cop out, but sometimes it is easier to deal with the opening gambit inviting you to tell them about your family, being turned around to hearing about theirs.
Yet, part of me feels guilty about betraying James by denying his existence in this way. I justify it with a silent apology to him in my mind.
Bereaved parents constantly find themselves in this situation when they meet new people, whether at work or socially. Perhaps an unexpected bonus of Covid restrictions is the limitation of social interaction and an avoidance of such circumstances this year.
If you do answer the question honestly, people are invariably shocked and upset. Several people, intending to be kind, have applied the scenario to themselves. “Oh, you poor thing, how dreadful!” they say. Then, “I couldn’t bear it if I lost one of my children … I would just die”.
In these cases, my internal voice asks, “How on earth do I respond to that? Does it mean that because I am still here and I didn’t die from my grief, that I don’t love my child as much as you love yours?”
I have in the past said quietly, “No, you wouldn’t actually die, you would just carry on … because you have no choice”.
Of course, I want to keep the memory of James alive and I do so in a multitude of significant ways: by writing about grief; by campaigning for water safety, by public speaking and by saying his name and talking about him with friends and family. But it saddens me that we have not yet evolved a way of talking about the children we have lost in casual everyday situations.
I think I usually get it right these days, assessing whether it is a good time to share what happened to James, with a group of people whom I don’t know well. After the initial stunned silence, I find that people take their lead from me, and if I can bring myself to talk easily and naturally about James, and other members of my family, then that makes it easier for them. In the early days of loss, I would not have had nearly as much consideration as to how my bombshell of news would affect others, but the passage of time helps to put a more generous coating on the bitter pill of my personal tragedy. Often, someone will share a confidence with me about their own loss, once they know about James, and that is encouraging.
One lesson you learn over time is that although your loss remains at the forefront of your memory ad infinitum, those around you can soon forget. A few years after James died, a colleague who had attended his funeral, asked breezily if I was looking forward to Christmas. “I’m sure I’ll get through it”, I replied, and when he asked why I was looking so gloomy I had to remind him that I’d lost my son. “Oh yes, and I guess you still miss him”, he replied lightly, and the crass insensitivity of his remark, stunned me. The implication that one day I may not think about James any more, particularly at Christmas, was deeply hurtful.
I suppose that only parents who have lost a child can understand the profound depth of the grief; the sense that the natural order has been disrupted and life will never again resume its old course.
In some ways it is liberating not to be pre-judged or made allowances for, because I own this particular status. In certain scenarios, I am accepted simply as Andrea, not ‘Andrea, that poor lady who lost her son’. And when we moved to Devon three years ago, it was a while before I shared my story with others, preferring to have that liberation in various situations until I felt comfortable with sharing.
But not speaking of James feels wrong too and when I get the balance right between the telling and the not telling, that is when I feel I am progressing along the path of grieving under my own impetus and control.
During the course of 15 years I have encountered many responses to the telling of James’s death. After the initial shock, fear is a prevalent reaction. I call it the contagion of bereavement. People might think, “Oh my God, if it happened to her, it could happen to me”, and they figuratively step away, not wishing to know too much.
Others say, “I didn’t like to ask about James. I feared it would upset you”. They do not realise, though, that I have faced the worst a parent can endure. Nothing can ever hurt me more than my son’s death.
Over the years I have thought long and hard about how best to find the right balance when having conversations about bereavement of all kinds.
In the case of child loss, I believe the best reaction is simple. If a parent tells you their child has died, simply respond that you’re very sorry to hear it. And if you want to know what happened, just ask them. Know too that no offence will be taken if you don’t.
But don’t be afraid to say their name in subsequent conversations. Please don’t flinch, when I say the name James.
Grief is a conversational minefield, but we should learn to negotiate it with tact and delicacy. And the more open and uninhibited we can be about discussing it, the better it will be for all.