“How many children do you have?” asked the clerk as she scanned groceries across the checkout.
Even though she was making small talk, I really didn’t know how to navigate around the awkwardness of my answer. If I said one child, my daughter who was listening to the conversation, would correct me.
“I have two children,” I said quickly, hoping she wouldn’t ask me anything else.
“What are their ages?”
Oh, here it goes.
I shared my daughter’s age, and then added, “I have a son in heaven who would be three.”
An expression flickered across her face. She wished she hadn’t asked me, but now she’s stepped in my mess, and there is no going back.
“I’m sorry.” she said quickly without looking at me.
“Thanks,” I replied and took my bags. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked outside.
Little did I know this would be the first of many awkward encounters with strangers who wanted to know my family size. Most of the time, I avoided the question by saying how many I had at home. It seemed so much easier that way—no wrinkles to smooth out, only a simple answer to an ordinary question. But even then, I couldn’t avoid all the awkward questions that arose out of unexpected conversations with strangers.
Recently, we were planning a balloon release to remember our son. Most of the time, nobody asks why we’re buying balloons. They assume we’re celebrating a birthday, and we don’t say otherwise.
“I’d like two red star balloons,” my husband, Sam, told the clerk at the dollar store.
“Are these for a birthday party?” she asked.
“We’re doing a balloon release, to help us remember someone in our family,” he said.
“Oh. Is it for someone who has passed?”
There was something under the surface she was trying to uncover.
“Yes, it’s for our son,” he said.
At that point, she could have stopped and let the silence hang in the air, but instead there was something different about this conversation, an understanding that only comes through loss.
“My fifteen-year-old son died in an accident,” she said as she filled up two star-shaped balloons. “We have some traditions for remembering him, but it’s still hard.”
“No matter how old your child was when he died, he’s still your baby,” he said.
He took the balloons from the clerk and for a moment, shared a grief experience that only two parents who have lost a child understand.
Six years after the death of my son, I’ve accepted there might not ever be easy answers to give strangers. Sometimes these awkward conversations feel pointless, but other times, you realize you’ve shared an important connection with a grieving parent by affirming the tremendous gaping hole of loss in her life.
There may never be a way to avoid the hard question of how many children I have. But there is a way for us to remember that we are not alone in our grief.
By recognizing our loss, we give parents a voice— to lament, to remember, to heal. When we name our grief, we no longer subject parents to a silent sorrow, but we give one another the chance to say, I lost a child too—and he’s still my baby.