Such an innocent question, one we all ask when we meet someone. Usually, we are all proud and happy to answer it, but it poses a difficult situation for those of us whose children have died. Do we answer with the number that are still living? (Even sadder for those who have none left.) Or do we answer how many we had?
It would be easier in some ways to answer that we have one son. That prevents the inevitable questions that lead to having to answer that one of our sons died, and then the questions about how, and having to answer that he shot himself, which always leads to a shocked silence. People don't know how to respond. Would you?
But it's not easier for me, because I cannot ever forget Leif, that he was and is a big part of our lives. He always will be. We had TWO children, not one, even though Leif is no longer with us. So, I always answer that we had two sons but one died. And I answer the questions truthfully. It may not be as comfortable as just telling about Peter A. and his family, but it's the only way I can do it. I cannot deny Leif's life, and I also think that avoiding the subjects of death and suicide is not right. People have tried too hard over the years to deny the reality of depression, mental illness and suicide. We have to be open about it or people will never feel it's all right to get treatment.
And how should someone who is confronted with the answer that the person they have just met lost a child, however they died? I don't know whether all bereaved parents would feel the same as I do, but I think the easiest thing to deal with is a simple, "I'm sorry. That must be very difficult for you." Just leave it at that unless the person seems to want to talk more about it. If they do, and you want to (that's another important consideration - don't feel you must if it is too difficult for you), then just say, "If you'd like to tell me about it, please do." If not, just say something like, "I'm know this is terrible blow for you. I hope you have someone to talk with about it," and go on to something else.
Don't be surprised at the emotional reaction of the grieving parent (and make no mistake, they will grieve all their lives, though in different measure at different times). Sometimes a parent who has lost a child can talk about it quite matter-of-factly and you might think they are "over it" or even callous about it, but that's not the case. It's just that at that moment, they are in control. Another time, the same parent might tear up or even burst into tears. It depends a lot upon what's been happening in their lives at that time. It's a lot harder, for instance, when milestones are close, like their dead child's birthday, Christmas, New Years (it's always hard to start a new year without a beloved son or daughter; New Years brings it home that another year without them has gone by and another one is coming), Thanksgiving, or other special days relating to their family. Sometimes they have had some significant reminder of their child that has made them feel especially vulnerable.
It's embarrassing to cry in front of other people, especially someone you've just met, so don't act like they are breaking down or get all flustered about it. If you feel so inclined, just give them a hug. Let them regain control. Believe me, they are fighting for it!
How many children do I have? TWO. The answer will always be TWO. Leif lived. He will always live in my heart.
This photo of the four of us was taken by my sister Sherie in our old stone house in Manhattan, Kansas in July 1976. Leif was 18 months old. Peter Anthony was seven-and-a-half years old.