Sarah and her husband have an elderly couple on their street with whom they have become friends. These neighbors have a wonderful driveway which is perfect for little boys to play in and ride their bikes. Sarah and her little boys like to go visit. The neighbors enjoy having them come over. Early in the friendship, Sarah asked Jean how many children they have.
“Three boys, ” was the answer. Jean went on to talk a bit about her sons. Then they were interrupted by a little boy squealing.
A few months later, they were playing with the boys in the yard. “I hear you speak about John and James and their families. But you you never mention Michael. I wonder why. If I may ask, ” ventured Sarah.
“Well,” answered Jean. “He died when he was young.”
“I am so sorry,” answered Sarah. “Do you mind talking about what happened to Michael? If you don’t want to talk about, I understand.”
“No, I like to share the story. But usually don’t until we get know each other. It is a hard story to hear.”
Jean went on to explain that he was murdered.
Michael had been playing in the backyard. She went to call him, and he did not come. He was not in the yard. She went to search the woods behind their home. Eight year old boys like to have adventures in the woods. (This was forty years ago when it was thought safe to let them.)
As she searched and called, he did not answer. This was unlike him. She began to search more frantically. At last she saw him, off in the distance, lying in the ground. She immediately knew something was very wrong. Before she got close, she heard a still, small Voice say, “No one will ever hurt him again. I have him now.” And a complete peace came over her.
Jean found her little boy. Murdered.
The rest of the story …. Well.. You can imagine the rest.
My point is, when Jean was asked, “How many children do you have?”, she answered, “Three. I have three boys: Michael, John, and James.”
She does not give details to those whom she has just met. It is a story that is precious to her. She treasures her memories of her son. They are not for sharing with just everyone. But she never leaves him out when asked about her children. She includes him when listing her sons.
I have seven children. I will always be mom of these seven, no matter where they live.
When asked, I say that I have seven children. I do not, however, always tell people that one of them died in a car wreck with four of his friends. That is just too much information for some situations.
When introducing myself in a group setting, I often say that I am wife, follower of Christ, and mom of seven with three sweet grandsons.
If asked how old my children are, I usually say, “ages 19 to 31.”
Andrew was 20 when he died; in a few years I will probably say, “20-34”. I am not sure what I will say when Margaret is 25 or older. I may just continue to give a range. I’ll figure that out later.
If anyone asks where my kids live, I say, “Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and Heaven.” When I rattle it off quickly, most folks don’t even notice the last location. Honestly, most people don’t really listen carefully; they are usually thinking about their own answers or feelings.
If asked what my children do or what they are studying, I say, “The oldest two have graduated, Meredith is married and Lyz teaches preschool; Peter and David are at OU; Adam coaches at an elite gymnastics gym in Michigan; Andrew was a dance and accounting major; and Margaret is a sophomore at Covenant College.” It is rare that people ask for more details or notice the word “was”.
At a recent event for Team KMOC, we were asked to introduce ourselves. I said that I have “seven children who live all over the place.” It was not the time to become the center of attention by saying that I am Andrew Duncan’s mom. (He is well known in our community. At least his story is.) After the dinner, one family came up to talk. They asked if we are Andrew’s parents. Their daughter had recently been awarded one of the Andrew Raymond Duncan Memorial Scholarships. We were thrilled to meet them! They appreciate the scholarship. It will help her as she goes to Abilene Christian College this fall. We do not select the recipients, but are glad to meet each one.
Sometimes we have to talk about it
At a weekend business event just four months after The Accident, we sat at a table with six others. It was a black-tie formal dinner dance.
The entire weekend at this business event, we had avoided talking about what had happened; we did not want to be the grieving parents, even if for just a few days. And we did not want The Accident to be the center of conversation when Ron was trying to talk business. It felt good to pretend, to not have people giving us the sympathy looks, and to not have folks asking how we’re really doing. We kept it secret. By choice.
We see many of these business folks and their spouses only at this annual industry event. They are business associates, not close friends. As a result, most had no idea what we had been through since August. They did not know our son had been killed. A very few did, and they were kind enough not to share what was our story to tell.
When asked how our family was, we had answered, “The kids are all doing well!” It was true. Even Andrew, who was in heaven, was doing well. Better than the rest of us, in fact. This answer was sufficient all weekend…until the last night at dinner.
As we sat down with others at dinner, one man we had known for years, and whose daughter was a music theater major, commented, “You have a son who was a dancer. Is he still dancing?”
Awkward silence. I looked at my husband for guidance.
Ron quickly smiled and answered, “Yes. Yes, Andrew is still dancing. It’s just that now he is dancing in heaven before the throne of the Father. He was killed in August. We are doing well through it all…How is your daughter doing in school?”
The man and his wife are also Christians. They understood. They said how sorry they were to hear about our son and took the cue to change the subject.
After dinner, the band came out to play for the dance. Usually we love to dance at this event with our friends. Not that year. The band members were young, in their twenties. A couple of the musicians looked very much like our son. One singer even had the exact same glasses Andrew wore. Before the end of the first song, tears were flowing. We left the large ballroom and tried to compose ourselves in the hall before going back in to dance a little.
More than a few folks saw us standing in the corner, crying, behind a big plant. As I think back, it is a funny image: Ron in his fine suit and me in my black and purple formal dress, behind a large plant!
I went to the ladies room to fix my make-up. I realized folks thought we must be drunk or fighting! A friend in the powder room was concerned about me. I told her why we were both crying, and others heard me. Before the night was out, everyone knew about The Accident. We were glad it had not been known until that last night of the convention
Think about how you will respond
If you have lost a child, I encourage you to think about how you will respond to questions. Since that awkward silence at the dinner dance, I have prepared answers for various questions about our kids.
Do you want to give details about your child’s death? Or a short vague answer? What story do you want to tell if you are going to share about your child’s death? Can you tell it in such a way to not make yourself the center of attention or make others very uncomfortable? Have you thought about how to share your story while honoring your child’s memory? Have you discussed with your spouse when and where he is comfortable sharing the story?
It can be helpful to think through a short version of what happened. You can always add details if appropriate.
And think about when it is appropriate to give details. A business dinner or other event like I mentioned may not be the place to share details about your child’s battle with illness or your child’s murder. Sometimes it’s best to simply say she passed without revealing that she took her own life. Being considerate of the feelings of others and being aware of the situation does not mean you’re hiding something or dishonoring your child.
I know moms who say something like, “I have five children: John is thirteen, Mary is ten, Josh is eight, Sarah is four, and Luke is forever three.” Others say nothing about their child in heaven. I know a mom who has had five miscarriages. She only mentions her living children. A few others ways to answer:
- We have four, one is still at home.
- I raised three terrific people.
- I am mom to two living children.
- My wife and I had four children. One died last year and the others are homeschooled.
- I had two children plus I claim my son-in-law. He is raising our two beautiful granddaughters!
How you answer the question “How many children do you have?” is a very personal choice. One I encourage you to consider before you find yourself in a tough spot.
I have shared how I answer some questions. There is no right way to answer, only what is right you and for your situation. But you should think about how you will answer questions. Talk with your spouse. He may have strong opinions on how to answer certain questions.
- How many children do you have?
- What ages are they?
- Where do they live?
- What happened?
- How did he die?
- What caused his illness?
- Do you plan to have more children?
- Did the driver die?
- Have you read the autopsy report?
Plan your answers. Practice them in the car, in the shower, in front of the mirror. It helps to be prepared.
Help your children know how to respond to questions.
Our children have been asked, “How many siblings do you have?” many times since The Accident. Especially when they went to new colleges. It was hard for them at first. They might tear up if they said anything about their brother’s death. The awkward silences. They knew some people would ask for details. They did not want to be center of attention because of him. They did not want to be known as the kids whose brother died. They have each figured out how they will answer questions.
If you have other children perhaps you can help them think through how they want to answer questions. If your children are younger, you may need to teach them answers you feel are appropriate. If they are older, help them think through what they wish to say. And encourage them to practice.
Some of the questions listed above should never be asked of strangers on a plane or new acquaintances at a business meeting or church event.
If you are a friend of a bereaved parent or meet one of us on a plane, ask open questions like “tell me about your family?” Then they can decide how much to tell.
Let your friend decide if they want to talk about their child. If you hear you friend tell others they have one child when you know their youngest died of cancer or took his own life, please do not correct her! Let her decide what to tell. This is especially true at social or church event where she may not want to become the center of awkward attention.
If you are not sure what to say, you may want to read this, this or this. Or any of the other posts found by clicking on the menu item “Helping the Grieving“. You can search the Web for articles on helping grieving parents. It is kind to mention their loss with a simple “I’m so sorry” and let the bereaved parents lead the conversation.
Take cues from the parents, like the couple did at dinner that night in November. Ron asking about their daughter indicated that we did not want to go into detail about Andrew’s death. They took the cue and quickly went on to another topic.
If a mom or dad indicates they have a child in heaven, ask about his or her life, not their death. Most of us would much rather tell you how beautiful our child was and how he lived than talk about their death.
And if we do want to talk about their death, please listen. And love us well through your tears.