How many children do you have?
"What was once an everyday friendly question is now a loaded gun." from Healing A Parent's Grieving Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt, PH.D
No more than three weeks after Tom's passing, my 88 year old father had a life threatening experience on the operating table during what was supposed to be a routine procedure. He was under anesthesia for probably 8 to 10 hours because he was bleeding from his heart. He lived but he apparently suffered a mild stroke. (He's still with us...celebrated his 90th birthday last May and he's pretty healthy thank goodness but it was scary!)
Anyway, I was in his hospital room a couple days after his surgery and was present when a nurse asked him some routine questions.
"How many children do you have?" asked the nurse.
"Three" my dad answered right away.
"Do you have any grandchildren?"
"Uh...umm..." He didn't seem to know how to answer that question. So I jumped in.
"Nine. You have nine, Dad."
For me there was no other way to answer that question. I couldn't imagine removing Tom from the total number of grandchildren because that would mean he didn't exist and he did. He most certainly did. He was the very first grandchild of that list of grandchildren. But this is a question that all grieving parents (and grandparents...) face at some point.
I don't know if my jumping in was right or wrong but I guess I needed to let my dad (and my mom who was also in the room) know that it was important (to me anyway) to keep Tom there with us. To consider him part of the family even if he has left this earthly plane of existence. In any case, I was raw -- in shock -- we all were and so I'm sure I am forgiven.
Dr. Wolfelt offers some ideas on this topic for grieving parents which could be adapted for grandparents, siblings, and other family members I imagine. The following passages (in italics) are taken directly from his book Healing A Parent's Grieving Heart:
If you have three children and one has died, do you say you have two children? If you have one child and he (or she) has died, do you say you have no children? For many grieving parents, leaving out the child who has died seems like disloyalty or worse yet, like an erasure of the child's entire existence. Yet including the child who has died and then having to explain the death is a sure way to bog down an otherwise casual conversation.
Most grieving parents come up with standard answers to "the question" though their responses vary depending on who they are talking to and in what situation. Here are a few of their ideas:
"I have two surviving children. Mary is 10 and Alex is 3."
Simply: "Yes, I have children. Let me show you a picture. Mary is 10 and Alex is 3."
If you believe in heaven, you might say, "I have two children here on earth and one
waiting for me in heaven."
If you have two children and one died: "I have two children. One is alive and one has
If your only child died: "Yes, one son (or one daughter)." If the questions persist: "Jeff
died when he was 16. That was 3 years ago."
I'm told that answering "the question" gets easier and more natural over time. You will discover how you are most comfortable answering this question.
I have found that it is easier over time simply because I'm no longer afraid I'll break into tears if someone were to ask me that question. I have finally accepted what has happened to my boy and am more or less at peace. But it has been 2 years and nine months to get here. Generally, I simply answer 3 children and let it go at that because that is what makes sense to me. I have three children. I am still the mother of three even if one is no longer here with us in the material world. I am comfortable with that. But there is no right way to handle this. Only the way in which you can best survive.