I sat there on my hospital bed, my best friend tenderly holding our angel baby. She was smiling lovingly as she looked at him, then looked up and said “what are you going to say when someone asks you how many children do you have?”
Oh god, I don’t know… I’ve never had to think about how I would answer this question before. I never realised how loaded this seemingly simple question was.
What do other people say?
What’s the right thing to do?
How are people going to react to my answer if I mention one of our children has passed away?
We sat there and ran through the options… I can say 2, I can say 3, I can say 2 and an angel, I can say 3 but one passed away …
Why was this question so hard to answer?
As the weeks went on I had a fear and anxiety of it being asked. I feared my reactions and I feared theirs. What if I’m in front of lots of people and I burst into tears? What if they stand there stunned filling the air with awkwardness that I can’t escape?
I had a few dismissive comments made to me making me feel like some people didn’t recognise a 21 week baby was a real baby. The dismissiveness made me question my right to grief and his existence and role in the world as a person, that maybe I shouldn’t include him in the count.
I wasn’t sure if it was ‘the done thing’ to bring up your baby who died to someone who didn’t know you. I asked myself if it was selfish to put ‘a burden’ of grief on others. I also wondered if people had to be special enough to us to have the privilege to know about our precious angel. Should we keep him ‘sacred’?
When I spoke to a local bereavement service, this very topic was brought up. I was told there is no right way to answer and I can answer it how I want and feel best to, at that moment, in that situation. If I get asked five times in one day there’s no reason why I cant answer it five different ways how I see fit. I was reassured that its ok no matter how I answer it, but acknowledged that its a very difficult and painful thing to have to answer.
I couldn’t wait to get my tattoo on my arm, a tattoo with his tiny feet and name, a tattoo which would clearly show people we have an angel baby. I thought, once it’s done I wouldn’t have to say anything, they would just know. The first few times I went out in public after having my tattoo I felt exposed and anxious. This surprised me because I was so desperate to have it done and done in such a public spot on my body. But I was fragile and broken and I was scared of reactions. One day I was in a shop and someone glanced down at my arm and then turned their head away so quickly like they just saw something that was too private to see. I felt sorry for myself and I felt sorry for her as we stood there in an awkward silence. It wasn’t her fault, it’s hard to know how to react when faced with something so painful and horrible and worse when that something is rarely talked about. I realised then my tattoo created awkwardness and I wondered if I did the right thing. I thought about it a lot and then decided that while no one likes it, I’ll be ok with a bit awkwardness, that it wont kill either party or change anyone’s life from a few seconds.
About a month after Elliott’s birth Adam was asked the question. Without skipping a beat he said “2”. When he told me about it I asked,
“Did you forget about him?”
“Of course not, I’m always thinking about him. I just thought it was easier.” he said.
He told me that as soon as he answered he felt like (excuse language) a total piece of shit. He was angry at himself and felt like he betrayed our son. In all of that would there be a time that he answers ‘2’ again? Or would I? Absolutely, because sometimes you need to protect yourself and sometimes you just don’t want to talk about it with someone you don’t really know. Sometimes you might feel they just don’t need to know. We’re both taking the advice that was given to me to take it as it comes and to try our best not to beat ourselves up on how we answer it. That whether or not you choose to share and how much you share is completely up to you and it has no bearing on how much you love you child.
I felt the same anxiety from the question “how are you?” from anyone who knew me but didn’t know what happened. Likewise I didn’t know how I should answer it and was worried about my reactions and theirs. One day in a busy shopping centre I was asked “how are you?” I thought for a split second “just say fine thank you, how are you?” but I couldn’t do it at that moment, I couldn’t hide my feelings and I couldn’t pretend that I was fine when I was breaking apart. I answered in a way I’ve never done (ever) to someone I don’t know well, I answered “not good”. They asked “oh no what’s wrong” and I broke down and told them. In the middle of a busy eatery, I was crying and being hugged. And you know what? It felt great, it felt needed, it felt comforting and almost liberating.
It’s very hard to let down those barriers, but I asked myself “who set those barriers anyway?”
We had a baby so why do I feel like I can’t mention him?
The baby we had died so why do I feel like I can’t let a few tears out if I do mention him?
I decided that afternoon that while I never like to, it’s ok to cry, even in public, even in front of strangers. I also decided if I really didn’t want to cry or let out those emotions I would tell a little white lie and be fine with that too.
Spending so much time thinking about what the right way to do things and the right things to say made me start to also ask –
Why is the burden placed on the bereaved parents to make sure others aren’t ‘affected’? Why are we even asking these questions when we are the ones who have lost a child, a part of us, changing us forever. Why do we worry so much about if others get a bit uncomfortable at a ‘situation’ we had no choice of.
No one should feel worried to let people know how much they are grieving for their lost children, or how much of a struggle it might be at that time. But we do. We worry that people are going to judge why we’re not “over it” and judge for form opinion on the ways in which we grieve and the things that we do out of our grief. We’re worried people won’t understand that it’s not simply a conscious choice to have this pain. We’re worried about making others uncomfortable. We’re worried someone might think we talk about our angels for attention. We’re worried people just don’t want to hear about it. Are they unwarranted worries? I don’t know, but I know the worry is real, and I know other bereaved parents have worried about the same things. It’s like one great mind field.
Christmas came soon after Elliott’s birth and we were faced with the question if to add him at the bottom of a card or message. We decided we wanted to, and although knew it was possible it might make some uncomfortable we also decided we’ll never apologise for mentioning and including our angel baby who’s just as much a part of our family as any other member. I joked if someone doesn’t like it, I’ll put his name in capitals and highlight it next time.
In saying all of this, I completely recognise other bereaved parents choosing not to do any of these things. I understand that everyone is different. No matter what you choose to do or say, as long as its right for you, then that’s the right thing for you to do.