by Kelli Kelley, founder of Hand to Hold
“I am standing in the checkout line at the grocery store with my four year old who is trying to convince me to buy her some candy (now I know their strategy for putting it there!) and my 10 month old sitting in the front of the cart when the cashier innocently says, ‘Oh what beautiful little girls, are they your only ones?’ A flood of emotions run through my body and a million thoughts cross my mind in that three second pause…’yes,’ I reply. The word that came out of my mouth was so simple but yet so complicated and painful. I walk away ashamed and guilty of the answer I just gave.” Melissa McSpadden, bereaved parent and Hand to Hold Helping Hand Mentor
How many children do you have? A simple question to answer for some parents. But, for bereaved parents, this question can bring pause and often pain. It’s an innocent question intended to show genuine interest in getting to know you better but for many bereaved parents, it reopens a deep wound.
Melissa McSpadden shares, “My mind says ‘two’ but my heart says ‘four.’ Does society really want to hear the truth? Do they want me to tell them about the identical twin boys that I delivered two years ago that passed away just before I could hold them? Trying to spare them the uncomfortable situation, I answer with my mind and leave my heart to suffer. I have found myself in this situation many times throughout these past two years. I am tired of inflicting additional pain upon myself, not doing what I feel is right and worrying about what other people will feel or think when I reply with the answer I so desperately want to give.”
Many bereaved parents do not want to make the new acquaintance uncomfortable by mentioning they have a deceased child. Or, they simply do not feel comfortable inviting a stranger into such a personal part of their life.
“As a bereaved parent and as a grief therapist working with parents who have experienced the death of a child I can attest to the fact that every bereaved parent lives in fear of the moment when this question will be asked. It takes our breath away and often leaves us feeling confused, guilty, sad, and disloyal,” said Khris Ford, Licensed Professional Counselor, Executive Director of My Healing Place and adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.
During a recent Helping Hand training parents discussed how they handle this difficult situation. The answers varied. Parents agreed that it depended on the day, the person they were speaking to and where they were in their grief journey.
“My answer has changed over time and now changes depending on where I am and who I am with,” said Ashley Ellison, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and bereaved parent. “When I am at the grocery store making small talk, I almost always leave out our son that died. For more personal acquaintances, I do say that our oldest son is in heaven and that we have another living son. Now that my daughter is almost four she knows about her brother in heaven and so when she is with me I always say that we have one son in heaven, and I have a daughter and son on earth.”
As a bereaved parent it is important to position your life in the manner that best suits the path you choose in grieving your child. Many bereaved parents choose to memorialize their babies in unique and personal ways. For some, like the McSpadden’s, personalized tattoos serve as a constant reminder of their beautiful children. For others, it is a piece of jewelry, art, participation in events, raising money for a cause you care about or volunteering to help others in a similar situation.
Over time, the answers given to this question will vary and in different circumstances, and that is perfectly normal and okay. “When I talk to clients about this I suggest that the answer is what the parent feels most comfortable with in the particular moment when they are asked,” says Ford. “It has been over 20 years since our son died and my answer still changes depending on the situation. But I must say that most often I am perfectly comfortable telling people, ‘We have three children.’ We DO have three children; Jennifer is married and lives in N.C., Max is 19 and lives and works in Austin, and Stephen lives in my heart every day… If there are further questions, this is the answer I will often give…I urge parents with whom I work to do what brings them the most peace.”
Kelli Kelley is the founder and executive director of Hand to Hold. She is the mother of two preemies, Jackson and Lauren.