The question I dread the most as a grieving mother is; “How many children do you have?”
It’s not that I don’t know how to answer, it is all the questions that follow. I’m immediately forced to decide whether or not I want to reveal more intimate information than the conversation calls for. As memories filter through my mind, I am once again losing Matt.
I understand people ask, to learn something about you, not unrelated to the what-do-you-do-for-a-living question. It assumes the answers will provide insight into who the person really is, especially women. The number also means something, though I’m not quite sure why. To be honest, none of those things ever bothered me. But now when the question comes up, I feel a sense of panic.
I don’t mind sharing when the conversation has the potential to lead to an ongoing relationship. But it’s difficult to invest that much in a casual conversation with a person who wants to know something about me without wanting to really know me. It reminds me of a friend who confided that she wanted to connect with people but didn’t know how to engage in meaningful dialogue. She starts off with a series of basic questions to be friendly but finds herself bewildered if it turns into a more serious conversation.
I don’t think she’s alone in her discomfort. In general, we tend to gravitate to simple questions to avoid becoming too involved. We don’t have to invest in someone else’s life. But a grieving mother needs the assurance that the person listening will care about her and the loss of her child.
I realize the question is also a way to find common ground. You have children – I have children. Your children are teenagers, so are mine. It also keeps the conversation in a safe zone. It’s easier to talk about your children than about yourself.
I’ve recently found myself far more comfortable talking about my children. I report on what they are doing – my daughter studies at Brown; my son is an electrical engineer. It’s as if I want their accomplishments to cast me in a more positive light. But that same light also highlights the intense sense of inadequacy and failure I feel as a mother because I am not saying I lost my oldest son to suicide.
I don’t talk about how his depression reached a critical point where he didn’t see another way out, and I couldn’t help him. There is, whether or not I want to admit it, a tremendous amount of shame associated with that truth. Just as I am in part responsible for the accomplishments of my other two children, I am also culpable for my other son’s death.
Sure, I’ve gone through enough therapy to know that depression is a disease and that it is no one’s fault. But it’s hard to feel that truth on a heart level, particularly when as parents we are quick to accept responsibility for our children’s successes. We also have to accept responsibility for their perceived failures. And though I don’t feel my son was a failure, I’m not sure the general public sees it the same way. People make thoughtless and hurtful comments about suicide.
I vividly remember two comments I heard from friends the day after Matt’s death. Though I was unable to stand up to those comments at the time, I can now say unequivocally the only failure I associate with suicide is our collective failure to address the needs of hurting people around us, particularly young men.
All of this comes to the surface the moment someone asks how many children I have. The answer requires vulnerability because it’s wrapped in a deep-rooted feeling that I wasn’t a good enough mother.
In the inevitable silent moments between my answer and the person’s response, the tone of the conversation changes. People don’t know what to say or how to respond. They offer their condolences and move quickly to safer conversational ground, even if that means physically leaving my presence. I can feel their pity.
There are others who see my answer as a way to connect on a deeper level and do so by sharing their own losses. This is always a blessing because there’s an instant sense of comradery.
We both survived, and for a moment – no matter how brief – we become companions on the grief journey.
The real issue behind answering the question is learning how to respond openly without divulging my personal loss all the time. Part of the solution is making peace with my loss. It is as much a part of who I am as the fact that I gave birth to three children. It also lies in coming to terms with the tangled pain associated with losing a child to suicide.
There is so much shame, misunderstanding, and judgment in our discourse about suicide.
People are quick to label it as a selfish act without truly considering the level of pain and desperation one might feel to be driven to that point.
And if that isn’t bad enough, our society doesn’t make it okay for a man to say, “I’m hurting. Help me.”
Subsequently, when someone is lost to suicide, there’s a tremendous amount of judgment wheeled at the survivors. There’s an assumption that you did something to drive your loved one over the edge. Or you weren’t watching closely enough or paying attention to the signs. This rings particularly true for parents. We not only feel judged, but we also judge ourselves. We blame ourselves for not being good parents.
So when I say have three children and I lost my oldest son to suicide, it feels as if I am also saying I am not a good mother. Not to mention the fact I worry about whether or not people are judging my child.
Recently, I told a friend about my issue. Her solution was to say I have two children in order not to divulge more information than I want to share. It reminded me of something that happened years ago at my grandmother’s church.
It was Mother’s Day, and the pastor asked women to stand when he called out the number of children they had had. I expected my grandmother to stand when he called out the number seven, but she remained in her seat. She stood for eight.
Confused, I leaned over and asked my aunt why she was standing. My aunt informed me that my grandmother gave birth to a stillborn baby. And though that child never breathed one breath on earth, he was still her child.
So for me, it will never work to say I only have two children, because that would be like losing Matt again and again in every conversation.
Ultimately, my real issue is that one of my three children isn’t here on earth with me anymore. So whenever someone asks me how many children I have, I will always answer three.
Originally published on October 29th 2016