The Heartbreak Of The Question 'How Many Children Do You Have?'

by Tara Rigg
loss mom
photographer / iStock

When we were driving home from the hospital after I had delivered our fourth baby, our son, Beau, I asked my husband, “What will we say when people ask how many kids we have?”

He answered thoughtfully, “We only have three. We only have three here with us.”

It was true. And it is still true over two years later. We only have three children with us here on Earth. In our home, singing along in the minivan, sitting around our dinner table. Beau was alive inside of me one day and no longer had a heartbeat the next. He was a beautiful 3 pounds and 1 ounce when he was delivered into our arms. We held him for four hours before his body was wheeled away. We no longer have him.

I know for many parents who have lost a child, a common and seemingly innocent question from people you have just met is, “How many children do you have?” It’s such an everyday sort of question you might ask a new neighbor, a mom at your kids’ school, or even a complete stranger at the grocery store.

For a very long time, I struggled with how to answer this question. Other loss moms encouraged me to speak Beau’s name and to tell people I have four children, in order to properly honor him. I have read many comments and posts from loss moms that are almost imploring fellow loss moms to include the children they have lost in their “kid count.”

Often it seems as though many are insinuating, or are flat out stating, that if you do not include your lost child in your kid count, you are not honoring their memory. It matters not if the asker feels uncomfortable afterward because all that matters is that your lost child is mentioned.

I disagree. One year after we lost our son, we moved from Colorado back to our home state of Montana. We were in a new neighborhood full of new people. Our oldest daughter was starting kindergarten in a new school. We had daily encounters meeting new people at the playground, the school, and virtually everywhere we went — kind, smiling people. Perhaps these new people would one day become a friend. Perhaps they would just be a person I’d wave to as I passed them on the street. It was impossible to know where these relationships would go.

I had thought hard about what I would say when the inevitable question was asked, “How many kids do you have?” I wanted to be the kind of mother who would stand up for my lost son and say, “I have three daughters and one son, but our son passed away.” I wanted to believe that I didn’t care if I made the asker uncomfortable because I needed to honor Beau’s existence. And if I didn’t count him, then I was forgetting him.

I tried it out a few times. I cried every time I said his name aloud, and this was no different. So there I was, standing in front of a person I had just met, crying, grieving, and pouring out, in order to provide them with an answer I had been pushed into giving. It wasn’t working for me.

Answering the question with “four” turned an otherwise pleasant moment into a moment that was purely painful for me. These people who did not know me at all were witness to my precious grief moments after learning my name. Yes, they now knew I’ve delivered four babies, but they were also left feeling sad and perhaps feeling guilty for asking such a simple question.

I could picture them telling their significant others later, “I met this lady at the park and asked her how many kids she had. She burst into tears and babbled something about her son who had died. I felt terrible for asking! Poor girl!”

I decided that Beau’s name and his role in our family is so precious and sacred to us that I didn’t want his name to be associated with feelings of guilt or feelings of pity. When it comes to brand new people in my life, I have to feel that they are safe, that they are a person I will call “friend,” and that they are going to love Beau even without ever knowing him.

Once I have established a solid relationship with a new person and have come to know them in deeper ways, then I do share about him and his place in our family order. When I’ve chosen to wait, the moments I finally share about him have proven to be moments surrounded with love and care, by people I now know and trust, people I will continue to know and who will continue to know me and know me fully.

Sadly, we do not have him here with us. We have three daughters here with us right now. Answering a stranger’s question with “three” when asked is a perfectly accurate answer. In time, I may tell them about Beau. Or I may not. It all depends on the moment, my feelings, and where I am with my grief at that time. It depends greatly on the relationship unfolding between us and the role they are going to have in my life.

In turn, I take care when asking people I have just met how many children they have. I feel they too can tell me about their children as they see fit and don’t necessarily need to be asked outright by me, a perfect stranger. I know now this simple question is actually deeply personal and may have a very complex answer.