[Trigger warning: this essay includes a description of the death of a child.]
How many children do you have?
As a grieving parent, this seemingly innocent question, akin to asking someone where they live or what they do for a living, turns my insides to ice and makes me fumble for words every time.
Do I tell the truth? Do I explain to a complete stranger that, while I have two beautiful daughters here with me on earth, my third daughter was taken from me at just three weeks of age? Do I give the real, honest answer of three, or do I take the easy route—perhaps the more comfortable route—and just say two?
I’m not telling you not to ask this question, not at all. Three years after losing my daughter, Hannah, I have come to the realization that I will always face this question, and yes, it will sting every time. It will hurt like salt on a wound or a punch to the gut. But it’s no one’s fault. I’m not angry about it.
I’m just profoundly sad.
Because this question isn’t going anywhere, nor is my grief. Hannah’s passing brought my world crumbling down, and though I move forward in my life and find a way to function and even smile like anyone else, just know that below this normal looking exterior lies a broken heart, irrevocably damaged and aching at all times.
So when you ask me how many children I have, that’s why my face goes blank and I take a minute to answer. You probably think something is wrong with me, but in that instant, a battle is waging inside of me—a battle between giving the answer that will allow us to continue conversing without you feeling sorry for me and things getting awkward, and telling the truth. Between feeling like I’m doing what’s probably better and easier for you, and feeling like I’m betraying Hannah’s memory in the process.
It’s not about thinking that you won’t be polite or empathetic. Maybe you’re grieving the loss of a child too. Maybe you need me to open those floodgates so that you can tell your story and honor your little one too.
The thing is, it’s not even just about when strangers ask this question. It’s the indescribable pain I face every time I have to fill out a form asking how many children I have. It’s present in my own vocabulary when I talk to others about the joys and trials of raising two little ones. It comes roaring to the surface when I have to hire a babysitter for two children.
Every time I write or say “two” instead of “three,” my heart breaks a little. But no matter how much it hurts, nothing changes the fact that I am, in fact, raising two daughters instead of three. Nothing and no one can reverse time and give me back my other daughter.
Do I take consolation in the fact that Hannah’s twin sister, Elizabeth, survived and is growing and thriving? Of course. But I would be lying if I said that it’s not difficult to look at her sometimes and see the physical evidence of what should have been.
I wish I could be more eloquent when people ask me how many children I have. But the reality is that in three and a half years I have yet to figure out how to answer that question. I know there is no right way to respond, but I just wish it weren’t so damn hard.
I wish none of this had ever happened.
I wish I had three little girls to snuggle with on the couch, to give kisses to, to read bedtime stories to.
I wish I didn’t have a child’s urn on my fireplace.
I wish I didn’t have my daughter’s death certificate in our filing cabinet.
I wish I didn’t have a memorial garden in my yard, with flowers and bushes planted in my daughter’s memory.
I wish that hearing the name Hannah or the word “twin” didn’t tear at my insides like a knife.
I wish a lot of things, but at the end of the day, I know I have no choice but to live and love my husband and two earthly daughters as best I can.
If there is a purpose to Hannah’s passing, I think that it is that I’m being called to help others who are part of this terrible club. We might not always have the answers to your questions, but we are trying.
Trying to survive. Trying to be happy. Trying to figure it all out.
So please be patient and loving toward grieving parents who have to answer the hardest question. It’s the kindest thing you can do in the face of unspeakable pain and tragedy.