“How Many Children Do You Have?” How to Answer When You Have Lost a Child

I have been asked a perplexing question several times recently, and really wanted an idea of how people, who have lost a child, answer the question, “How Many Children Do You Have?” 

Is there some appropriate response that doesn’t invalidate your very own, cherished, flesh and blood? Does the alternative always have to be an invitation for a barrage of questions you would much rather avoid? Tricky, eh?

You realize your honesty will ignite curiosity starting with, how did you lose him, followed by, how old was he? Followed again by, offering their condolences, and some even describe to you how you must be feeling and closing with, while twisting their faces in pain, how they would never survive losing a child. What did I miss in this exchange? How and when did this become about them? 

The very first time this was asked of me was at a Lexus dealership. I was referred to the manager who had just sold a car to my friend. This guy was all that she described and then some. He was warm, engaging and appeared forthright in helping me with my trade-in and getting me into a new car that had more safety features, etc. 

I had been telling him about the great deal we had just gotten on a Subaru, in Florida, when we traded in the car we had purchased from my son. The manager’s blue eyes twinkled when he said, “Oh, you have kids? How many do you have?” I was stunned. How do I answer this? We were having this light exchange of words and suddenly things became awkward and dark. I realized I had never been asked this question since my son Chris had died, just four months, prior.  

The manager held his warm, twinkly eyed expression, not reacting to my discomfort. I muttered something like, I had two sons and lost my younger son, recently. He leaned forward, across his desk, and in all sincerity, said, “I’m so sorry!” 

There were no further inquiries into my son’s death. Instead, he sat back into his chair and said, “I had five children, but lost a daughter at 27. She left two children.” Now, I’m saying, “OMG, I’m so sorry!” Then, he said, “I always say I had five kids, because I did.” 

Rose Marie with her two sons.

This deeply sensitive man had no idea what he just taught me, nor did he realize this was the first time I had been asked this question. 

I am sure during my lifetime, I had made the mistake of asking how someone lost their child although I don’t consciously remember, but awareness and sensitivity for these painful and delicate moments, can’t be emphasized enough. That is exactly why I am sharing. 

I think we all have to guard about projecting our own feelings into situations and remembering, not to make it about you! Being cognizant of what we say regarding how someone must be feeling or how you couldn’t possibly handle such a loss. They don’t care! They are grieving! They may be barely holding their own head up. Simply saying, “I’m so sorry, is quite enough.” 

Rose Marie Beauchemin-Verzella is the CEO of Beau Institute of Permanent and Corrective Cosmetics and Director of Education.

Top photo: Bigstock