How many kids do you have?

Any parent who has lost a child knows how painful this seemingly benign question can be.

To most people doing the asking, it’s just a way to make small talk.  Just getting to know you a little bit more.  They have no idea about the internalized chain reaction of thoughts and decisions they set off by asking this.

Do I want to get into the whole story?

Do I just give the easy answer?

Am I going to upset this person?

Do they have time to hear?

Is it worth it?

In a split second (because, really, how silly does it seem if you look like you have to do some math before you answer that? Even if your last name is Duggar.) we calculate not the numbers, but the level of comfort we feel sharing the story of our little winged ones with this person.

In the days following Brigid’s death, I went to a nail salon to get a pedicure.  I needed to get out of the house, and this was a tiny bit of pampering that I thought might make me feel better.  Feel something.  Plus, I’d planned to wear open-toed shoes to her funeral the next day.  I selected a shade of pale pink, sat in the chair, and just sort of stared.  A young girl, about eight years old, was seated a few chairs to my right, getting a pedicure while her mother had her nails done.  In an effort to make small talk, the lady doing my pedicure asked me, “Do you have a daughter?”  Because I was still in shock, I barely flinched.  “No.  I have three boys.”  There I was getting my toenails painted pink for my daughter’s funeral and I didn’t even acknowledge her existence.  Honestly, I hardly felt sad giving the answer, because I was still so numb.  A few weeks later, I felt like I’d betrayed her. “Oh, you are so lucky,” the lady had gone on, “girls are so difficult.  Always wanting things and complaining about stuff.”  On and on she went, telling me how lucky I was not to have a girl when I was pretty sure I’d have cut off both of the feet she was massaging in a heartbeat to have my baby girl back.  To give her whatever she wanted and listen to her complain.  In all her seven weeks in the NICU, poked, prodded, tested, x-rayed, stuck with needles and IVs, operated on, intubated and fed through a tube, she never complained.  Not once.

A few weeks later, we took the boys to a nearby lake to swim.  Our summer had been tainted by loss, but we still wanted to keep some sense of normal for them, even though I think I’d have been content to just curl up in a ball and stay in bed.  As so many people who have seen us with three boys have asked before, a lady walked past our crew as we were packing up to leave and said with a smile, “Three boys, huh?  Are you going to try for that girl?”  Hearing that question always annoyed me, as if we were unhappy with our boys and only had three of them because we kept trying to get a girl, but it never hurt before.  I know she just thought she was being friendly and funny.  She was literally walking by as she asked the question, in jest, not even waiting for the answer.   She couldn’t have known that it felt like a drive-by shooting.   “Ha,” I replied limply, with a halfhearted smile.   The scar on my belly still hurt a little bit from the baby girls I had just delivered.  But I couldn’t tell her that.  She didn’t even stop.  I got to the car and cried.

In the weeks and months after, our second son would mention the girls’ death to everyone we saw.  Everyone.  People in Target would be walking past us and he would say, “Hi. We used to have baby sisters, but then they died.”  The person would look at me, slightly horrified, and inwardly, I would cringe.   Walks in the park, trips to the grocery store, it didn’t matter where we were or if he even had a segue – he just blurted it out.   I needed to get new glasses and brought him with me.  I let him bring a few toy trains with him, and to make conversation, the optician said, “My little boy likes those trains, too.”  “Did he die?” PJ asked.  The look on the lady’s face was one of disgust as she quickly looked to me for an explanation.  I knew that he just needed to say it out loud to validate the experience.   To make it true.  To help him to process it and heal.  But I was shocked at the way he would just say it, so matter-of-factly, to anyone, without even having to think about their feelings or how they would respond, because he was a child, and that didn’t matter, and he didn’t realize that people didn’t just talk about that sort of thing.  I think I envied him that ignorance a little.  I became wary of taking him places, but I also just wanted to hug and hold him as he tried to make sense of what had happened to him – to us.  It broke my heart that death was part of their everyday vocabulary at such a young age.

So many times, over and over, people have made comments about our boys or inquired about the size of our family, and although I’d had a miscarriage before our third son was born, I never had a hard time answering that question until the twins died.

Now it was like a trick question.  No matter how I answered, someone would be upset.

I’ve been trying harder to be honest when I give my answer, though I still find it difficult to include the babies I’ve miscarried.  They were no less my babies than the twins were, but I still feel like I need to keep them a secret for some reason.  When I was pregnant with my new baby girl, a few people asked me if she was my first when I was out somewhere alone.  It felt easy to say, “Nope, my sixth.”  Easy because they didn’t count three little boys and look at me funny.  I was proud, even.

But then, when she was born and we were attending a birthday party with some other family members, someone who didn’t know us asked, “Is she your first girl?”  Without skipping a beat, one of my family members answered for us – but not in the way that I thought she would.  “Yup – she’s their first girl!”   Ouch.  No, she is not, I thought.  We had two other girls.  That question was phrased in a way that I never would have answered in the affirmative, and I was shocked.  But there is was.   I know she didn’t mean to upset anyone – in fact, her reply was probably consciously intended not to upset someone – but that someone was not me.  And that hurt.

You see, after having lost a baby, there is a part of me that still even feels like maybe it didn’t actually happen.  It seems like it wasn’t real.  Like I couldn’t have possibly lived through that horror and be on the other side of it now.  She was with me for such a short time – I don’t have many memories with her, not like I have with my other children.  First words, first steps.  I didn’t see her do any of those things.  So please, family and friends, please let me know that you still remember that she existed.  They existed. It means so much.  More than you could ever imagine, actually.

I love their names.   I love the way they sound, the way they look written.  But now, I don’t get to hear them or see them or use them nearly enough.   The few items that I have with their names on them are treasured possessions – even the inexpensive, handmade ornament craft that came from the bereavement department of the hospital where Brigid died.  It only says Brigid’s name – her twin, Fiona was stillborn at another hospital, so they don’t know that she existed.   But someone thought of her and of us and sent that to us the Christmas after she died, and that was nice.  I always put it up high so the kids don’t pull the glued-on letters off.  As if I couldn’t recreate it for 50 cents or less.  But the value is in her name.  Having her name on it makes it a treasure.

I read this blog post recently about gifts for bereaved parents and thought it was perfect.  I have many of those very things and love them so much.

Which is why I do what I do.  Having a sketch of your baby or babies to look at makes them real.  Reminds you that they did exist, that you did come through that horrific experience, and that you are strong.  It provides an easier way to share them with other people who might come to your home and not know what happened.  It gives you something to kiss, to touch, to look at when the memories in your mind are growing fuzzy and you feel like they’re slipping from your grasp.

I might not be able to bring up all of my babies to everyone who casually asks me the question, “How many kids do you have?”  But right here, in this safe place, I can say that I had two boys, then a miscarriage at ten weeks, then a third boy, then identical twin girls (it’s such a special thing to have identical twins, isn’t it?  I had them!) – one of whom was stillborn and one who died at seven weeks of age, then another miscarriage, then a baby girl.

It feels good to say that here, in this place where people understand and want to know the whole story.

I have eight children.

But you can only see half of them.

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How many kids do you have?