Think about the first time you meet someone. Naturally, you seek commonalities so you resort to questions about where they live, about their job, and about their family. But sometimes seemingly simple questions can be the most difficult to answer. For loss parents, it’s the family-oriented ones that are complicated. How many times have you asked or been asked “Do you have any kids?” or “Congratulations on your pregnancy! Is this your first?” Questions like these aren’t easy for parents who have lost an infant and/or have been unsuccessful at conceiving. While we often welcome the opportunity to talk about our beloved infants or share our stories, we have a lot to evaluate before we can answer:
Am I in the emotional place to be open today? Some days, we are able and very willing to discuss our story. Other days, not so much. I used to jump at every opportunity to talk about our son Everett, to honor him and to help break the silence around infant loss. But once we became pregnant again, it was difficult to answer honestly every time someone asked if it was our first. Telling the truth each time means being frequently reminded of our loss, which gives us no reprieve from grief. As a result, we also have to evaluate the the pros and cons of being open versus reserved.
What might happen if I am open? Being open can be validating. It helps us to connect with others and allows them space share, it raises awareness about infant loss, and it helps us heal. However, we risk the conversation being changed or even ended if/when the listener isn’t comfortable. As a result, bereaved parents can feel dismissed and unrecognized. Telling our story also exposes us to reassurances such as “You’ll find the good in this someday,” or “Look how much you’ve gained from this loss,” or “The good news is you’re pregnant again”. While those things might be true, it’s invalidating in the moment when we’re trying to acknowledge the child(ren) we lost.
What might happen if I am reserved? Being reserved can set much needed boundaries as loss parents navigate grief. It protects us from potentially difficult conversations when we’re not able to have them and allows us a break from grieving. Although this approach is needed, it does have downfalls. For example, when asked if we’re currently pregnant with our first, I often receive advice about pregnancy, delivery and more if I say “yes”. I’m then in a position to conceal our past experience and play along. Sometimes, that’s easy for us to do, because it’s needed. Other times, it can feel dishonest and disloyal to the child we lost. Admitting to ourselves that we can’t always talk about them isn’t easy.
Does this setting support what I’m trying to accomplish by being open? It’s a risk to be vulnerable. So when we opt to share our loss stories, there is usually a goal in doing so. Maybe we’re looking for support. Maybe we want to encourage open dialogue. No matter the reason, we have to ensure the setting is supportive of our goal. Picture this: You’re sitting at a table with colleagues, waiting for a meeting to start, and the whole family topic arises. Sharing in this setting would leave little time to truly discuss it, which would essentially squash the intent of being open. To the contrary, it were to come up during a casual lunch with a colleague, the setting might lend more time and space to get into real dialogue. In that case, it’s more likely that the goal of sharing would be met.
So, how should we all handle this? Must we walk on egg shells now??
That’s a big NOPE! We recently polled our Facebook community and it seems that bereaved parents have a good handle on this. We tend to own our role in assessing how we’re feeling, the risk versus reward, and the setting. However, it’s important that we feel supported in doing so.
How can you support us? My first inclination was to say “Just don’t ask!” But that would accomplish nothing and actually might set us all back. We should all be able to talk about our families, no matter the circumstance. As difficult or awkward as it can be on both sides, we encourage the dialogue. Here are a few ways you can help support it:
- Simply be aware of what you’re asking. Know moving forward that these simple questions can sometimes be super personal. Proceed with caution as you would asking any other type of personal question.
- If you ask, be ready for the honest answer. It’s okay to ask if you’re comfortable doing so. Just be ready for the moment someone answers you honestly. Be equipped to help them feel supported. An easy way to do that – ask follow up questions and just listen. You don’t have to fix it or change the topic or sprinkle glitter all over it.
- If you aren’t comfortable with an honest answer, find a new go-to question. We challenge you to become comfortable with grief, but we also get that you need to keep it light sometimes. Try using different questions in this case. Like instead of asking someone if they’re pregnant with their first child, simply ask how they’re feeling. Or if you’re catching up on family life and someone in the group isn’t weighing in, maybe just ask how their summer is going instead of putting them on the spot with “Do you have kids?”.
- Try to ask during a time that allows for open and reciprocated dialogue. Again, approach this as you would any other personal question. You wouldn’t bring up someone’s weight or family drama or surgical procedure in a room full of people at work, so treat this in the same manner. This is a good time to turn to some of those other questions you’ve got ready if the setting doesn’t support openness.
Hopefully these suggestions help you and others create a dialogue that is comfortable and supportive of whatever place you’re in. Just remember that nobody needs to walk on eggshells here. We’re all just trying to figure out how to navigate life after loss together, and it’s that collective effort that carries the most meaning.