When people ask me how many children we have I answer nine. It’s true of course. My husband and I have nine living children. Well, some of my children are actually grown ups but you know what I mean- we have nine offspring walking the face of this earth. This is what these people want to know.
But do you know what? Sometimes I want to answer the whole truth, the truth that we also had five children who died through miscarriage. It’s really true that we have more, who passed even before they saw the light of day. Should we count them? Do you count yours?
My little ones were lost on account of miscarriage, but I know other people who have lost children to disease or a car accident, to stillbirth or other early death, even to an abortion, much regretted. I know and you know that these children really existed and technically they are our children, but because they are no longer here it’s awkward to say. If we mention them we open ourselves up, both to memories and to others’ reactions. So, again I ask: do we count them?
When people ask how many children we have, they usually just want to know practically speaking, how many children we are raising, enjoying, teaching — how many we are taking to the park, or putting through college, or tucking into bed at night, or worrying about when their temperatures or tempers get too high. But what about the ones no longer here?
I’ll offer my answer for your consideration: I think we should count them all.
I think we should count them because they were people, because they did exist, because they are our children. I believe we should count them because, in some way, acknowledging them can give their life, however short, however lost, some dignity. Doing so can also soothe our hearts, if just a little, and remind us, if even for a moment, that even if our very busy and very concrete material life is here, there is even now yet another life of ours, a little branch of our family tree, already in eternity. We have one foot here and one already in heaven, as we of course have had all along, considering we are baptized, hopefully grace-filled, and headed for eternal life. As a priest once told me after a miscarriage, “Now you have one more reason to look forward to a joyous reunion in the afterlife with God.”
Exactly. We will see God and likely have the chance to meet or see again our little one/s in heaven again. That is balm to a soul who has lost a child, or children. And so, for this reason and others, we count them.
Out of that thought, back on earth, however, we are left practically with the pregnant pause, the silence begging to be filled when a person we know or have just met asks nonchalantly the loaded question: How many children do you have?
What should we say, exactly?
I think we should answer the question in a short, positive but very truthful way. We can say something like:
We have three here, two in heaven. or
We lost one as a baby but are raising three. or
One of our children passed in a car accident but we are blessed to be raising a boy and two girls.
We can also just say a number:
13, if you include our seven miscarriages.
I believe these answers are not only most accurate, but they also help the listener develop sensitivity to the reality another has experienced. These answers can help foster empathy as well as respect for even the youngest life.
Telling people about the children who are no longer with us can seem awkward, maybe even a little self-indulgent. What stranger who politely asks at a cocktail party how many children we have, really wants to know about a youngster who died of a disease ? Will people judge us for mentioning a little lost life whose heart beat only as a tiny blip-blip-blip on an ultrasound screen, but whose arms never folded around her mama’s neck? Does the little old lady at the grocery store who candidly corners a young mom really want to know the mom had a stillborn child when she asks, “How many do you have?” I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m starting to think being frank is the right thing to do.
Part of the reason the atrocities of abortion and euthanasia exist today is that many people simply don’t value young and elderly life. And life isn’t valued because it isn’t considered. And it isn’t considered when it is not mentioned. By mentioning the humanity of our children no longer here, we are reminding a friend, a relative or perhaps just a stranger, of the fact that people, all people, matter.
And that’s why I believe in counting them all.
Theresa Thomas is the co-author of BIG HEARTED: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families (Liguori Publications) and Stories for the Homeschool Heart (Bezalel Books, 2010 & winner of About.com Best Catholic Book of 2010), family columnist at Today’s Catholic News and a contributing writer for the Integrated Catholic Life™.
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