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Tallying my blessings

“What do I say when people ask how many kids I have?” A friend of a friend wrote this following the death of her young child. It’s an anxiety I’d almost forgotten in the two decades since I was in her shoes. At the heart of this question is the fear your child will be forgotten. Or worse, that her life was so short she didn’t have a chance to make an impression; so few knew her, it’s not even a matter of forgetting. The ultimate earthly snub.

That’s why answering this seemingly innocent question is so anxiety-provoking for some of us. Every time a stranger asks how many kids you have, you’ll either have to (A) say the total number and risk follow-up questions that will inevitably lead to the explanation that one child died, or (B) only mention your surviving child/ren and feel horribly guilty—until the next time a stranger asks and you can go the first route as some sort of penance for pretending you forgot that you have a child who died (like that’s even possible), which you only did in an attempt to avoid bumming out the nice check-out lady at the grocery store whom you didn’t really feel like sharing with anyway.

Madeline was my firstborn. I was pregnant when she died. So there was also the question, “Is this your first?” Yeah, no. Do you really want to hear this? After Sam, I had Grace a couple years later. During those years I answered with either A or B. I had a couple other great answers, C and D, ready for the moment I could pull them off with the appropriate aplomb: “I have three children—one just isn’t as high maintenance as the others.” Or maybe, in a display of plucky, unshakable faith: “I have three children, but one is with God.” I don’t think I ever used C or D, and it’s been 22 years. C always seemed a little insulting toward my surviving kids, who were no more high maintenance than any other living children so it seemed like a weird comparison. And the “she’s with God” answer never felt right either. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Madeline is with God, and I even have this faith/hope/belief/superstition that when I die, she’ll beckon me toward the light. At the same time—and I believe God is well aware of my feelings in this matter and won’t take it personally if I write it here—I’m a bit resentful that she’s spent all these years with God when she could have been with me, and not in the ephemeral sense but physically with me, at least until she graduated from high school. I know, I know. Not God’s fault. Stuff happens. We get what we get.

See, here’s the problem. Our society doesn’t think like that. We treat everything as an act of God, a thumbs up or a thumbs down. People say their children are blessings from God, or “We’re blessed with X number of children” like they’re keeping score (19 kids and counting!). But God doesn’t award us children when we’ve been good. If that were the case then a child who dies would be a gift God takes back. What kind of psychopath would do that, and how bad would God have to be at judging character to take away my baby?

Disease, accident, violence—these are not punishments from God, which also means the lack of any of these in one’s life at any given time is not a reward or a blessing. And God doesn’t put these difficulties in our lives as some sort of character-building exercise. It’s just life. We’re here on a crowded planet where illnesses incubate, accidents happen, and sometimes we purposely hurt each other or ourselves. Despite this, some of us take comfort in the belief that there is a divine spirit breathing through us and among us, a deeper meaning that we will one day understand. In the meantime, we help each other when we can.

Here’s what I would say to the grieving mother, although I wouldn’t deign to advise her: You don’t have to tell everyone the whole story. Trust your instincts. Some people are just talkative and nosy, and you don’t owe them anything. Your child isn’t looking down with raised eyebrows every time you fail to mention he existed. And if he is, he’ll understand if it’s just some gossipy stranger. On the other hand, there may be times when, out of the blue, a stranger tells you about some great sadness she carries, and you’ll say “I have that too,” and you’ll both feel less alone. Or your words will reach a person you’ve never met, and help her realize that counting one’s blessings is different than tallying them.

Child-grieving lasts a lifetime, but you will find your heart again. You are not your child. Your life still has value even if you can no longer be a mother to a particular person who once depended on you. Your life had value before your child was born and it holds value now, just as your child’s short life meant something and continues to mean something, now and forever.

For the record, here’s my answer: I have three children. One died when she was a baby. I feel blessed to have known her, and I wish she were still here. Sometimes I think she is. But most of the time, I’m just trying to find the words to express what it means to still be here, living in her memory, living in mine.
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