26 September 2011

Conversations :: "Is this your first baby?"

Losing a child makes for some potentially strained and awkward social interactions, especially when you’re meeting people for the first time. I thought I would spend some time this week talking about what some of those conversations have been and how we’ve chosen to handle them. These posts are intended to be descriptive (my explanation of what we have chosen to say or not say in these conversations) rather than prescriptive (this isn’t me saying: “this is how you do it”). I simply want to share what these conversations are, what has worked for me, and hopefully spark some discussion around what has worked for you if you’ve been a part of conversations like these as well.

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“Is this your first baby?”

Since moving here, we get this question a lot -- though sometimes it’s not phrased as a question at all: “So, this must be your first baby.”

22 weeks w/ ultrasound (b/w)

This is a question for which I was somewhat prepared when we moved. I knew that moving to a place where we knew almost no one and being obviously (by now) very pregnant, paired with the evidence (or lack thereof) strangers and acquaintances have in front of them, the question is a natural one.

When it comes to talking about Ewan, I really don’t mind if telling the truth makes people uncomfortable. Babies do, in fact, die sometimes -- falling squarely into the category of I-know-these-things-happen-but-now-I'm-confronted-with-it-personally, it is to be expected that answering this question honestly may make people squirm a little. I don’t want to ram it down anyone’s throat (and certain social situations do sometimes require some additional delicacy), but I do not want to shy away from acknowledging the truth about our firstborn and our story.

Though not every single conversation takes the same course, this is typically how it goes:

"First baby?"

I will respond, “No, this is our second.”

Then they will ask if our firstborn is a boy or a girl, and how old he is (for some reason, we almost always get the “how old is he?” question before asking what his name is).

I will tell them that our son Ewan would have been a year old now.

You would be surprised how many people either completely miss or ignore the “would have been.” If they do, I don’t jump right in and tell them that he died. There are neighbors here, for example, whom I’ve told “This is our second baby,” but in the more than two months we've lived here now, they’ve obviously never seen Ewan. And they haven’t asked. My goal really is not to beat them over the head with it, and if they’re not curious or interested enough to ask the question, I am not about to walk up to them after taking out the trash and say something like, "Hey, did you know our baby boy died?"

In some different social settings -- for example, I recently had this conversation a few times with other guests at a party an acquaintance of ours was having to celebrate her recent marriage -- I really will let it go at this point. It’s not my goal to steal attention or yank the spotlight so it’s shining on me. I’ve told them we have a son, that this is our second child, and if that’s all they care to know, then I’m not going to force it.

But like any proud and doting mother, you better believe I will share more if they ask!

If they do catch the “would have been” part (which most people do), they ask -- typically with worried or quizzical looks -- for an explanation. They want to know what "would have been" means. I tell them our son was born with a serious heart defect and lived for sixteen days. At this stage, I don’t go into a great level of detail, thinking that it's probably a lot to deal with meeting a couple for the first time, only to find out that when you innocently asked them about their children, they spring on you the information that their child has died.

People truly have surprised me with the generosity of their responses. They express their sadness, their sympathy, and typically tell me how very sorry they are for our loss. It is only natural that some people will feel particularly awkward about having posed the question -- as if bringing it up will cause me additional pain. Whether or not this is the case, I will add something to the effect of, “We are very excited that he is going to be a big brother, and that this little sister of his will have someone very special watching over her.”

I say it this way because it continues to acknowledges Ewan and attempts to communicate that it’s okay for me to talk about it and for them to ask about it if they want to. It’s the truth of our story and personally, I don't mind talking about it openly. Many times, this opens up conversations about their own losses, or stories of others they know who have lost children as well.

I’m no expert in holding these conversations, but I have found that this approach is what works for me. It’s important to me to acknowledge Ewan when people ask if (or assume) Austen is our first, and it really doesn’t bother me if the truth of our loss makes someone else feel a little awkward or uncomfortable for a little while -- but I also want to have enough tact to do it in a way that is not (as I stated earlier) akin to shoving it down their throats, whacking people over the head with it, or attempting to steal attention away from a new bride at her own party from people I will probably never see again.

I will admit, it can be difficult for me to let it go when people miss or don’t acknowledge the “would have been” part. I want to tell them about Ewan. I want to show them pictures and tell them how amazing he is, tell them how hard he fought. But because he is so sacred to me and because it’s so important to honor his memory, I’m not going to force him on anyone. If I do, I fear that’s the point at which I cross the line from it being about acknowledging and honoring him to it being about me getting attention.

And that is most definitely not the point.

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And now ... how about some conversation of our own?

If you’re a parent who has lost a child:
How have you chosen to handle these types of conversations? What have you learned from these interactions? Has anything about how you’ve handled them or what you've said changed as a result? How did the people you were speaking with respond?

If you’ve been the one on the outside asking the question:
How did that feel? How did the parent you were speaking with respond to your question? How did you respond when they told you?

Feel free to discuss on the Team Ewan page on Facebook. I’d love to learn from you about how you've navigated this dicey territory, and hear what you have to say.