“Do you have children?” It’s such an innocent, run-of-the-mill, getting-to-know-you type of inquiry. It seems innocuous enough. If the answer is “yes,” then perhaps our lives have characteristics and qualities already shared by both of us. If the answer is “yes” chances are we both speak the language of juggling all the balls in our lives, of loving our children and still somehow finding the energy to love our partners and ourselves, and even of sometimes wishing we’d chosen a childless path.
It used to be a simple question with a simple response: just “yes.” That did it. Three letters, one word, enough said. There was so much that was understood (or at least assumed) about me by revealing that one of the many hats I wore was that of “mother.”
It’s not so simple anymore. In fact, for a while it was downright agonizing to utter a response. In the months after my son’s suicide, I dreaded meeting new people because the question would inevitably be asked: “Do you have children?” If I said “no” that was the end of it. On to the next question or topic. No elaboration required. But “no” felt dismissive of a life that was. “No” didn’t feel true.
If I responded “yes,” that opened up the floodgates to a waterfall of follow-up questions: “How many?’ “Boy or girl?” “How old?” “Where does he go to school?” A veritable stream of questions poured forth from my monosyllabic “yes.” In the early days after his suicide I wasn’t always in the mood to ride those currents.
Gradually, I became comfortable with the response: “Yes, but he passed away.” As you can imagine, this was usually a conversation stopper. Everyone would turn towards me, as if I were this strange thing in the room, something they’d never seen or even heard of before. Despite their efforts to hide it, I could see the pained discomfort in their expressions, and in their body language. Being the caretaker that I am, I would immediately try to make them feel better, when it was I who was grieving.
It’s been over four years and I don’t try to make people feel better any longer. I tell the naked truth: “My son died by suicide.” I’m not aiming for shock, although that’s often the result. I no longer hold myself responsible for other people’s feelings. (What a relief that has been.)
Look, I’m simply another human in a story that has its share of suffering. Losing my child happens to be my version of this tale. Losing him, not to illness or to an accident, but to a well planned, orchestrated self-annihilation. I don’t know what to say to make people feel better about that. And frankly, it’s not my job.
Nor is it my job to make myself feel better. Here’s what I mean by that: it’s not a good idea to deny or suppress or ignore or distract or make pretty. Whatever feelings come up, I stand my ground and have them. Sadness, guilt, anger, relief, horror…whatever percolates up. Keeping the feelings under a lid is a fool’s mission. I have learned to shine a light on those pesky emotions. “To be with what is.” God, how I hate that expression, but honestly, nothing says it better.
So back to the question, “Do you have children?” It’s kind of personal, even intimate, isn’t it? These days there are so many who choose to not have children at all, or people who struggle to have children, or people who have suffered the loss of a child. Can’t we lean into conversation with a new acquaintance with a little more imagination and elegance?
It’s like that other horrid question, “So, what do you do?” Who cares? What about “What do you love?” or “What are you passionate about?” or “What matters to you?” These are the things I want to know about someone I’ve just met. It also happens to be what I want to share about myself with others. This is the information that allows me to feel more deeply connected to another.
I admit, there is something shared in our experience of being mothers. This can feel connecting, like we share a small pie slice of reality.
There is also something shared in the experience of losing a loved one. In fact, loss – plain, old gut-wrenching loss – is a more universally human experience than being a parent. I feel more plugged into the collective unconscious now that my son is dead, than I ever did while he was alive. This is not to say I’m glad he’s gone. I’ve simply noticed that loss connects me to others, deeply and immediately, like no one’s business.
Admittedly, my loss was dreadful, but there are worse ways to lose a beloved. Far, far worse. Wars, genocides, diseases and mere indifference kill thousands every day. On every continent, in every country, in every neighborhood, possibly in every home, at this very moment, someone is grieving the death of someone he or she loved. Your race, nationality, religion, and wealth will not protect you. My tears will be in that enormous pool with yours, and none of those distinctions, none of those labels that separate us and encourage us to believe we are different will matter.
I guess the question I want to ask you when we meet is, “Whom have you loved who is now lost to you?” There’s a question worth asking, a question worthy of the pain we endure to be in this life. How can I not care about you, how can I not love you, even, when we start from a point of shared suffering? Imagine the impulse that flows from this to reach out and embrace the fragile human being before you. Suddenly what matters is how we are the same; suddenly compassion is present in the room; suddenly the paradigm of this getting-to-know-you business has dramatically shifted.
Let’s ban – from this point forward – those superficial conversational ice-breakers, and start with the real stuff. Not because it’s juicier or sexier, but because it’s from the heart and not some conditioned way we’ve learned to be with one another that lacks depth and true connection. Let’s do more than talk to each other; let’s be present with and for each other.
And then, let’s watch, with awe and joy and wonder, as a new world blossoms from this seed.