Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am hoping you can help me with this delicate problem. Last year, our youngest son died. He was born with chromosome abnormalities, much like Down syndrome, though much rarer. We also have another son, who is 7.

Our dilemma: How do we respond when asked, "How many children do you have?" I always find this difficult to answer because I feel a necessity to include our youngest as our child, even though he has passed away. Some years ago, you responded to another reader who asked the very same question. Could you possibly print it again, as I feel it would be helpful not only to us, but also to others in the same situation. -- CATHY IN NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C.

DEAR CATHY: Please accept my deepest sympathy on the loss of your precious son. When I was asked this question in April 1995, I responded that neglecting to mention a child (or children) lost in death would in no way diminish their importance, but unless the parents were prepared to answer the inevitable follow-up questions about the tragic loss, they should count only the living children when asked how many children they have.

I suspect that the letter to which you refer was one I printed six weeks later as a follow-up. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: I have never written to you before, but I had to write immediately when I read your answer to "Mourning in Fresno," whose 25-year-old son had died. She wondered what to say when people asked her how many children she had, and you suggested she count only the living one.

If "Mourning" had lost her only child, would your answer have been the same?

For her to say, "I have no children" would not only deny her son's life, it would also deny what she had been for half of her life -- a mother to that child.

A bereaved parent would feel guilty and disloyal failing to count the child who has died. "Mourning" would probably feel better if she replied, "I raised two sons." Then she could add a few remarks about her living son, steering the conversation in that direction. Eventually, she will feel more comfortable talking about the son who has died.

In the two years since our daughter's death, the wonderful people at the Compassionate Friends have helped us to face this question and many others.

I hope "Mourning" can find a chapter of this support group in her area. -- SANDEE MCALPINE, CINCINNATI

DEAR SANDEE MCALPINE: Please accept my condolences on the loss of your daughter. I received many letters from parents who share your views. Thank you for mentioning Compassionate Friends. They provide an invaluable service, and can be contacted by writing to P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, Ill. 60522-3696.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: A student assigned to comment on "books that have helped me the most," replied, "My mother's cookbook and my father's checkbook."

For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600