DEAR ABBY: "Grieving in Richmond, Va." asked how she should respond to people who ask how many children she and her husband have. She had recently lost a 24-year-old son in a car accident.
I lost my 22-year-old son, Nathan, five years ago and am frequently asked that question. He was our only child at the time. Three years ago, my husband and I adopted our daughter from China. When asked how many children I have, or if I have children other than my daughter, I usually respond by saying, "I have two, my daughter and a deceased son."
I understand that it can be awkward when asked this question, especially so soon after such a tragic loss. However, if the questioner has any compassion at all, he or she won't ask further questions unless the mother initiates it. It personally makes me feel good to acknowledge that I have one child here and one in heaven. -- SEASONED GRIEVING MOTHER, ZANESVILLE, OHIO
DEAR MOTHER: Thank you for letting me and my readers know how you handle this touchy situation. I advised "Grieving" to reply that she had three children -- one recently deceased -- and then to change the subject. However, not all of the people I heard from agreed with my advice -- or yours. Read on:
DEAR ABBY: We lost our first child in infancy and had to deal with the same situation. We always said, "We have three children" and never mentioned our loss, as it always made everyone uncomfortable and seemed like a bid for sympathy.
Close friends and family know about our tragedy, but our casual friends may never know. Some people we have since become close with know about our loss. We revealed it when the situation presented itself. It still hurts after all these years, and that's why we keep it personal except with people who know and understand us, and those we trust. -- STILL GRIEVING DOWN SOUTH
DEAR STILL GRIEVING: Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss. If there's anything I have learned from the mail I have received, it's that there's no single answer to the question I was asked.
DEAR ABBY: Your advice was sensitive, but a better answer might be to simply respond by giving the number of children to whom she gave birth. The questioner may simply be attempting to make polite conversation or trying to find common ground with an opening gambit.
If the mother chooses to talk about it, she should say, "Susie is in Baltimore, Jack is in college and Bob recently died in a car accident. So ... where do you work?" This is brief and honest. The sensitive questioner would respond, "I'm sorry for your loss. I'm an engineer at ABC company."
Incidentally, two questions I have learned never to ask are, "Is this your father, mother, niece or daughter?" The much-older husband and the much-younger wife tend to be offended by it. Also, never ask, "When is your baby due?" or "Are you expecting?" unless the baby is emerging at that exact moment. -- JAN IN VALDOSTA, GA.
DEAR JAN: Boy, do I ever agree on that last one because I learned the hard way. Years ago, I was at a party and was told that another guest was expecting twins in four months. She looked lovely, and fairly slender in her heavy, white silk cocktail tent dress -- so I made a point of mentioning to her that I'd heard the good news and how wonderful she looked. I'll never forget her reply: "Thank you. We have a surrogate."