There are questions we ask so naturally that they don’t appear to be intrusive. “How many children do you have?” or “How many siblings are you?”
Yet around us, parents have lost children and siblings have lost brothers and sisters. Because families are everywhere and so are children, these questions don’t jump at us as ones we should be cautious to ask.
Being asked these questions can awaken painful memories for some, albeit without us knowing or intending.
And it would be awkward for a parent to answer: “Well, I have – or had – two girls, but one passed away.”
Just because a parent lost a child doesn't mean they stopped having one to begin with, and they are allowed to speak of them in the present tense.
Equally, they had one in the past and they can speak of them as such. The awkwardness arises when we, the interrogators, attempt to police how parents and siblings deal with their loss.
Their speaking of the loss in the present as though it hasn’t occurred shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that they are in denial of the loss or haven’t dealt with it as you perceive they should.
Child loss is one of the most upsetting and traumatic experiences a parent can go through.
For the parent, it defies logic that the natural order has been reversed and the child preceded them.
For clarity, the child could have been a still born, an infant, a teen or even middle-aged. The circumstances surrounding the loss and age will of course be subjective, but the trauma of the loss will still be felt.
A sibling who has suffered a loss but was too young to recall or feel its impact is another case altogether. This becomes more apparent and awoken when we ask the ‘how many siblings’ question.
So how can we broach this subject without hurting others? For a start, we need to be aware that child loss happens.
Of course it is inevitable that you will politely enquire after the children, but your reaction is what will make the difference.
Be aware that the person could still be grieving, even years after the loss occurred.
Also be aware that parents are likely to fall into prolonged depression, wondering what they could have done to avoid their loss.
Where the loss is of an adult child, parents are left to take care of their grandchildren, upsetting the natural order of things even more.
Where the loss is of a baby or a very young child, let us not dismiss it as a small loss.
This was not just a loss of a child or sibling, the world lost a human being with a name and an identity just like you and me.
On the other end of the spectrum, it might surprise you that some parents and siblings might prefer to talk about those they have lost as it keeps memories of their loved ones alive.
But most importantly, let us show empathy and offer them the support they need rather than offering the support we think they should have.
The author is a legal officer for an airline; [email protected]