I used to think that question was benign. I thought it was a safe question to ask when meeting someone new, like ”Where are you from?”.
But this question is not safe. If someone asks me this question, there is a 80% chance I will cry in the next 10 minutes.
The first time I was asked my immediate response was “no”. Luckily it was toward the end of a brief conversation with a stranger. One minute later I was in my car bawling. I felt intense shame. I felt like I denied Ginny’s existence. I called Daniel, and he quickly reassured me that we can answer that question however we want. There is no wrong answer. We may want to answer “no” to strangers who we don’t know or trust and “yes” to those we know we will be building relationships with. It’s okay either way.
I agreed with him, but I still felt bad for answering “no”. Mostly because that was my automatic response. I didn’t even think about it. It’s not that I forgot about Ginny. It was that I knew it would make us both uncomfortable. I would not even consider sharing something so vulnerable to someone I don’t know. I came to the conclusion that those were not legitimate reasons to answer “no”. I vowed that the next time I would say “yes”.
The next time was when we were out of town visiting family. We met our family’s pastor at their church. He asked the question. I responded “no”, realized I had broken the vow to myself, and then immediately started crying in front of everyone. I explained we had a stillborn daughter in February so the truth was “yes we do have a daughter in heaven”. He hugged me and assured me that I will soon figure out how to best answer that question. He and his wife prayed for us and shared encouraging words with us.
I wouldn’t break my vow next time! I would respond “yes” no matter how uncomfortable or awkward.
….Why is it awkward anyway? And why do I care if it is awkward?
It is awkward because people don’t know how to respond. We aren’t taught how to respond to death and grief, especially when a baby or child dies. People assume it is a taboo subject to bring up, so then they often profusely apologize for even asking the question. But it is okay to talk about. I love talking about Ginny. I don’t like when people feel bad for bringing it up or assume I’m in pain because of it. I’m in pain either way – your mentioning it doesn’t make it hurt more.
I also think my immediate response is “no” because I don’t want to make people sad. This is a lot of people’s worst nightmare, and they are so sympathetic. I know it is silly for me to worry about whether other people are empathetically sad when we are the ones who are really sad, but something in me (Enneagram 9) hates making people upset….
The next few times I was asked was by fellow volunteers. We would get to know each other while working a volunteer shift together. I finally answered, “Yes I have a daughter, but she was stillborn at the end of February. She’s in heaven.” Most people would respond wonderfully. They would say, “I’m so sorry. How terrible?! I don’t know what to say.” Often they would tear up which would then make me tear up. Some asked follow-up questions that I didn’t mind answering at all. Those are the best conversations. I end up feeling loved, and I feel like I’ve honored Ginny by telling her story. Those shifts would end in hugs and smiles.
Then there were the people who didn’t know the right things to say…”Well you got pregnant once, you can get pregnant again.” and “This sort of thing happens; don’t worry.” Those are the wrong things to say (bonus pro tip: never offer condolences with the words “at least”). I tried successfully to not be offended by those remarks. At their root, they are trying to make me feel better. They don’t want me in pain, so they try to minimize the pain and loss. But in doing so, they minimize my daughter’s life. Not helpful. Anytime I get a comment like that, I smile and nod and change topics. I don’t dwell on it, and I give them the benefit of the doubt that they meant well.
Despite the inappropriate responses, I am going to keep answering “yes” for now. It could lead to a deeper connection with someone. Also anytime a story like ours is told, it reduces the stigma just a little bit. By talking about it, it makes it okay to talk about. That makes people feel less alone, spreads awareness, and ultimately spreads a little hope. And that’s good for everyone.