How Many Children Do You Have?  

“Let’s pretend we’re at a cocktail party. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, right?

We’re meeting for the first time and getting to know each other. We’ve learned that we’re both parents, so one of the very first questions you’ll probably ask me is, “How many kids do you have?”

Thus begins my TEDx talk, “Why We Should Share Our Stories.” But, it has also been the story of my life for the past two decades since our fourth child, Noah, died when he was 15 months old. In the beginning, this question struck me silent with grief and it became even more gut-wrenching when people would coo it over and over again as my belly grew with the promise of our next bundle of joy. Nine months later, it would bring me to my knees, the answer completely inconceivable when Jonah was stillborn.

So when the opportunity to present a TEDx talk arose, this seemed like a good place to begin. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and their tagline—ideas worth spreading—speaks for itself, their goal to cultivate and share ideas. I wanted people to understand why that seemingly innocent question strikes fear in the hearts of bereaved parents. And I liked the idea of stepping onstage in my red cowboy boots carrying a glass of chilled chardonnay. I figured my “prop” might come in handy and it definitely improved the rehearsals!

How many kids do I have? As I continued, “And I’ll give you this quick answer— five. The conversation will move on, most likely with me telling you all about my five children and you telling me all about yours. We’ll smile and sip our wine and you’ll never know that your simple question has just kicked me in the belly. Or that I feel like I’ve just lied to you.”

I do believe lying is a sin but, as I justify my public confession, “Because, I rarely give the correct answer to that question. Usually, I sidestep it. I don’t want to watch your face crumple or hear you say, “I’m so sorry,” like so many, many others before you. I like to have fun and I want to keep things lighthearted. But every time I do that? I feel guilty. Because I do believe we should share our stories. Maybe not while standing in the grocery store checkout line or with a glass of wine in our hand. But somewhere, sometime, someway…

Given that I’ve had 13 pregnancies remaindering five living children, it’s really more of a little white lie. I’ve become quite adept at softening the blow when delivering my math equation in a diversity of settings and this was the idea I wanted to share. I also wanted to impart that every year, 1:4 pregnancies end in miscarriage and 26K babies are stillborn yet we rarely talk about them. Stillbirth and miscarriage are largely taboo subjects, not mentioned at cocktail parties over glasses of wine and I’ve had to bite my tongue more times than I care to count. It’s time to shatter the silence.

They say there’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you and for me, this was that story. As an author, I share best by writing but I certainly never dreamed that life would place this particular tale in my hands. Eventually, I gave birth to my book, Breathe, both to tell the story of my sons and to help other people. is is the first reason I give in my TEDx talk as to why we should share our stories—to help each other. When Noah died, I searched, desperately, for other bereaved parents. In those days before social media, I called them. I wrote letters to them. I accosted them in person. And I’m sure some of them thought I was crazy. Because I was. I was crazy with grief. And I was crazy with pain. And when you’re in pain, all you can think of is getting out of pain. So I searched for survivors because I needed to know that the pain I was in wouldn’t last forever. I needed them to tell me that I was going to survive the unbearable agony I was in.

Another reason we should share our stories is to keep our loved ones alive. My family marks our gravestones with this saying: To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die. As long as we walk this earth, our loved ones will never truly be dead because we are holding them in our hearts. Before I wrote my book, the only thing people really knew about Noah and Jonah was that they’d died. That was the most definitive characteristic of their short, little lives. But because I shared their stories, readers now know that they also lived and they’ve become manifest. That is the power of sharing our stories!

Breathe was published a few years ago and after reading it, my thirteenth child, Bella’s dance teacher asked me to write my story as a dance. And this is the final reason I cite for why we should share our stories—because you can never foresee how your story will impact others. Or where that path will lead as you move forward. And it might just be someplace that’s so amazing you can’t even imagine it!

There’s a passage in my book where I write that it’s my terrible misfortune to be able to compare losing Noah, a toddler who was learning to walk and talk and was loved by so many, with losing Jonah, a baby inside my belly and mostly only known by me. And I share how people have actually asked me, “Which was harder, losing Noah or losing Jonah?” To which I replied: “Which would you miss more, your right arm or your left?”

That passage stuck in Miss Pam’s mind where it grew into a dance in which half the dancers can only move their arms and the other half their legs.

This limitation is removed only during a brief pas de deux danced by Bella and my niece, Ava, who represent Noah and Jonah. Miss Pam and these girls have transformed the story of my sons and of my life into art by dancing some of the answers I don’t always share at cocktail parties. But, as most bereaved parents know, we’ve already done the hardest thing—burying our children. After that, the answers to every question and the challenges life places in our paths should all be easy.

When your baby dies, you wonder so many, many things including how you can possibly get through that next painful breath, never mind the rest of your life. Your life without your son, and then without your next son, stretches infinitely on beyond you. You ask all the terrible questions for which there will never be any earthly answers. The why’s and the why not’s, the why me’s and the what if ’s. And somehow, you resign yourself to living without understanding.

But to sit in a darkened theater and watch Noah and Jonah’s baby sister dancing their story on stage almost two decades after their deaths?

Well, you think, this? Maybe this.



Kelly Kittel

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Comments (7)

  • I went on an interview for a job a few months after my son died – and their first question was… Tell us about yourself. I said automatically – “well, I’m married and have…” took a breath because I had always said “I have two children”… but I stopped – held my breath – felt tears welling up in my eyes and quickly explained apologetically about my son. I left that interview thinking – “I blew that one!”… but I got the job.

  • This really hit home. I avoid meeting new people and the old acquaintances I see on a regular basis like the people from my train commute, the nail lady, my chiropractor , my physician, my hairdresser. I simply say 2 sons.

  • I love your sentence “to live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die.” I lost a son Avery at age 28, due to a motorcycle accident. His older brother Shane, who was a paramedic, not only witnessed the accident but had his brother die in his arms. This was so horrible. Shane suffered a lot of post traumatic stress. 5 more motorcycle accidents that year, sent Shane back to university and now he is in charge of 1,000 paramedics, and knows how to take care of these situations.

  • How terrible for you and your family to survive so many losses. Bucko was 16 when we were hit by a drunk driver. I held him when he took his last breath. When people ask, I tell them I had 4 boys If they catch it and ask, I tell them my story. Hugs to you and your family. We are all survivors.

  • I always say I have 2 but in case you haven’t heard, I lost one to cancer….that’s all they need to know…

  • Your article hit a note with me….our son died while I was still working as a nurse and the question of “how many children do you have” came up daily if not multiple times daily. It seemed to be a conversation starter with patients. I had not noticed this until I was at a loss on how to answer. Like you, I found fibs, lies, etc to be so guilt wrenching and painful, so I came up with a plan. I always answered truthfully…3. Then the next question asked would be how old are they? I answer… young adults, 28, 23 and 22. I used the 28 which was our son’s age at death. He will forever be that age.
    Next would come where do they live? I would start with the youngest and tell, go to the next and I found that by the time I finished with the middle son that the patient had lost interest and I mostly never had to go to the one who died. I learned to always start with the youngest and move backwards as people mostly want to talk about themselves so they would move on. It worked for me painful as it was. Now that 21 years have passed, I find it easier to talk about the one who died. People rush on past the issue with, “I’m sorry” and think it has been so long, I should be OVER it anyway. They don’t know or understand but then neither did I before this happened in our lives.

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