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Moving forward into the life you create in the wake of loss

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How Many Children Do You Have?

Secrets are a perfect stand in for boundaries.Transparent, Season 4

Whenever I meet someone new, I brace myself for the question that’s inevitably coming — “How many children do you have?” Or, if we’ve been conversing for a bit, and Molly’s name has come up — “Do you have any other children besides Molly?”

In those hard, dark days after Jimmy died, the question was like a physical blow. I tried to find verbal defenses to forestall it, deflect it, prevent it from being asked. Could I turn the conversation towards the other person before it got asked? Could I cut the conversation short? Could I encourage Dan or a friend to join the conversation, thereby creating a distraction and effectively changing the subject?

For weeks and weeks after Jimmy’s death, I made sure I was only around people who knew. I had a friend call Jill, my hairdresser, to make an appointment for me, tell her what had happened and ask her not to bring up the subject. Dan and I sat deep in the outfield at high school softball games, arriving close to the start of the game, coming in at odd angles or walking in with a group of the other team’s parents in order to avoid the parents we knew.

It’s like a sad, twisted game. Dodging, ducking, avoiding and, when cornered, taking a page from Transparent’s Sarah Pfefferman’s book, and telling a lie to protect my privacy.

I remember the first time after Jimmy’s death that Dan and I were asked if we had other children besides Molly. We were in an Uber together, chatting with a pleasant driver. Without missing a beat or even looking at each other, we both said, “No.” And then immediately felt guilty for acting as if Jimmy didn’t exist.

But the alternative isn’t great either. I’ve poured cold water on many a conversation by responding to the question about how many children I have by saying “I have a daughter, Molly, who’s 20 and a son, Jimmy, who died at the age of 21 of brain cancer.” It’s not the other person’s fault for asking such an innocent question. Yet I still haven’t figured out how to convince the other person that he doesn’t need to apologize or that she couldn’t possibly have known.

Nowadays, more than three years after Jimmy’s death, I don’t hide Jimmy’s existence. Because I’m more in control of my emotions, I can better manage the ensuing conversation once I reveal what happened. I’ve also discovered that sharing what happened to Jimmy and our family has opened the door to conversations I would never have had otherwise — the former colleague who shared that he and his wife had moved across the country because their only child had committed suicide, and the friend of a friend who opened up about her first child who had died in utero just before her due date.

As I’ve said in other posts, these conversations are both comforting and healing. There’s a time for boundaries and privacy but they have a cost — isolation and loneliness. I’m grateful for everyone who shares his or her story of loss with me. It’s taught me that by talking about what happened to Jimmy, I might be able to help someone else who’s struggling with the death of a beloved, too.

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