One of the questions I have dreaded for the last four years is, “Do you have kids?”

Before my son Dan died I would proudly say, I do. I’ve got two boys. After his death I didn’t go out much so I didn’t have to worry. When I started creeping back into the real world and someone asked the inevitable, I would gulp and almost inaudibly say, yes. But then the follow up questions were even worse.

“How many do you have?” “What do they do?”

How many was the challenge, but sometimes I could skip that one and go right into “and what do they do.” Often I’d elaborate more than I needed to about my older son hoping that could end the exchange. But some folks persisted and when that happened and I said two and they followed up with what does the other one do, I’d have to say we lost him. This always sounded to me like I was negligent in Stop & Shop and he might still be somewhere in aisle five. But if I said he died or he’s dead they’d get so embarrassed and speechless and then they’d start apologizing.

“I am so, so sorry,” they’d say. Then I’d say, “it’s okay,” which is really ridiculous because of course it’s not okay. It’s okay that they didn’t know and by mistake they found out, and it’s certainly okay that they asked. But when I say it’s okay it sounds as if I’m saying his death is okay. And if I try to explain the possible meanings of all the different okays we could end up doing a Monty Python sketch and I never really liked those sick jokes. If I start crying, which invariably I do, I make them feel even worse. These people just want to connect, and it’s a perfectly legitimate opener to a conversation. “Where are you from? What do you do? Do you have kids? How many?”

My truthful answer knocks the wind out of them, and I end up taking care of them.

I met someone last winter who in the first few minutes of our introduction told me about her 26 year old who had a fatal heart attack and that the autopsy showed he had a congenital heart disease that they had never known about. She began to weep and I held her. But while I was holding her I was thinking, so when do I throw in my bit? I can’t sound like we’re in a competition (oh yeah, we lost one, too). But if I say nothing and later it comes out, she might feel really weird.

Mostly, after someone has asked and I have managed to calm them down, I launch into one of my stock Dan stories. I say in my most cheerful voice, “Dan was really funny. There was this one time I stood at the end of his bed and I said, ‘good night o king of kings,’ and I bowed. And then I said, ‘good night o lord of lords,’ and I bowed again. And there was this pause, because his mind from the MS had gotten slower, but he still came up with a winner. He said, ‘good night o fruit of loops.’”

They always laugh and are comfortable again, and I feel a little bit better too. So the next time someone asks me how many kids I have, I’m gonna answer loud and clear, “Two, but one died. And that kid was so funny.”

Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart (Hyperion) and the founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard.