Honoring Grief

This guest post was written by Jodie from Sun Breaks in the Rainy City.

Before our 5 year-old son came home in July 2010, I devoured blogs about adoption (including this one!), attempting to glean wisdom and encouragement from other families that had been knit together through adoption. I read blogs and articles written by both waiting families and blogs written by adult adoptees and I talked with close friends who were adoptive parents. Since we were adopting an older child with special health needs, our adoption agency required lots of hours of training on issues like attachment and helping children heal from abuse and neglect. I even had a few meetings with doctors in our area.

So, when we entered the adoption process we felt ready. We felt empowered and we quickly grew impatient. Naturally, we wanted our son home as soon as possible. We didn’t want to lose any more time with our precious boy.  While we waited for paperwork and visas and permissions and rubber stamps, it dawned on me that our son, Duzi, had no idea we were coming for him. We were prepared and ready, and his world was about to change dramatically, with no input from him. While the situation he lived in was very loving and nurturing (www.ithembalethu.org.za), it was not ideal, not a family, and not a good permanent home for him. Still, it was HIS home. It was what was familiar to him and what he knew.  I knew there would be great joy when we were finally united, along with significant grief.

And, now, after being a family for six months, we’re working out lots of grief.  The depth of the grief has been surprising. The grief comes from missing people he loved in South Africa, from wishing we had come to “fetch” (his word!) him sooner, from realizing that he’ll never meet his birth mother, and from a general sense of loss. In the midst of the grief, we have awesome snuggle time, popcorn fights and some pretty epic wrestling matches. Joy and grief live side by side in our house.

What I want to communicate in this post is that the story isn’t over when an adopted child finally comes home. Too often I get the sense from very well-meaning people and from waiting adoptive families, that they want to hear a story with a neatly wrapped happily ever after bow on it.  Let me be clear, our story IS a happy one. We really are basking in the miraculous power of adoption. But, it’s been hard, too.

Lately, I’ve been reading blogs and social networking status updates from adoptive families on waiting lists for babies. Each time the family moves up the waiting list, they tweet excitedly and express how much faster they wish the process was going. When I read the updates, I have conflicting emotions. First, I’m excited for them and join them in wishing that the wait would be shorter. The waiting is so hard, so nerve-wracking, so draining.  And then, I realize what moving up the waiting list actually means.  It means that a biological mother will be separated from her biological child – usually for reasons that are rooted in poverty and disease – and my heart breaks.

I’m not sure what I want the adoptive parents to say in their status updates instead. But, I can’t shake the feeling that the loss the child will experience is not being considered.

As adoptive parents, we need to honor the grief our future children will experience and the grief our current kids are experiencing. Coming home will not “cure” a child, even if the child is a baby, from the loss that all adoption stories begin with.  Coming home is the beginning of the healing process, not the end.  Honoring the grief, really acknowledging it, is the first step in helping to heal our kids’ broken hearts.

I’m a brand new adoptive parent and am learning how to love my new son one day at a time. I definitely don’t have his whole parenting thing wired.  Many thanks to Lisa for including my voice on her blog.

I write weekly on my own blog, Sun Breaks in the Rainy City – Come check it out!

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

16 Comments

  1. Mary
    January 4, 2011

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

    What has struck me in my own family's journey into foster care and adoption has been this–the joy and the sorrow lined up right next to each other. And the fact that you don't get one without the other.

    It has helped me to see that I fight against this idea in other areas of my life as well. I think the thing that keeps me from God the most is an aversion to confession–I want to align myself with God but I get miffed when that requires me to disalign myself with me. I think it is a similar idea–just a general discomfort with sorrow and joy being side by side.

    It is also one of the reasons I am SO thankful God has called our family to defend the orphan–I thought I was rescuing them, but I see that God is rescuing us both.

    In loving those who grieve, I am learning to tolerate grief and loss and unaswerable questions. And the irony is–I am gaining joy!

    Thank you for sharing this post. It is just beautiful. Best wishes with you and your family. We love on, right?

    Reply
  2. Ali
    January 4, 2011

    We too are a new adoptive family. Right now our son is only 7 months old, but I have been preparing my heart and mind for that day when grief sets in. I run conversation scenarios over and over in my mind, and often ask my husband what he would say if a certain question was asked by our son. I really appreciate everything that I read on other adoption blogs. The day will come when I will have to tell our son that his birth mother was sick and in poverty and couldn't care for him like she wanted to.

    Reply
  3. Ashley
    January 4, 2011

    Two things struck me as so valid (coming from one of those waiting families) in trusting God through a journey that isn't perfect:

    "Joy and grief live side by side in our house" and
    "Coming home is the beginning of the healing process, not the end."

    Such incredible words to remember and prepare to live.

    Reply
  4. rebekah
    January 4, 2011

    This is a beautiful post. We are 4 months in to our 4 year old daughter's homecoming so I know to a great degree what you're saying. I do remember the waiting, for both this daughter and our adopted son, who has now been home almost 3 years. I remember that during the first wait I did not fully comprehend the grief that was coming with the joy. I understood it intellectually, but I did not feel it. Yet. The second wait was easier because I felt the grief.

    There is joy in the wait, and when families move up a list, they are happy to be closer to their child. And even when they're aware of the grief, they still feel joy, and they should. It is a child, their child, after all. And their child should be received with joy. (Joy armed with a ton of information and patience and flexibility and… more and more and more:)) They will learn the grief. We all do. They will get there. And then we all learn from each other how to walk our families through it.

    There is also intense frustration in the wait, and a sort of heightened readiness to bring a child home and begin the healing process. When you're waiting, you know something huge is happening, and the suspense is really challenging. That's why, I think, most families who wait are really excited to get closer to their day of knowing.

    Reply
  5. shonda
    January 4, 2011

    I love this post. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    Reply
  6. Jillian
    January 4, 2011

    It is so challenging to teach our children how to let joy and grief co-exist…thanks for the reminder that it does indeed need to….

    Reply
  7. Sara
    January 4, 2011

    I love your statement about joy and grief living side by side. I think we often live in tension between two feelings. I also found myself uncomfortable when I would get excited about moving up on the list because in order to do that someone was experiencing unimaginable grief. I still consider that a lot and pray often because it can't ever be easy.

    Reply
  8. lisa
    January 4, 2011

    i love this and will check out your blog. many blessings to you and your family. i will say i have found that grief comes in all forms with adoption for the child, for the birthparents and even for the adoptive family when things dont go as planned, or a child is ill(mentally ill, as in our case) but healing is a beautiful and uniting process. thank you for your caring words. lisa

    Reply
  9. dmkroeker
    January 4, 2011

    I really appreciated this post. Although there is no denying that the adoption process can be hard for waiting families, I think those feelings need to be considered in light of what is lost by the children who are adopted. In a better world, families would not be severed and there would be no orphanage gates for children to enter. Remembering that may not have made our adoption journey "easy", but it sure did keep things in perspective while we waited and put us in a better head space for the road that came after our adoption was finalized.

    Reply
  10. Julie Webb
    January 4, 2011

    Wow. Thanks so much for your perspective. We are home 4 weeks now with a 12 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. The depth of both the joy and the grief have been astonishing. My son has begged me for his passport so he can "GO ETHIOPIA!" I had read about difficult adjustment, but few people are honest about the negatives and I get so frustrated by those who assume all is sunshine and happiness for us right now. God is faithful and today was better, but to know it is not abnormal really helps.

    Reply
  11. Kate in NY
    January 4, 2011

    What a lovely and sensitive post. I have the same reactions to the gushing "status updates" – – – I have been there and I know how incredibly thrilling it is to be inching, ever so slowly, to finally meeting one's longed-for child. And yet I also feel a twinge of discomfort when I read status updates or "why can't referrals be moving faster" type posts on my adoption agency yahoo group. It's that "joy and grief side by side" – sometimes I think PAP's, in their (understandable) euphoria, do not give ample significance to the grief part.

    That is why we do not celebrate "gotcha day" – I really can't imagine who came up with that callous, breezy name for such a monumentally significant and complex occasion. I even try not to say things like "when Abi came home," because (and maybe I am being too sensitive here), he had a home before he came here – he did not come into existence at the moment he became my son (at the age of 7). And so I try and remember to say "when he joined our family" instead. Semantics, I know . . .

    Reply
    1. lisa
      January 6, 2011

      thank you for saying that about gotcha day,.i had never articulated that but always felt sensitive about that day. thank you for being willing to share that it helps me a lot.lisa

      Reply
  12. carla
    January 5, 2011

    Maybe I'm one of the few out there in adoption world, but I have found myself dealing with my own grief on top of the children's grief. Everyday I feel completely overwhelmed of how to help these children and I miss life as it was, dealing with guilt over balancing it all out with biological children and adopted children. It's been two years and I can't let myself go beyond the present day because I think I would crawl in a hole and never come out. We are starting counseling with our oldest adopted child, who is 7, but really 9 or 10 who was sent away from an aunt, never told where she was going or what was happening, not knowing that this aunt was not her mother. Even though agencies require some education before adopting, it is not enough, not even close for certain countries and cultures. I am glad that families are feeling free to share their struggles, I did not have this two years ago. I was made to feel that I might somehow discourage somebody from adopting or aid in closing the door of adoption in Ethiopia. Now, I share as much as I can because I wish I could have been a bit more prepared and not just heard mostly positive things of adoption. I read an article by a Christian man that I highly respect, and he recommends that you not adopt older children unless your biological children are grown. I understand this now because I don't feel that I am able to give the older adopted children the attention they need for dealing with their grief and healing because I still have biological children in the home and it's hard to find special time with them. Something to think about if you are considering adopting older children with younger biological children still in the home. I am so thankful that our agency does not allow you to adopt children older than your youngest child in the home, although we were lied to about the older child's age that we adopted and it has made things much more complicated with our youngest biological child. This is serious stuff and these children are real people with real feelings and issues. I still think our oldest adopted child would return to Ethiopia to her aunt, if she was given the choice.

    Reply
  13. Matthew
    January 5, 2011

    As a father of three internationally adopted children, I understand first-hand the grief you mention. However, I have to comment on this remark:

    "I realize what moving up the waiting list actually means. It means that a biological mother will be separated from her biological child – usually for reasons that are rooted in poverty and disease – and my heart breaks.

    I’m not sure what I want the adoptive parents to say in their status updates instead. But, I can’t shake the feeling that the loss the child will experience is not being considered."

    I would agree if it were the case that there were no children available, that is, that the biological mothers of future adoptive children had not yet made this difficult decision and agencies and lawyers were waiting in the wings to snatch these kids up when they finally do. However, that is not often the case. There are thousands of kids in the system (often in terrible circumstances) which are not going into good homes because the system is too slow. Their wait causes further malnutrition, abuse and whole host of other negative things, as we all know. So a move up the referral is not one less mother with their child, but one more child out of orphanage or off the streets.

    Also, I am not sure how tweet about being excited about adopting a child or expressing frustration at the delays (which is hope deferred) is a negative thing in most circumstances. Do we want our friends to be stoic through it all? Don't these types of communication educate others as to the process and get people talking, and perhaps considering, adoptions as a whole? Also, I think blogs, status updates and tweets can be a necessary catharsis for a process that is fraught with extreme emotions.

    For the record, I understand what you are saying and I don't want to sound overly critical. I just haven't run into any adopted parents who were callous about their child's emotions regarding their past or think often about who their birth mother was and what she must have gone through.

    Reply
    1. Jodie Howerton
      January 7, 2011

      Jason,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I did not mean to intimate that waiting families should not be excited. On the contrary – if adoptive families are not anxious to meet their child, I would be even more worried! I wrote this post after learning of several disrupted adoptions in my area. The post was meant to shed light on the fact that doing grief work when a child is finally home is absolutely paramount to helping them become whole.

      I am not advocating for waiting families to be stoic, just attempting to bring some perspective….

      Reply
  14. Guest1015
    January 6, 2011

    Thank you for touching on one of the darker emotions that comes along with adoption. All adoptions come from loss, and it is important to honor that too, along with the joy and blessings.

    We adopted our nephew last year, after my sister passed away unexpectedly. His biological father, who had limited involvement before, hasn't been heard from in months. I am honored to have the opportunity to raise my sister's child, and finish what she so desperately wanted to do herself. We are overjoyed to love and provide for him, and surely his socio-economic situation has been improved.

    These things don't change the grief he feels for the loss of his mother, and father. The sadness we all feel at our loss of my dear sister. Every small change is one step away from his old family, and one step tighter into ours, for better or worse. Often, grief is accompanied by guilt. My joy from his loss.

    No doubt, we will deal with all of these emotions for the rest of our lives. There is no "happy ending", just a strange new beginning that we will continue together, forever changed.

    Reply

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