Grieving Many Times Over

Today, I share a piece by LINK>David B Bohl, who is an author, speaker and addiction & relinquishment consultant. It is titled On Grieving Many Times, And Many Times Over. I was attracted to this because yesterday was my deceased, adoptee mother’s birthday. I don’t suppose we ever get over the grief. I don’t think she ever got over the grief of never being able to communicate with her birth mother, who Tennessee told her in the early 1990s was already dead.

David writes his adoptive mother’s death was the fifth death of a parent he’d had to go through. He explains that he – hadn’t learned of the first two until much later after they’d occurred. The first one to go was my birth father, who died 32 years before I learned about it, the second one my birth mother whose death I did not learn of until 8 years after it happened (very similar to my own mom). Then there was my adoptive father 12 years ago, and now, Joan Audrey Bohl who died twice —first when the dementia robbed her of her mind and memory, subsequently rendering me a stranger when she would fail at times to remember who I was and why I was visiting. There she was another mom who had no idea I was her son. In those moments, in a most sinister coincidence, she was like my biological parents who relinquished me and existed in this world without any specific knowledge of me.

He wants us to understand “What all of this means to someone like me—a relinquishee and adoptee who now has two sets of deceased parents–is that I must face twice(?), five times(?) a yet-to-be determined amount(?) of grief and confusion. Add to that losing my adoptive mom to dementia, and there is plenty to process, a great deal of loss, and certainly much to grieve. I am, of course, not blaming any of my parents for dying or getting sick, and I’ve made peace with my biological parents for giving me up a 62 years ago. But it would be disingenuous to say that I am no longer affected by these losses and that my mother’s recent death doesn’t trigger some new layer of grief where all of those people who contributed to my existence must be acknowledged in how they shaped my life. And so, I think about mothers. The mother I knew and the mother I’ve never met. And then the mother I knew who no longer knew me. I think of fathers, the one who had never even met me, and the one who raised me and provided me with a life filled with opportunities. And I of course, as a father, I think about my children.”

When I try to talk about my own family, my youngest son says to me – you have a very complicated family. It is true. And it is true for adoptees as well. As I have learned who my original grandparents were and have made contact with that novel new experience of genetic relatives that never knew each other existed – it has actually given me a new sense of wholeness – while at the same time totally messing me up with the adoptive relatives and the feelings I have (and still have) and each of them. Very complicated indeed.

There is much more in his very worthwhile article – see the LINK.

Processing Grief

From my all things adoption group –

Posting for a friend who does not have Facebook. We are both adoptive parents. Her adopted daughter is 7 years old. My friend just found out that her adopted daughter’s mother passed away before Christmas. It was a fluke that she even found out as they did not have regular contact. Her adopted daughter has experienced 2 great losses this year (biological grandmother and adoptive grandmother) and is still struggling with these. They are very open about her adoption and biological family but her adopted daughter does not want to engage in any conversations about her adoption, so they tread carefully between offering information and following her lead.

The question is… when and how should they approach the conversation about her mother passing away. The adoptive mother and her husband have a bit of a different view. She feels sooner than later is best but also acknowledges the fact that their adopted daughter is already struggling with lots of grief and loss (naturally) and some other new challenges that have recently popped up. Her husband thinks they should wait until the adopted daughter asks about her mom but she doesn’t feel that’s appropriate. I would love to be able to offer some specific information and ideas, if possible. Though I told her about this group, she asked that I post this on her behalf.

First response was this – Her husband is 100% wrong. This child needs a therapist and a safe space, if she doesn’t have one already. They need to tell her.

From an adoptee – Life doesn’t operate at a pace that is necessarily easy for any of us. We can’t control that. But the thing that all parents can control is whether or not they prove to their children that they are reliable and transparent. I understand, wanting to protect this child- but it’s not going hurt any less to find out later. It would just complicate the issue with a lot of questions about the delay. I would treat this in the same way that any other death was treated. She has recently learned about two people dying, why should her first mother’s death not be an immediate conversation ?

From another adoptee – Transparency is extremely important in building and maintaining trust between adoptees and their adoptive parents. Further delaying this information can damage this trust.

So Very Sad

Disclaimer – image is unrelated to today’s story.

Also not my personal story. It simply breaks my heart.

I’m a kinship care provider to my nephew and I’m really struggling right now. There is no possibility of him going back to his parents because they both died over this past summer. His mom was my sister. It was a murder/suicide perpetrated by his father and I feel like that’s really relevant to the situation. Which is sort of complex and multifaceted, but I’m just looking for some guidance or opinions. Also I am white, my husband is Puerto Rican, and my nephew is mixed black/white. He just turned 2 at the end of December.

This past week he’s started calling me mom and my husband dad, and we’re both very emotional about it and not sure how to respond. We think it’s started because his friends at daycare all call their parents mom and dad and he hears that all the time. When we show up other kids will also tell him that his mom or dad is here. The teacher always corrects them, but toddlers don’t really get the difference sometimes. Anyways we don’t want to make him feel like we’re rejecting him by correcting him every time, but we also don’t want to erase his parents. My sister and her partner had a very rough relationship with each other, but they were both wonderful parents who loved him with all their hearts. We show him pictures of them, and have them around the house. Whenever he asks about them in the pictures we refer to them as mom/dad. I just don’t know what to do.

The other issue that I’m starting to worry about is him feeling connected to his paternal family. Currently, there is a no contact order in place against one paternal aunt. When everything first happened they couldn’t believe their brother would do it and started threatening me and my husband as well as my mom. I understand the initial shock/trauma response, so I don’t want to hold it against her forever but I’m also not sure if contacting would be safe. I also would text a different paternal aunt at first but she cut contact after the stuff with her sister and no one from that family has reached out to ask about him since. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my nephew staying there alone, at least at first, just because I know several of members of that family were abusive to their own children. I also know that this is a cross racial situation and I want him to feel connected to his culture. I do my best to stay educated, listen to voices of people of color, and be aware of the situations he will face in life, but I will never have the lived experience. As a white woman, I’ll never get how it feels to face racism every day. The closest thing I’ve experienced is the occasional racist mad about my blended family, but even then the color of my skin means I can seek protection much easier than my husband or nephew.

One adoptee confirmed – its totally fine for children to call their permanent caregivers mom and dad even if they aren’t. Let him. You are the acting parents in this situation, and kids (especially kids with a trauma background) need to feel a sense of normalcy in their life. Regarding paternal family connection is important but so is safety. Regarding cultural connection – some of the big ones are going to be immersion in black culture, mirrors in that kiddos life, and making sure that your neighborhood and school has a lot of other black children.

What Is And Is Not

My nearly 6 year old (in my care since she was 6 months of age, came to us from foster care) emotionally shared the other day that she’s embarrassed being seen with my husband and I at school drop off/pick up because she’s aware it’s making her different from the other children who have their birth parents pick them up and how she wishes her Mum could come to pick up sometimes (her Mum passed away tragically two years ago so it’s literally impossible).

There is no real clear physical difference between us – so it’s really just that she knows we aren’t her birth parents and she grieves what could have been. I told her I understood why she feels sad about that, that it makes sense she’d love her Mum to come and that I’m really sorry I can’t make that happen. I also pointed out other children wouldn’t know (for the most part) that we aren’t her birth parents because we’ve been private about her story (however, she recently shared with her class that she had scattered her Mums ashes). There are other kids who could be in the same situation as her and she wouldn’t know.

She’s really dislikes having a different surname than us because “you’re my parents and you’re my family, so why can’t I have the same name?”, even though we’ve never made an issue of it and we tell her how much we love her name and that families don’t require the same last names as each other. She has been asking for the last few weeks, can she please change her surname to our surname at school/extra curricular activities. She’s started calling herself and her little sister (who is her biological sister but also has a different surname, not the same as hers) *their names* with our surname.

One of my big hesitancies is the future her, looking back on her work/awards and seeing a name she might not identify with anymore and being upset we allowed her to use a different name. We are foster parents who became guardians but we specifically didn’t pursue adoption because of what we learned about the feelings of adult adoptees.

One suggestion was to hyphenate her surname with the guardian’s surname, not legally but just on paper, so she can see you are listening to her feelings, without changing anything legally. The guardian liked the suggestion – that way she doesn’t have to feel like it has to be one way or the other, either this part of my family or that part of my family. The guardian said “I definitely have no intention of changing her name legally, that’s something she can navigate once she’s an adult. But just socially, maybe hyphenating could be the solution.

Another suggested – could you explain to her that the surname was one of her first gifts from her mother ? Explain to her that there are some kids whose moms have gotten remarried and her kids don’t share her new last name. And even though it isn’t the same situation as she is in because her mom is no longer here like the other kids, it is similar with the last name situation. The reply was – I did try telling her how kids have different last names to their Mum’s sometimes because of marriage and such but she was like “but you and Dad have the same last name so that’s not the same thing.”

One answers from experience – This is tricky. I was given the choice to keep my last name or change it, and I kept it. There were so many times in school when I wished I just had the same last name as my adoptive family. It would have erased so many questions I didn’t want to answer. I’m 42 now and I’m 100% glad I kept it. I didn’t even fully let it go when I got married. On the other hand, my biological sister was all too happy to shed that last name when she got married (at 8 years older than me, she was 18 when we went to our adoptive family. So I don’t think changing to her last name was ever brought up). Our last name came from the guy who abused us. All that to say, I don’t think there is a concrete right or wrong answer here. *I* would say keep her last name but see if the school will just call her by yours, sort of like a nick-name? My sister on the other hand would say let her change it. Hugs to you as you try to navigate this.

Another shares – I have two last names and I say them proudly. Would she be willing to make a final decision after a bit more contemplation? Have her practice saying and writing the new name combo – you can call her anything for now. She might find just being able to say her new name and know that maybe one day she will legally be both names. The guardian answers –  I’ve responded to her saying “let’s keep chatting and thinking about it, so we make the best decision for you” and she seems okay with it thus far.

Another opinion was – I would honor her desire and let her change her name. I think you can do that and let her know if she ever changes her mind and wants to change it back, you’ll support her no questions asked. Or if it’s possible to change it with school and such without doing the full legal piece, maybe that could be a good compromise. I was under guardianship as well until adulthood, and I always struggled as a child with feeling like I didn’t truly belong and the uncertainty about where I’d spend the entirety of my childhood was deeply unsettling. I was under familial guardianship, so I was with family, but I just always felt like I was an add on, not a core part of the family. To this day, it’s something I still feel in my core when I’m with my family and I’m 37. I can understand why having a different name could exacerbate that feeling for her. Part of it is just inescapably that our childhood was different and more traumatic than those around us and even the best support systems simply cannot undo that. And that’s hard to understand as a kid and it leaves lasting changes to one’s brain. And for me at least, the uncertainty about whether I’d be able to finish out a school year, let alone all of K-12 in the home I was in, was always hanging over me. It just didn’t feel permanent (though it did turn out to be). There are SO few things that are in our control when we are kids, and the lack of control over any aspect of our lives can be overwhelming.

A school staff member noted that – our school has “legal” name and “preferred” name. “Preferred ” name can be changed at any time without any documentation, it shows up on attendance and display but all legal documents show their legal names. She even adds that – I did this as a child until I was legally able to make the decision to formally change my name.

 

Never Too Young To Grieve

Today’s blog is courtesy of a Facebook post by Stacey Jackson Gagnon.

Have you seen a newborn grieve loss?

How about a 6 month old?

I didn’t recognize grief. Through all the years and all the foster babies that came through my home, I didn’t see it.

I never realized that a mother is not interchangeable; you cannot just change a known mother with an unknown one.

I guess I thought these babies were coming from such horrible circumstances, that they wouldn’t understand the loss; because in my mind, my home was a gain. They were gaining safety, love, attention,…I now understand that foster care and adoption begin with loss; the loss of the known.

I used to think that a foster baby coming into my home would not remember.

I was wrong.

While in the womb the child knows not any difference between mother and self; they are one. They are tasting, smelling, touching, hearing and seeing within the womb.

Upon birth, a separation occurs and what had once been a unified, indistinguishable source of life, is now separated. And suddenly there are things that prohibit the attention and care that had once been always present and never-ending. So the baby learns to express a need for this attention and care; they learn to cry. And the mother responds, and she is known…the baby knows her smell, her sound, her touch, her taste. All is remembered and well.

But then imagine, this mother is suddenly gone. It is now someone else’s face and eyes; someone else’s touch, smell and routine. The mother is gone and replaced by someone who is unknown.

All is not well. Where has the known mother gone? Why has she left me with this unknown?

I was the unknown mother and I didn’t recognize the grief.

I wish I had understood that every foster baby coming into my home was experiencing grief. No matter the circumstance of their removal, they were experiencing loss.

Grief is a normal response to the greatest loss.

I was an unknown mother. Every baby I held still remembered the known mother. Grief was not assuaged by my home, my family, my deeds, or my words…it was instead held in the space of shared daily moments.

And slowly over time I became known too. Babies remember.

The Girls Who Went Away

Studies that have examined the grief of relinquishing mothers have identified a sense of loss that is unique and often prolonged. In one such study, the grief was likened to the separation loss experienced by a parent whose child is missing, or by a person who is told their loved one is missing in action. Unlike grief over the death of a child, which is permanent and for which there is an established grieving process, the loss of a child through adoption has no clear end and no social affirmation that grief is even an appropriate response.

~ Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away, Page 208

Looking for an image of the book cover, I found an old story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 2015 titled Legacy of Loss. It is a story about Leslie MacKinnon who relinquished 2 sons to adoption when she was still a teenager. Her grief inspired her career as a therapist in the Atlanta area who works with people who’s lives have been touched by adoption.

Only a year after giving up her first-born son in an Alabama maternity home, she was once again giving birth, this time at her family’s home in Florida, unmedicated, untended and unseen. She had tried to bring on a miscarriage by throwing herself down the front stairs, drinking a bottle of castor oil, soaking in the hottest baths she could stand. She even tried to commit suicide by driving her car too fast on a hairpin turn but realized even death would not erase her shame.

After losing her second son to adoption, Leslie felt herself split in two. The shame-filled girl who couldn’t look anyone in the eye stayed hidden inside, frozen in time. The girl on the outside transferred to the University of Georgia in 1967 to study social work. There, she learned the only way to keep the pain at bay was to work longer hours and aim higher than anyone else.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1969, Leslie moved to Atlanta and was hired by Families First, one of the biggest social service agencies in town, which gave her a scholarship to get her masters. She got her degree at Tulane and returned to Atlanta to work as a licensed clinical social worker.

This is how her story begins. You can read the entire story at my link.

Acquiring Children Won’t Heal You

Some events are so unspeakable words are hard to find. Acquiring more children will not heal this grief. Today’s story –

“I am a warm and loving mother whose kids were brutally murdered. They were 9 and 12. This happened last year. I was born to be a mom and now, I don’t know if I ever will be again. I’m won’t give up until my dying breath. Adoption is my only option and I thank foster to adopt for that possibility. My children were staying with their dad and he shot them both. They were my whole world. I want to be a mom again. I have so much to give. No one would pick my mess to live but I have faith there is yet another outcome.”

Wow, just wow. OMG, this is so so tragic. My heart breaks for her…. but her grief and tragedy are too big of a burden to put on innocent kids, who already have their own grief and tragedy to deal with from losing their original family. She can’t rely on children to heal her from this grief.

Contemplating Death

Yesterday, I was stung on my little finger by a Red Wasp. Whether we simply collided or it came after me as I passed by the wooden post that has become nest – through a knot-hole opening into a large hollow space, I do not know. It happened so fast, I never saw it. I only felt the hot iron pain. All I could do was put a couple of ice cubes on it at the time where I was.

It brought back memories of the time when my adoptive maternal grandmother gifted me with a trip to England with her. We were going to attend a 4 week long summer session at the University of Cambridge and it was a lifetime experience that I do not regret. That morning I was stung on my middle finger also by a wasp I never saw. There was no time to do anything about it, even if we would have had some remedy.

My hand became painfully swollen over the time it took to make the transatlantic journey. My grandmother pretended not to notice my suffering and I knew better than to make a issue of it. In my dorm, not even having washcloths and towels yet, I used my socks to make compresses and by dinner time it was bearable. Last night I reflected on how it must have been for my mother growing up with such an emotionally cold woman. I do know that when she died, lots of appreciative comments about her mother came my mom’s way and simple reminders of her perfume on her clothing were bittersweet for my mother. My mom yearned for a reunion with her birth mother but she had died several years before my mom’s effort, which came months before the state of Tennessee changed its own perspectives to allow the adoptees or their descendants to have the adoption files related to the scandalous Georgia Tann. I now have that file that would have brought my mom so much peace. In my own spiritual perspective, I believe she was reunited with her birth mother after death and now knows even more than I do.

In my all things adoption group this morning I read –

I was surprised at how many adoptees truly loved their adoptive moms and were devastated when they died. Is it strange to not seem to feel much of anything? Some days I think I might be sad and then I realize it might just be residual feelings from long ago. I’m so confused and feel so cold.

A soothing comment followed – Know that your feelings, whatever they are, are valid.

The next comment was this – My adoptive mother and I were not close. I loved her, but didn’t much like her.

One honest adoptee admitted – My adoptive mom was an awful person. I only felt relief when she died. Yet another wrote – I won’t grieve, I have no relationship with my adoptive mom or adoptive dad, as cold as it sounds ill feel like a weight will be lifted from my shoulders when they pass. They still think they haven’t done anything wrong and blame me for everything

I could appreciate this perspective – I think how people grieve and process loss depends on their relationship with that person, whether it’s adoptive family, biological family, friend, coworker. If you’re close to someone and love them, you might feel sadness, a sense of loss, emotional pain. If you weren’t close to them, you might not feel much at all. None of these feelings are bad, they’re just a reflection of your relationship to that person. Not missing or grieving someone doesn’t make you any less of a person with emotions.

The original commenter went on to share – It’s sad because I could never connect with her. She had bipolar disorder and always asked me why couldn’t I just love her. She tried to live her life over through me and it seemed to suck the very soul out of me. It’s hard to love someone when it’s only one sided. It’s like we are baby dolls meant to fulfill all their dreams instead of human beings with our own destiny, personality, and dreams to explore.

Another wise perspective was this – I think every relationship is unique and one should always honor whatever they feel, or don’t feel when dealing with death. Try not to compare your experience with loss to others. This also, grieving is different for everyone, and the way you grieve (or seemingly don’t) is valid.

There is this sad story – The last few months of my moms life were difficult. She was difficult (in general). Our relationship was difficult. I had to step in and took over care the last 4 days of moms life. She had a rapid health decline. I didn’t know for sure I was adopted at that point. And I never got that moment. My adoptive mom was a broken person. The Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents book helped me see that this year. I’ve been able to see her different and with a kindness that wasn’t there before. We had a hard relationship. And it’s helped me reach some of the grief that I’ve had shoved down inside.

And yet another sad story – My adoptive mom is still alive but I feel absolutely numb towards her. I think it’s the abuse and bullying and constant threat of sending me away as a child. I had one moment once where I felt for her, it was some random moment by myself that made me realize that perhaps underneath the hurt, I did care for her, but I am unable to feel it because of how much she has hurt me.

Another perspective – As adoptees, we have *all* lost our mother, during our formative years. So when my adoptive mother died, I felt that pain of losing a mother again. My adoptive siblings don’t quite understand why I reacted so strongly (and they also don’t realize how deeply her death impacted me, because I never really showed my grief in front of them). They are all her biological children, and also much older than me. So while we all lost our mother, I was losing *another* mother. As adoptees, we have difficult relationships with our adoptive parents, and however you felt is completely understandable.

A Failed Adoption Is Not The Same Thing

A woman shares this – Someone’s asking how to support a friend whose adoption has been disrupted at [a specific point in an unborn baby’s gestation]. This friend is a would be adoptive parent. The responses to this situation, that include some from other adoptive parents who identify themselves as having experienced this, equate it to a death in the family, stillbirth, or trauma.

Certainly, one could relate the two up to a point. The prospective adoptive parents have been excited about the pending adoption. They have the expectation of holding a newborn in their arms. They may have invested in a crib, baby clothes and diapers among their other preparations. But the similarity stops there.

My daughter experienced a stillbirth with her first pregnancy. She describes to me being given the expelled fetus in a blanket to hold and say goodbye to at the hospital. She tells me that when she became pregnant again with my grandson, she could hear this first one saying to her in her heart, you weren’t ready for me then.

Another woman shares (she is an adoptive parent) – I have had two late term stillbirths. Both were cord deaths. In no way, shape or form would I say that a failed adoption is at all related to experiencing a stillbirth or death loss. You cannot even put the two together. It’s only recently that stillbirth has been allowed to even be spoken about. This is why pre-birth adoption matching of unborn babies to be shouldn’t be allowed! Adoptive parents who compare the two, taking away from the women who have had an actual loss by birthing a stillbirth baby by comparing that tremendous sorrow with a belief that their loss of a baby because the expectant mother has changed her mind is a kind of mental illness.

An adoption reform response to prospective adoptive parents experiencing this kind of loss could be – “While this is a type of loss for your family, can you shift your perspective and realize how amazing it is that this mother and your family will not have to live with the certain regrets surrounding an adoption? It is a lovely and precious thing for this mom to be able to parent – just as it would have been for you.”