I’ve heard that a good illustration for the experience of adoption grief is a large ball in a similar-sized box. Every time the box moves, the ball jostles the inside and creates disruption for the box. Over time, the box can get incrementally larger. The ball remains the same impassive, painful, jarring experience. However, if the box is larger, it takes a bigger jostle to make it bounce against the inside. 

The ball is our grief. It is a constant. It will probably always be there. The box represents the person who is grieving. As they get further from the initial cause of the grief, it becomes easier to go, for say, a whole day, without feeling like your insides are being sloshed around painfully. You might not cry whenever you’re reminded of the event after a year or two. 

This is, of course, not a perfect analogy, but it gets the idea across. At least, as a person who thinks primarily in pictures, it made a great deal of sense to me. It also follows that if a person experiences a great amount of grief–a loved one they are very close to died suddenly, their house catches fire, etc. The ball inside the box is bigger. If several events happen concurrently it is safe to say it would be impossible for a person to be able to move without the ball jostling, or being pushed up tight against the inside of the box. 

For our children who were adopted from hard places–say foster care, or from an overstaffed, underfunded orphanage, their boxes are full to the brim with grief. Given time, therapy, and love the balls stay the same, but the person who is holding the grief grows big enough to hold it without it constantly causing them pain. 

Let’s deepen the analogy a bit further. Imagine instead of a round rubber ball, it’s a spiked ball from the end of a mace. Those represent the grief of our kids from hard places who have lost everything they knew all at once. They don’t have the capacity to even understand that what they were living through was wrong. They didn’t know that there was a different way to live. So now they are getting reprimanded for doing things they had no idea were wrong in the first place: Using a trashcan as a toilet, hoarding perishable food under their pillow, and hiding soiled clothes deep under their bed so they don’t get in trouble. 

Some of our kids come from so much brokenness and hurt they may never fully be able to feel “normal” about their life. Trauma reshapes their brains and bodies in ways that are difficult to undo. 

So, what is a parent to do when a well-meaning acquaintance asks why your kid is still having a hard time a few years after the adoption was finalized? I lean towards snark, but truth be told I’m more likely these days to just info dump on the poor, unsuspecting person. Neither of those are the right way to handle these things though. 

An important thing to remember is that the part of your child’s story that is yours to tell is where it intersects with you. Meaning, I can talk all day long about how to help my kids from hard places. I can spout off things I’ve learned at conferences and in books. But my kids’ stories are private. I sometimes write about situations that my kids have lived through, but I don’t name names and I don’t give identifying information. Likewise, I don’t feel the need to tell every acquaintance about my child’s worst moments of their lives.

Conversely, I am an open book about my mental health and the way their stories impact my own. Cute toddler mayhem? Absurd argument with my teen? Gather around friends, and grab some popcorn because it is story time. I won’t shame my kids, but I will enjoy a good “hop on the struggle bus with me” kind of story in the right crowd. 

For casual bystanders who know my kids but don’t know me all that well (why is it always church people guys? Let’s do better.), they tend to make unkind observations–I just let them know there was trauma and even though they can’t see the damage, it’s as real as if they were in a full body cast. 

I’ve been known to send people links to adoption articles, recommend therapists, and offer to share books I find particularly helpful. I’m not offended by curiosity. I’m offended when that curiosity is derogatory toward my children.

Look. I know my kids aren’t angels. Or, sometimes, even decent human beings to be around. I’m aware. In fact, I am a card-carrying member of the “I was victimized by my grade-school-age child several times today” club. There is very little that can compare to the bite of disdain when my 8-year-old says she’s “disappointed in my choices.” or my actions hurt her heart today. Most recently I was told (after having sent a child back to her room for the third time to change out of shorts that were out of her school’s dress code) that I don’t understand what fashion is and that all my clothes are ugly. Touche child. I was unaware my middle school bullies could be channeled through my fourth grader, but here we are. I didn’t even cry (that time). 

The point is (you knew I’d get here sometime, good on you for reading this far), some people don’t deserve an explanation. And if you want to give one, that’s great. I’ve found saying something like “he’s still healing from years of trauma before we met him.” That’s enough. If it’s someone who actually cares, then I’ll take the time to give the box-and-ball analogy. Or, I’ll offer to meet for coffee so we can talk about foster care and adoption. I’m not against people who don’t know something asking questions. I just want to let them know it’s not okay to hurt my kids with their questions. 

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