I have known that adoption would be part of my life since the age of 9. My mom clearly remembers my 9-year-old self coming home and announcing that when I grew up I was going to adopt. Years later, when my husband proposed to me, I brought up adoption to make sure he was 100% on board with the idea. We had such a lovely plan. We would build our family two ways: biologically and through adoption. It was a plan neatly tied with a ribbon and bow.
That ribbon-tied plan quickly unraveled with an unexpected hysterectomy and the realization that adoption was the only way children would come to our family. A new plan evolved, a beautiful one that we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Our experience building our family had its fair share of unexpected twists and turns and eventually resulted in a family with two beautiful children who joined our family because of the love and sacrifice of their wonderful birth mothers. Throughout this tender journey we have learned valuable and life-changing lessons, as well as an unexpected lesson about death.
How could we grieve the death of a baby who wasn’t ever really ours? This was not a question we ever pondered as we filled out paperwork, completed our home study, and hoped. It was not something that had been discussed at any adoption class or in any adoption book we have ever read. But it is the beginning of our story.
I remember the excitement we felt when we received our first email from Sara. We were out of town, visiting our family in another state, and overjoyed to be contacted by a woman who was considering us as parents for her unborn babe. This sweet baby boy was due Christmas Eve. We quickly fell in love with Sara, and through emails and phone calls our friendship and bond grew deeper and deeper. Sara was upfront with us about her medical condition. She had a blood-clotting disorder that we knew could result in a very premature delivery, but the plan was that if she could just make it to 27 weeks then the baby could be delivered via c-section. We knew the risks with such a premature birth, but after much prayer we also knew that we needed to be there for both Sara and her baby. Her baby, whom we hoped would one day might be our baby.
She spoke of that day often, preferring to refer to herself as a “heavenly vessel of life” rather than birth mother. She sent us ultrasound photos and together we chose a name. She wanted his first name to be Cole, and we prayerfully chose the middle name Matthew. It was the middle name she had also felt should be his, and these small miracles confirmed to us again and again that we were exactly where we needed to be.
The week before Sara hit her 27-week mark, we went on a week-long camping trip along the Oregon coast. We had our phones, but no internet access, which meant no email access. We knew Sara would call if she needed us. On the fourth day of our trip we realized my husband had lost his phone. We decided to stop at the nearest library to use the internet to look up the phone number of the last place we had visited, and while online decided to check our email. We were standing side by side, in the middle of a crowded library, when we saw the email from Sara.
Tears streamed down our cheeks as we learned that she had miscarried. My husband put his arm around me as we stood in shock, crying. A librarian approached to inform us that we could not display any public affection in their library, and as I stammered to apologize and explain the words “our baby, the baby we were going to adopt, is dead” fell out of my mouth. And that made me cry even harder— the body shaking, ugly kind of crying. But it wasn’t our baby. It was Sara’s baby, and he had only been our hope. Our hope of having a child, a son, our Christmas miracle. How would we tell people when they would ask why we were crying about a baby who was never ours? About the baby who died, and left a giant aching hole in our heart?
We lived on opposite sides of the country from Sara. We never met Sara in person, never went to a funeral for baby Cole, never saw his grave. We kept in contact and tried to be an emotional support to Sara during her grieving process. Sara sent us photos that had been taken of Cole after he was delivered, photos that meant so much to us, but who do we show photos of a dead baby to, a baby who was never ours? One of our close friends had a similar experience four years later, only she was in the hospital with the birth family when the baby died. We shared experiences, tears, and I tried to offer the best advice I could.
A friend once told me that the space between expectations and reality is always filled with grief. Grief doesn’t need to be explained, and it can take quite some time before it is even understood. It is real and it is there, so much so that, at times, it is tangible. Grief never leaves. It becomes easier to bear, so much easier, but it is something we will always carry with us. It is learning how to bear that grief that is the challenge.
Loving arms, listening ears, and kind words of family and friends helped. My younger brother and his wife pulled us aside a few months later to share a song that had been composed by a couple who had lost their three-year-old son to death. We stood together, arms wrapped around one another, crying as we listened to the lyrics. Lyrics that told about a child who loved his parents. And even though we knew we weren’t Cole’s parents, the fact that my brother viewed our grief as the grief of parents meant so much. Sweet gifts and continued communication with Sara helped. Helping my friend grieve the loss of the baby that was not really hers helped me through my own grief as I searched for words to comfort my friend.
I haven’t cried about Cole in quite some time, but as I sit typing our experience, the ache in my heart is still there. The tears are still fresh. The pit in my stomach lets me know that I still carry the sorrow with me. His loss is a part of me and part of my story. We had lost the hope of that baby boy. That hope had died.
Grief is a part of adoption, for all members of the adoption triad. It is in the realization that there is no shame in grief, in the willingness to be vulnerable, and through the love of others and the love we give to others that we are able to better bear that grief which is uniquely ours.
On that day in September, one day before my 26th birthday, my hope of baby Cole died. There is no grave I can visit, no stretch marks on my abdomen. He was not my baby. But I had to bury the hope of being his mother, of kissing his soft cheeks and rocking him to sleep. And because of him, and the intense love I felt for a boy I had never met, I learned to hope again.
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