When I was 5 years old, the word grief was not part of my vocabulary; rather, it was unknowingly etched deeply into my heart and soul, patiently waiting for the day I would acknowledge its presence. I didn’t know how to ask for it as a little girl, but I wanted empathy, flowers, a freezer full of casseroles, visits to a gravesite, and a stack of Hallmark sympathy cards. But I didn’t get any of that because my mother didn’t die. Instead she just walked away. She chose a life of alcohol and drugs over my sisters and me. My consolation prize was a new forever family. I was suppose to be grateful, not sad. My new family was an upgraded version, complete with new toys, clothes, shoes, milk that didn’t come from a box, a dog, and a home Santa Clause actually visited. It was expected that my thankfulness would outweigh my sorrow. I knew that I was a terrible child for not feeling as grateful as I should.
During my adolescent and early adult years I would learn to identify the gray cloud that hung over the rest of my childhood as grief.
Grief. It is an uncomfortable concept for many people, but it is an essential element to healing, restoration, and resilience. Especially for an older adopted child. I have always wondered how different my adoption story would have turned out if my adoptive parents had introduced and walked alongside me through grief as a young girl, rather than leaving me to chase after it for years. I believe it would have been the game changer in my story.
The only game that was to be played during my time with my adoptive parents was one that did not include any part of my past. When I was 13, my adoptive father found a journal entry I had written to my biological mother. Not having any way of sending it to her or knowing her whereabouts, I wrote it to process. I asked her if she ever thought about me, told her I played piano, that I loved to read, that I hoped she was still alive. That letter landed me in my father’s office for a lecture on my disloyalty to my adoptive mother. That letter also sent my adoptive mother into a depression; she lay in bed behind closed doors for a week. I was once again an ungrateful child.
What my adoptive mom didn’t seem to know was that it was okay for me to miss my biological mother and to love her at the same time. I exited that airplane years before with only a cardboard box of worn dresses, but alongside it was an enormous invisible suitcase of loss, sadness, brokenness, and mistrust that need to be sorted, attended to, and unpacked with the greatest of care.
When this didn’t happen, I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. My adoptive mother was dealing with her own losses with infertility and the need to appear to be a perfect mother. This, combined with a lack of post-adoption resources, proved to be the breeding ground of an adoption that had so much potential, but went so terribly wrong.
Three decades later I finally know what I wish my five-year-old self could have told my adoptive parents. For adoptive parents just starting their journey with their older adopted child, may these thoughts shed some insight into what your son or daughter might wish they knew how to tell you.
1. I am sad. I am angry. I need you to let me be these things.
2. I don’t know how to express any of the above in an appropriate way. So instead I will either withdraw or become physically angry and take it out on whomever I perceive as weaker than me, most often a younger sibling.
3. When I do the above, I do so because I want you to notice. But please don’t yell at me or punish me. Please tell me you are sorry I am hurting and help give me the vocabulary I most likely don’t have to express my feelings in a more constructive way, for example: “Anna, I am so sorry. This must be hard. I can only imagine how difficult this must be. In our home instead of screaming or hitting we like to tell each other when we are mad. It’s okay to tell me you are mad, or talk about missing your mom.”
4. Don’t expect me to tell you I love you. Give me time to trust you, to feel loved by you. Trust that I will freely express love to you when I feel safe. And if I tell you I love you from the first second I meet you, know that you still need to dig in to build a deeper, more concrete relationship. This takes time.
5. Help me to remember. My past is important. Ask me to share stories. Write them down. Give me permission to remember my biological mother with fondness, even if it is based on a fictional memory. If photos are available, let me have them. Remind yourself a photo is in no competition with the real live 3D mother that you are being to me.
6. Be consistent. I am terrified of you leaving me, even if I act like I don’t care, I do. My biggest fear in life is that I am not loveable. I need you to prove me wrong, no matter how much time that takes.
7. I will love you. Remind yourself this on the days that seem impossible.