As I sat in the recliner chair surrounded by blankets, I realized that this was the tenth night I had spent at the hospital with my mom. I could hear her shallow breathing as she slept. As I looked up on the wall, the orchid corsage, a favorite flower sent by her best friend, drew my attention to the calendar just below it. The new day would be February 8th. I found myself quietly guessing the date that she would leave. February 12th, perhaps? It was Lincoln’s birthday and seemed like a good day to die, I thought.
I suddenly realized how drastically life was about to change. My sweet mother was moving closer to heaven and without her, I was moving closer to hell on earth. How could this be happening? I checked the oxymeter that measured her oxygen level and knew it wouldn’t be long. Perhaps this was a bad dream for which God would suddenly perform a miracle. But the truth was that my mom was eighty years old and ready to leave this earth for eternity. But was I prepared for her to leave? Never!
Adoption was always an open topic in our family. I was the oldest of three adopted children with varied interests, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. My parents were in their forties when they married and adopted us. They hardly seemed to blink when any of us would rattle their cages with our childhood antics! We were fortunate to live in the same house for our entire growing up period and have our mother greet us every day after school. Life was very secure and predictable.
With a physician for a father, we understood the concept of death as children. We would join our dad in his hospital and nursing home rounds. We became familiar with the mass of equipment necessary to keep patients alive. We learned that everyone eventually dies. Somehow, though, it never seemed that it would include our parents.
I could feel that “abandonment button” being pressed extremely hard as I sat in that hospital room. It was hard to consider what life would be like without my mother. Yet I knew that I was about to experience it. I felt numb and out of control. There was all of this equipment, and their were talented medical personnel everywhere, yet no one or nothing seemed able to stop the inevitable from happening. My stomach was in knots as I held her hand, looking for my own comfort. This precious mother whom God had given to me when my own birth mother was unable to care for my needs was now leaving. This woman who opened her heart so many times when mine was so closed, was going away from me. We had many conversations about death and dying and this was the moment to apply all of that knowledge. Yet the deep hole in my stomach was full of a familiar pain.
The anguish of loss is deeply embedded in the adoptee. That first loss of the birth mother very pointedly increases the agony of the second loss of the adoptive mother and father when their deaths occur. It brings the distress of abandonment to an increased awareness. Control issues and anger rise to the forefront as life moves naturally and uncontrollably into death. Grief is a challenging process that is an on-going part of the adoption experience.
Adoptive parents can begin early by teaching their child healthy ways to grieve a loss. Death and loss are a normal part of life, whether it is the death of a pet, friend, or extended family member, or the loss of familiar friends and places through relocation. Parents can provide family rituals to assist the child through the process. They can provide them with opportunities to talk and express their feelings. As adopted children grow into adulthood, parents can continue the teaching by preparing the adult adoptee for the parents’ deaths through discussions of wills and trusts, final plans and wishes, and choices around final medical care. As the topic of adoption remains open in the adoptive home and family, the deaths of the adoptive parents for the adult adoptee will present opportunities to apply these skills to this second loss.
On February 9th, I was honored to be with my mother as her soul slipped quietly into eternity. Five years later my father followed her. They had given me their strength and love through my first loss and now in death I was able to face this second goodbye.
Carolyn A. Garrett, M.A. is an adult adoptee and a marriage and family therapist intern in private practice in Pasadena, California. She works with all triad members on adoption-related issues as well as ADHD, learning disabilities, eating disorders, and grief/loss. She offers adoption support groups for the triad and enjoys speaking and writing on adoption-related topics. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at www.adoptioncareservices.com. Her mailing address is 235 E. Colorado Blvd., #486, Pasadena, CA 91101-1903. Her phone number is (818) 623-6688.