“How many children do you have?” It is a common, small-talk question used when you are getting to know someone. Yet, for some of us, our answer is more complicated than expected. Prior to reuniting with my birth son, my standard answer was “Three—two boys and a girl.” Yet, every time I said that, my heart twinged with the quiet pain of my fourth child; my firstborn; the one I didn’t raise.

I never kept his existence a secret. On occasion, circumstances allowed me to share my adoption story, which usually went something like this, “I had a baby in high school, whom I placed for adoption.” At the time, I usually didn’t have to clarify that I didn’t know his whereabouts or even his name because all adoptions were closed. As time progressed, however, more questions were asked about my relationship with him as open adoptions became more frequent. Most of the time the questions came from curiosity, but occasionally, deeper questions occurred when the person asking had a tie to the adoption community.

Through one of these more personal questionings, I became aware of Families Supporting Adoption, a support group through LDS Family Services, the adoption agency through which my son was placed. Prospective adoptive couples wishing to place through the agency had to attend a series of classes that addressed the ups and downs of adoption, learn what they should expect, and connected them with support from others struggling with similar issues. Before a prospective adoptive couple could be approved to adopt, they had to attend a class in which they heard from birth parents. The birth parent panel usually happened twice a year in my local FSA chapter, and I was asked to be part of it. I eagerly agreed.

It was so wonderful and freeing to talk candidly about my experiences to people who truly wanted to know and who cared about me and valued my decision. I was able to talk about all four of my children and to share my love and grief, resoluteness and sensitivity, and to give adoptive parents a glimpse into the hearts of those who would make them parents. Through those experiences, I was able to help adoptive parents, adoptees, and other birth parents.

I had done several birth parent panels and was excited for the opportunity to do another one with a new group of prospective parents. A few times I had been the only speaker (which I preferred), or one of two, but this time, I had to keep my comments short because several birth parents would be sharing their experiences. I felt good about what I said after I sat down to listen to the story of someone I had never heard before.

After I was done, I sat down on the left-side front row. The next birth parent was a young woman who had placed a little girl, now about four years old, with a local couple. The adoptive parents were there with their little girl. The whole time this birth mom was speaking, the daughter that she had placed for adoption was sitting on her lap or running up to her and back to her mother. As with many adoptions today, theirs had been an open adoption, and this young woman was a friend to the family. There were lots of smiles and hugs and laughter, which told a more eloquent story than the young woman’s words.

As I sat there and watched the two interact with each other, an overwhelming sense of grief and sorrow overtook me. It was all I could do to sit there and not run out of the room, making a scene. The reality of how much I had lost was right in front of me. I was shaking badly and tried to not let anyone see (fortunately, no one was sitting beside me). In my mind, I started talking to Heavenly Father. I asked, “Why can’t I have this? Why wasn’t I able to be part of my son’s life?” The thoughts that went through my mind were agonizing and varied, and sitting there was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life.

I was surprised that after 22 years, the grief of my loss tried to consume me. The flood of emotions were as intense as the day I left the hospital empty-handed and the day that I signed my rights away, so long ago.

After her presentation (she was the last, thank goodness), I said good-bye to the group leaders and quickly left. I didn’t want any of the adoptive parents to see me that way.

I drove around for a few minutes trying to get myself together. When I couldn’t, I decided the best thing to do was to go home and go to bed. My husband and daughter were sitting in the living room when I walked in. Barry asked, “Well, how was it?” I said it was fine and said I was going to bed.

Barry later told me that he had never seen my face show such complete pain as it did at that moment, so I told him what happened. He was very kind, loving, and supportive.

It became much more difficult, after that, when asked how many children I had, to say, “Three—two boys and a girl.”

What became much more clear is that the saying, “Time heals all wounds” is a bunch of bunk. I thought my wounds had somewhat healed, but I learned a birth mom truth that there are some losses that are never far, no matter how much time has passed.