Thursday, March 3, 2011

Loss, Loss, Loss, and Adoption

You cannot be part of the adoption community for very long before you hear about loss and how it applies to adoption.  It is in every book that discusses adoption.  "Your child will have experienced a great loss, great trauma, sometimes more than once so..."  This is progress since adoption starting with a loss use to be never acknowledged.  However, we really are not where we need to be yet.

For one thing, although the books talk about loss as if it is a given, I haven't found a lot of information on what to do with it. The broad topic books cannot give enough advice and I have yet to find a book specific to grief and loss in adoption*.  On the other hand, I can find books with other similarly narrow fields--transracial adoption, older children adoption, and attachment to name a few. 

Perhaps that is the issue.  Perhaps authors feel the generic books out about loss and grief can apply to adoption loss.  Or perhaps they feel everyone's grief is so varied that there is no way to write a book to help adoptive parents and their adopted children.  Or perhaps, as some adult adoptees claim, we still don't truly get it.

I say, I kind of agree.  Certainly many families who are home** with their child and have come smack up against their child's grief get it.  Even if the only advice they heed on how to help their child with grief was to listen, acknowledge, and not become defensive and shut-down the conversation, it should help.  However, as a pre-adoptive parent, I'm not there yet.  So I have been thinking and reading and trying to figure things out; and I have come to a few conclusions.

One is that as a society we tend to treat loss as a one time event that eventually we can get over.  I'm sorry, but that isn't how it works.  I was going to say the loss itself only occurs once while the grief is on-going, but I don't believe that is even true.  

I lost my mother 23 years ago yesterday.  Yes, her death was a one time event (though if God had raised her from the dead like I asked Him, I might have lost her twice).  However, at age 15, I lost my mom.  At my graduation from college, I lost my mom's congratulations.  At my wedding I lost my chance to plan my wedding with my mom and to hear her advice on being a wife.  At the birth of my children I lost her presence and help.  And so on and so on.

For a person who is adopted her loss is also on-going and repeated.  She has also lost all of the same things I have and this is ignoring the additional losses of culture and language which occurs in International adoption plus the loss of the rest of her family and heritage.  A gain of something good does not replace the loss, my SnapDragon's opinion not-withstanding.  I am not saying that all adoptees feel pain at these losses (this is just as serious a transgression as saying they all don't) nor do I claim to know what level of grief any specific person feels.

However, here is the thing.  If I say I am sad that my mom died noone, seriously noone, says "but that was 23 years ago" or "but then you wouldn't have had your step-mother" or "would you have rather she was ill and miserable."  Every single person says, "I'm sorry."

If an adopted person says they are sad not to have/know the mom who gave them birth they may hear "I'm sorry."  They may also hear "what does that matter now that you are an adult" or "but don't you like your adopted family?" or "would you rather have been raised by her and been poor or possibly abused?" (I find this last one in particular poor taste since I know children who are poor and happy to be with their parents and I know children who have been removed from their parents due to abuse and they just want their mom!)

These are just some of the ways an adoptee's grief can be treated as invalid, but you get the idea.  Yes, I may comfort myself that although I lost my mother, I gained a very nice step-mother (whom I have now also lost), but no one would dare step on my grief in that way.  They may not understand my grief, but they respect it.  If a friend loses a pet, I say "I'm sorry for your loss" because while I cannot understand being attached to an animal, I respect their grief.

Adoptees do not receive the same respect.  They just do not.  Times are changing and the current generation of adoptees are being raised by parents who were told to acknowledge their child's loss and listen.  I have read many blog posts proving that many families are doing just that.  However, society still swallows whole the idea that adoption is solely positive and "what loss?"

Do I think that when one says, "I'm adopted" the polite response should become "I'm sorry for your loss?"  No.  That would also be presumptuous.  Instead of making any assumptions perhaps the politely social response should be "how do you feel about that?"  Maybe.  But certainly if someone says, "I am sad that I do not know who on my side of the family my new baby girl looks like" it would be appropriate to say "I'm sorry for your loss" or something else that acknowledges the pain.

The general public are not the only ones at fault.  Many adoptive parents dismiss what adult adoptees say and some do still believe that loss is a one time event that is fixed with the adoption and forever okay after the initial intense grief fades away.  Certainly no one I know, but I've read enough discussions to believe this to be the case.  I spend time pondering on this because it seems obvious to me that if a loss has occurred the grief can reappear at any time and in any context forever.  No one expects me to "be over" the loss of my mom.

Again, I have some speculations as to why this may be.  First, when we start to argue with an adult adoptee that "our daughter won't feel that way" or "people can be happy even if they suffered loss" we are not trying to dismiss their pain.  We are trying to defend our decision to adopt.  Let's face it, some adult adoptees reach the conclusion that because their pain is so intense and ignored, adoption itself is a horrible thing to do*** no matter what.  As a parent planning to add to our family through adoption I must shout you down or I might have to grieve the loss of a child--and it will be a loss.  While I have come to my own conclusions that adoption is an imperfect solution to a "gaping wound" (Thanks, Tonggu Momma), I have a lot of empathy for the defensive position. 

Secondly, parents, and adoptive parents especially, want to believe there is a way to raise perfect children--not tiger perfect--but happy, healthy, socially contributing citizens who will follow our beliefs.    While every child can become a fully functioning, loving and content adult, it will not be because nothing went wrong in her past.  We will do things wrong in our parenting because at minimum the odds are against us.  Not a single one of us was raised by a perfect parent, yet we believe we can do it.  

Acknowledging that the losses that occur before and during adoption may impact our child's heart for her entire life puts us in the position of having to admit there are some things we cannot fix.  We want a book that says if you do x, y, and z then by day 27 your daughter will be healed from all pain never to experience pain again--if you are particularly slow it will take 53 days.  We know intellectually this is not possible. But don't we wish it were.

That isn't to say I believe that because the losses an adopted child suffers are so great she cannot have a life of joy, of purpose, and of love.  Even though my mother died and just last week I cried for her (after a particularly hectic day with Sunflower), I am not dissatisfied with my life.  I don't think anyone would describe me as a chipper person, but I am who I am and people like me, darn it!  I like me.  In the day to day I am more concerned for my friends who are looking for jobs or struggling in their marriages.  My grief is ever present but it is not always at the forefront of my life--most days it is wrapped in a neat box and shoved under the couch.  But you know what, the wound in my heart is soothed a little more every time someone says to me "it must have been hard to lose your mother at 15."

You know, yes, yes it was.

So to all the adult adoptees who feel loss, to my friend's children who were adopted, to my eventual daughter:

I am sorry for your losses.

 "You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
   you have loosed my sackcloth
   and clothed me with gladness,
 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
   O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!"
Psalm 30:11-12

* I have not yet read "Primal Wound" but my understanding is that it is a book that shouts adoptees suffer loss (specifically loss of first mother) but not about how to cope with the grief (please forgive me if I am wrong).
**home--I've thought about it and I do not feel that claiming a child is home in any way dismisses all previous homes in a child's life.  My home is here with my husband, but growing up home was with my parents.  I want to be sensitive to people's feelings, but I cannot find another natural way of expressing the same concept.
***I am not speaking about the need for family preservation, ethical reform, and adoptee rights--just the blanket statement that adoption should never, ever occur.



Number 6 and no more counting! said...

well written, thoughtful post. thank you, for sharing.


Jenn said...

This was great. As an adult adoptee, its nice to see that you "get it" and are trying to understand the loss that some of us feel. Thanks for the post!