Grief and the Adopted Child

Today, Rose is working on a scrapbook, carefully placing her pictures from China. Her tears are turning to smiles.

We’ve been seeing more grief from Rose the past few days. It’s hard. And the hardest part is knowing there is no way I can fix it–and as a parent I want nothing more than to protect my child from her pain and sadness.

And yet, perhaps, one of the bigger mistakes we make as adoptive parents is trying to “fix” our adopted child’s grief–to deny it, to cover it up, to take our child’s mind off it, to minimize it, to distance them from it.

Instead, we need to allow our child to experience it, and to find a way to live with it. That is easier said than done.

Last year, an adoptive parent sent me an e-mail asking when her son would quit feeling grief. She felt sad and personally responsible. She said that she was giving him a life full of love, laughter, happiness, good food, an amazing education, and even Disney vacations. And yet, there were times he still cried for the orphanage he had left behind. She couldn’t understand how he would miss an orphanage that was dirty, overcrowded, lacking food and toys.

To answer her question, I think we need to imagine ourselves in a similar situation. Pretend we suddenly became movie stars and were whisked off to a beautiful castle in another world, complete with a personal trainer and chef! We had maids, butlers, a race car, entertainment, horses, doting fans, and even big screen TVs in the bathroom (with continual reruns of Oprah and Grey’s Anatomy)! We were even given a new, perfect family.

How would we feel? Would we become homesick? Would we miss our loved ones?

Some parents might argue that their child didn’t leave loved ones behind, didn’t have a family, didn’t have anyone who loved them–and in addition, their child experienced abuse and neglect. I would gently suggest that even in families (and orphanages) where children have experienced abuse, they still have love for their parents (or caretakers). Children who are taken into protective custody in the US still cry for their abusive parents at night, because along with the bad memories there are good ones.

And even in a “bad” orphanage, there was almost certainly someone that our child felt connected to. It may have not even been an adult, it may have been another child.

Our kids miss their previous caregivers, friends, familiar surroundings, language, foods, and culture. And they always will.

It isn’t our job to help them forget, but to allow them to remember and to support them through those memories. To help them heal from the bad ones and hold on to the good. To validate their feelings, yet keep them moving forward into their new lives, filled with an abundance of life and love.

Not to replace what they left behind but to build on it.

________________________________________

Ann Henderson

Ann Henderson currently finds herself wife to one and mom of nine, including a son now playing non-stop baseball in heaven. Several of her children are adopted

5 thoughts on “Grief and the Adopted Child

  1. Kim

    Ann, What a beautiful post. I am not an adoptive mom (yet), but I have spent the better part of my last year doing graduate research on adoptive parenting (particularly in children over the age of infancy). You post is just perfect. I think if we all take a minute (or in my case 7 months) to think about the other life that these children have experienced, it is essential to work through that with them, embrace that with them. We can’t take away those lives, so denying them can be quite counterproductive. Anyway, thanks again for your beautiful testimony.

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  2. Beth Templeton

    I really appreciate your thoughts Ann. Very wise. Especially the insight that “it is not our job to help them forget.” I think often we parents can have our feelings hurt because we feel that their grief or homesick feelings are a reflection on us, our family, our culture, our “sacrifice.” I have wrestled with those feelings– they are not helpful! Acknowledging, validating, and compassion open the doors of love and relationship wide between adopted child and parent. Thanks!

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  3. Dawn

    It is soo true….grief has to be experienced. It has to be emotionally let out. Sometimes it is sadness, sometimes it is just relief, sometimes it is a still quiet time, comes at various times, in various stages. Thank you for your post!

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  4. Lisa Arndt

    Beautiful post! So right on! There are things that our adoptive children say and do–even when well read and prepared for, can stop us in our tracks–and believe it or not–all that reading pays off. When I say reading–I mean not just books–but reading post like this one. Your post surely will prepare another adoptive parent for the grieving and processing of their life before they came home. Every child’s experience AND i’d even say personality is unique–and that all figures into how they process, communicate and deal with this very sensitive and very necessary part of their life journey. Which is why–there is never any surefire way to deal with or approach this area of their lives. All we can do is do our best.

    Izabella is a JOYFUL soul. Even her referral picture was the picture of the happiest little girl, sitting in a very American looking high chair. If you didn’t know she was in an orphanage–you’d think the picture was taken in her families kitchen. She has not grieved at all in her waking hours–but instead she has nightmares and night terrors–at first pretty regular–now very seldom. It seems her night terrors have subsided as her language and communication skills have kicked in. And she’s started to share her thoughts memories and feelings. Yes. Memories. She remembers pieces of things–some things in so much detail. I am composing a post that shares this–because–like you–I think it’s an uncomfortable subject for any of us to face or talk about–but one we all are working through–in a myriad of ways.

    Your post urged me to share something Izabella recalls–like you said–they remember the good times and the bad–and it is a family of sorts to them. One night we were having one of our bedtime visits. We talk about all kinds of things–what we’re doing the next day–we talk about who we need to pray for and why–even just plain telling silly stories “without books” (as Izabella calls it). And this is often when she’ll share things from her past. One night she shared some very special memories with me–one of which was her memory of what her Nanny said to her the day she left the orphanage to drive to the Civil Affairs Office to meet her new Mommy and Daddy. She recalls, “She tell me she love me. She miss me. I come back to visit some time.” Izabella was 28 months when we met her–she is now just over 4 years old (been home 18 months the 27th of this month–the same amount of time she was in the orphanage), she remembers their love and care. She remembers.

    So…I know this is rather controversial to share–and I know there are those that say–she can’t possibly remember that. I am not going to defend this in anyway. All I know–is the deep sadness in her eyes–and tears that followed–was proof enough for me–this was a very real memory. And unique to her–at 4-years old and only home for 18 months–her communication skills allow her share these memories with us–where some might not be able to–or their personality won’t let them–and the memories fade before they can get to the point where they can share. BUT–that doesn’t mean they don’t remember. It’s a mistake to think they don’t.

    I would urge parents–please remember this is short term memory right now for them. They will likely forget much of the details as they get older (don’t we all) but now it’s recent memory to them. And memorable for sure.

    When she shares this and many other things (even things the doctors did to her–this comes out in her play) it moves me to tears–as all I could do was cry with her and let her be sad. When they open that door–to the deepest saddest places in their lives–we can choose to walk through or shut the door and chalk it up to a silly story made up by a 4-year olds imagination. I chose to walk through with her–and it was a treasured moment I will always remember–one that brings tears to my eyes still thinking/writing about it. And I honestly think it was the saddest moment of my life too. Like you said, ‘you want to make it better–yet you feel so inadequate and helpless to do so–cause you can’t make it better. You just have to let it be and be with them.”

    Then she said, “Mommy. I’m sooo saddd. How can I make me happy again?”

    And i treasure every word–and save them safely for later when she might not remember anymore.

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