Good Grief

‘Bereavement is the price of love. Because love will end with death.’

I’ve been listening to a whole day – yes a whole day – about loss and grief on Danish national radio. In late November Danish Radio chose to focus on loss and grief across all their platforms. Amazing project. Moving project. Heart breaking programmes.

During the day, I listened to stories of people who have lost a loved one. Researchers, experts in all sorts of fields, priests, friend and those left behind. I listened to literature and music. All of which focussed on loss, grief and sorrow. I have since been revisiting some of the programmes on playback.

A couple of months later I am still struck by just how much the emotional landscape of loss and grief resembles some of the strong emotions associated with adoption. I have lost friends and family members. Just yesterday I lost a childhood friend to breast cancer. A beautiful bubbly warm woman, who leaves behind two daughters and her husband. As well as her family. And her friends. She took a part of my teens with her. Secrets only she and I knew. And now I can’t share them with anyone. It reminds me how lonely and private loss is. There’s isn’t much you can do with it, except acknowledge it. It can’t really be shared. But you can be there. I like the English phrase ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’

In our western world we are appallingly bad in dealing and talking about death, loss and grief. In any form, but death in particular. It’s nothing to do with us. Until it is. And it will happen to us all. That much is certain.

Many people who have lost a loved one say that those who have not, do not have the imagination to understand what such a loss might mean. It is simply impossible. That rings true to me. It is not the loss of a job or a divorce. Those pale in comparison to true bereavement. This was a point made again and again on the day on the ether in Danish. I understand that. And yet, it grates with me, because grief in all its shades is real. I don’t like to diminish that.

Loss has hit me. It is hitting me. Sometimes it hits very hard. But it is true I have never lost a really close loved one. Losing my child is simply unthinkable. Or my husband.

The loss(es) of adoption has been compared with the death of a loved one. I know I’m not the first to make that comparison. The same has been said of adoption breakdown. It’s the irrevocability of the situation that calls for the comparison. As in you will never see your loved one again. All ties to the original family severed. This fact is at the heart of the criticism of adoption. Reasonably so. In my opinion.

Our children have experienced loss that for most of us I think is beyond our capacity to understand. ‘Bereavement is the price of love.’ Love in adoption is a complex concept. Despite everything, there is love between the children and their first parents. However complex, tainted and contradictionary. However hard adopters may find it to feel any warmth towards the birth parents, the love is there in some form for our children. In bereavement there is no place for that love to go, the object is gone. So we suffer alone. Bereavement is love without a home.

The deep sense of sorrow that comes with bereavement is life long. If we have not experienced it ourselves we will still need to relate to the fact that our children have. They won’t just get over it. Or snap out of it. And love won’t just heal that wound. It will go a long way, but this is different. Fundamentally.

A few years ago I saw the extraordinary film made by Amanda Boorman of the Open Nest. About her daugther. In it there is a scene where her daughter meets her first mother again. After years of separation. On seeing her the daughter lets out a sound that still rings in my ears when I think about it. A cry, a scream, of joy, and lot of visceral pain.

Bereavement is in all its simplicity life-changing. It will follow you your whole life long. It can destroy you, or it can be the making of you. Or both.

Current grief research speaks about grief as waves, as water. Like you’re standing on a beach, at the edge of the water. The soles of your feet indenting the sand. Some waves will come in and nibble at your feet before they retreat. Others may unsteady you and then retreat. And some may sweep you off your feet. You will literally need to find you feet again.

Many speak of grief as a transformative force of nature. And how healing it can be to accept and integrate loss. Many take lost ones along with them – or rather us – for the rest of our lives. We internalising the person(s). Many speak of how the dead or gone become a muse. I have two such muses. I speak with them often. And I hear adoptive parents talking about how their children talk to their families.
Again the role of a muse rings true to me.

Grief is not an illness although it is often treated as such. As something to be endured until you come out on the other side. Healthy and strong, as you were before you lost. But it will not be as it was before.

Because: No…. sorrow wont leave you. Sorrow will catch you up if you try to outrun it.

Grief needs space when it rears it’s ugly powerful head with regular interval. Space and acceptance are the saving graces when it comes to periods of intensive grief. Feed and nurture it like a plant. So it will take up the space that it should. Not too much and not too little. But just the right amount. The respectful amount.

I love the notion of the presence of the dead. Or those who are no more. They won’t leave. And they are welcome. They are here.

Espen Kjær, the journalist and bereft dad who was a driving force behind this day on the Danish Radio, relayed something a wise man told him after he tried to make sense of the loss of his son: The impression he left in you is like hand print on your heart. It will be as fresh now as it was the first time you laid eyes on him.How is that any different from the imprint our children’s parents and perhaps siblings left on their children?

It is a HUGE problem when the world around don’t acknowledge grief. People now are scared of it. Grief could be contagious you know. Many (most?) shy away from the bereaved because we in our culture have lost our way of connecting with it. Oddly enough the Victorians seem to have gotten one or two things right about bereavement. The black clothing for full mourning, and mauve for half mourning. Locket with hair of the deceased. Beautifully ornately arranged. Works of art. The Victorians had strict codex for when to wear what, for all the world to see. I wish we had something similar. A uniform of loss. And many more rituals stretching out from the life lived into a life with those who live no more.

We the adoptive parents are the squeezed generation. Often older parents ourselves our own parents are ailing. I know many adoptive parents who have lost their own parents. Even just in the last 12 months. I know many bereft adoptive parents.

When we do not speak of the dead and gone, when we gloss over it or remark that surely it must be over by now. Or how well someone is handling their grief – i.e. how little they bother us with it- it feels like silencing their presence, and it is like losing them all over again, as Kjær put it.

Two out of three bereaved feel let down by those around. People are scared of grief. And of people who are bereft. Perhaps because it touches on our own mortality. And grief. And pain.

As adoptive families we live with bereavement whether we like to admit it or not. Our children live it every day. So how can we as parent support them? Can we recognise it from another angle? From their height?
The words from the day on Danish Radio for the bereaved still sit with me. It asks questions of me.

How well do you understand your child’s loss?

This question humbles me.


The Worst Babysitter

My partner and I don’t go out together leaving our sons very often at all, in fact over the five years they have been with us I doubt that it has even been as often as ten times. We have been out individually with friends while the other stayed and looked after the boys on a number of occasions, but even so it’s a rarity that they don’t have both of us to kiss them good night and tuck them up in bed. It is an important part of the day and we know that both the boys get such a lot from the routine of showering, us drying them (still at 10 and 11 they seem to love the nurturing and intimacy that being cocooned up in a big warm, fluffy bath towel and wrapped in our arms brings) and settling down with a book before they go off to sleep.

Not going out is not any kind of sacrifice, we are older parents who are more than contented with what family life has brought and we never feel that we are missing out in any way – in fact quite the opposite, I think we relish the laziness of quiet nights in and the opportunity to recover from our busy days.

However, when we do leave the boys we of course need to have a reliable babysitter and until quite recently we were very fortunate to have a young neighbour who was more than willing to sit for us. The boys really like her and were comfortable being left with her and we loved the fact that we not only got a lovely and very responsible young lady, but in addition we were reassured that her mother (a very accomplished parent) was just 4 doors away.

Of course even with this level of confidence and knowing that the boys would be fine, the first couple of times we left them we had our phones out on a lap and in ‘vibrate mode’ for the whole evening, in fact I had to stop my partner from texting the sitter every few minutes asking if things were OK (it was probably every hour or so, but it felt so much more).

All was good until our wonderful neighbour had the audacity to selfishly go off to university. Fortunately the next time we were going out a good friend hearing of our predicament offered to sit the boys, they were excited as they have a great relationship with this friend already – so everybody was happy.

We left the usual instructions of the bedtime routine and said that as it was a weekend they could stay up a little later until 8.30 or ‘maybe even 9.00’ as a special treat. Four years into being a family we were far more relaxed than in the early days and barely gave thought to the situation at home and just got on with enjoying our night out, on our return we quietly entered the house and as we took off shoes and coats, fussed the dog and grabbed something to drink we were both a little confused that the sound coming from the TV was in fact – children’s TV. It was 11.30 at night and as neither of us had any idea that children’s TV was even on that late in the day we were somewhat thrown, I am of an age when children’s TV went off at 5.45 (Magic Roundabout) and it’s never on much later now for our boys.

Assuming our friend had been exhausted by the boys and had just fallen asleep the moment they went to bed without even changing channels, we quietly made our way into the Reception room.

Yes indeed our sitter was asleep – rather amusingly on his back clutching a half full glass of wine to his chest. Far more surprising though was that he was flanked by our sons, wide eyed and with beaming smiles as we entered the room they turned and said –

‘We love J being out babysitter he lets us stay up really late and look he brought us treats too’. As I surveyed the coffee table I was somewhat perturbed to see empty coke cans, crisp packets and empty chocolate and biscuit wrappers.

The excited conversation woke our friend and as he sat up (still clutching his wine glass), he smiled a rather cheeky smile and said ‘the boys have been fantastic, I figured they deserved a few treats’.

There was a time when we would have been really upset, we would have felt betrayed and let down by our friend, but we have relaxed as we have eased into our role as parents and consequently we immediately saw the amusement in the situation – and indeed the sheer joy in the boys faces.

Of course now the boys want J to babysit every time and we have been more than happy whenever he is available to arrange that and strangely enough even without any pressure from us, he now makes sure that they are tucked up at a sensible time and not full of sugar.

He hasn’t acknowledged it, but we think he realised just how much easier that is for him, which is indeed something we learnt very early on.

Finding Me a Family.

Not me; I have one. Rather some reflections on the series on Channel 4 that ran before Christmas and on a recent blog in the context of us receiving our first contact letter from one of our child’s siblings, because ultimately it might turn out to be “Finding My Family” for them, in the fullness of time.
Firstly, how utterly heartbreaking it all was. Even though there was little exposure of the circumstances under which the children came to be looked-after, why they were removed from their birth-parents, we who have adopted and therefore have had access to case files know how much more heart-break there is above and beyond children being in foster care and looking for a forever family.
When we read our child’s case file, since they were removed from their birth mother the moment they were born, most of the file was a harrowing account of birth mother’s life from early childhood and how, to all intents and purposes, she never really had a chance from the get-go. That was hard to read; it truly personalised the context in which our child came to be with us and made me angry in many ways that the vulnerable child that was our child’s birth mother wasn’t protected and supported – we felt that if that had happened, she would not have gone on to have had five children removed from her care. And that the utterly gorgeous person who is our child would not have the heartbreak in her life that will now inevitably come when she is older and able to fully understand why she was removed from her birth-mother’s care. How much better for her never to have known us and therefore never to have that in her future? That’s an actual question, not a statement.
Secondly, the siblings bit. There was a little family of four siblings in the programme, looking for a forever family. The programme told us that if no adoptive family were forthcoming in the immediate future, the four would be split into two or even adopted separately. How utterly heart-breaking was that thought? Of course what we did not see or have explained in the programme is that sometimes the eldest of the siblings do not experience a childhood at all in those situations being instead the surrogate parents, even at that young age, and the ramifications that might have for their development. But it seems counter-intuitive to split up siblings.
In our child’s case, the siblings (some full, some half – that’s a genetic and somewhat cold view of the world in my view, but that’s another story) were all born before and removed from their birth-mother’s care. Our child is the youngest of the group (as far as we know at the time of writing) and therefore never knew them, even intuitively or unconsciously. For five years we battled to find out where they were, to get contact in place – and it was a battle, believe me, one that we almost relished fighting on behalf of our child – and for five years we heard nothing from any of their families, despite sending letter and photos and saying how much we were longing to hear from them on behalf of our child. We were upset and disappointed and sometimes furious, to be honest.
And then wholly unexpectedly, a letter and some photographs landed on our mat this week. Be careful what you wish, or battle, for. Because unexpectedly for me at least, it triggered highly conflicting emotions. I thought I would feel joy that finally it had happened, that we had been answered after all that time, happy that our stories, photos and pleas had not just disappeared unresolved into the ether.
But would it have been easier to explain years later how hard we tried, unsuccessfully, we tried sweetheart we really did – look at all the letters we wrote for you; now let’s just carry on being us three, shall we? Now that’s not even a rose-tinted, unrealistic and frankly stupid option. Now there’s a sister out there, who looks a bit like you, see, an older sister that you’ve often said you wanted. I’m full of fear for our child and for our cosy family. But also full of hope. But also full of anxiety. And joy. And panic. And happiness. And trepidation. And optimism. And dread.
But I look at what might happen to those 4 children from the programme and how indescribably painful the separation would be. And how they might grow up with a longing the source of which especially the smallest ones may not even understand or be able to articulate. And with a guilt for the eldest that she couldn’t keep her brothers and sisters together, even though it was never in her power. And I think we’re lucky in many ways; we only have to try to explain and manage the getting to know you process and hopefully an introduction to perhaps a life-long bond. It may not go the way we would like, we may bodge the explanation, they may not bond at all, they may never want to meet. All sorts of things could go wrong and we will feel responsible if they do, no doubt. But also we could be responsible for facilitating a wonderful new relationship for our child, one that will outlast us. Here’s hoping.
And here’s hoping those 4 lovely children find each other together for the rest of their lives.


Better Off With Straight Parents.

We had a good friend visiting for the weekend with a friend who had recently separated from a civil partnership and was voicing her feelings that she wanted to meet a man and to start a family.

We were somewhat surprised and we had a number of questions, not least of which was why she felt she needed to be in a straight relationship to have children, we were even more surprised when the answer was that her therapist had said raising children in straight relationships was of course better than raising them in gay ones.

Our immediate challenge to this was met with ‘but of course it’s better, that’s obvious isn’t it!? Children are at an immediate disadvantage if they have gay parents’.

We were ourselves a gay couple en route to starting a family so we were shocked to even have the question put to us – let alone from a bi sexual woman in a manner that suggested we would of course agree.

We didn’t agree then and we sure as hell don’t agree now, after five years of being adoptive parents there has not been one single thing that we have felt our sons would have benefited from had they had straight parents instead of us, not one single thing that puts our sons at any kind of disadvantage – in fact as I see them grow with a wonderful understanding and acceptance of diversity I could possibly argue the exact opposite.

The utopian notion that all children with a mother and father are brought up in a loving, healthy and stable environment is simply ridiculous as it totally ignores the everyday reality of difficult, challenged, less capable adults as well as ignoring poor parenting, poor relationships, divorce, single mothers, step parents, bereaved partners…the list goes on.

Regardless, what exactly do people think straight parents do or can give that is better than gay ones can?

What is ‘better’ for a child is having GOOD parents who are dedicated to their role of parenting and good parents can of course be straight or gay.

The majority of gay parents have adopted and like most adoptive parents we work very hard at trying to be good parents – maybe even harder knowing the prejudice that is stacked against us. Beyond the initial training that we all receive my partner and I have read books galore, been on courses and regularly research parenting and adoption sites on the internet, in addition we are constantly discussing the difficulties that we face and how we should go about dealing with them. I know that we get lots of stuff wrong and I am sure that our sons will grow up questioning some of their upbringing (which I think is actually quite healthy), but we can be sure that we have given 100% and that we have absolutely tried our best, I do question how many straight parents of birth children – who we are compared unfavourable to – can honestly say the same.

The above episode is of course far from the only time I have heard the ‘better off with straight parents argument’ and it always strikes me as mightily ironic that the people making it conveniently overlook the fact that in this country it is almost exclusively bad parenting from straight parents that result in children being taken into care in the first place.

Equally they over look the many millions of children who have been brought up by closeted gay parents living a straight life.

P.S. It is a little known fact (as it tended to go ‘under the radar’) that long before gay adoption became legal, children were occasionally placed with single adopters who were gay or in gay relationships with only one partner being registered as the legal parent and it is hugely ironic that it was only the children who needed extra special parenting, special care and a huge amount of attention (such as children with severe mental or physical special needs) and who stood little (if any) chance of being adopted by heterosexuals.

This to me suggests that those responsible for these placements (potential those that know best) have never had any real concern with gay parenting.


12 Blogs #11. Unleashed

It was our first Christmas together and we were spending it away from London, in a house in the country.

There was great excitement all around, from the boys who we had been working on for weeks filling them with expectation and from us looking to make our first christmas together special and memorable.

However, something that we had not considered was the weather – which was quite simply horrid. It rained constantly and apart from the gloom that it brought about, it prevented the boys from going outside as it was very cold and the garden (as well as the surrounding countryside) were quite literally a mud bath.

It took us a while to realise what was happening, but regardless of out attempts to keep the boys busy and entertained we started to notice that they were getting restless and were becoming more and more difficult to cope with.

By the end of day 4 things were bad, their behaviour was getting out of control and we had little patience left. They were sent to bed early amid tears and anger.

The following day – Christmas Eve – started pretty much how the previous day had ended and the prospects of having to deal with two increasingly uncontrollable little boys on top of preparing for the big day tomorrow was quite simply looking beyond our ability.

My sister – a far more accomplished parent – phoned to ask how things were going and I shared our distress, the conversation went something like this:

Me – We have had enough, the boys are clearly unsettled being here and none of us are enjoying it, in fact the boys are driving us mad.

Sister – They have been couped up for 4 days, it sounds like big time cabin fever to me.

Me – Could be, I hadn’t considered that. (duhh)

Sister – You need to get them out to release some of that energy that’s just building and building.

Me – We can’t, the weather is just too terrible’ I think it best that we just go home.

Sister – Don’t be silly, you have everything planned and set up for Christmas there, why don’t you take them to a soft play area.

Me – What’s a soft play area?

Once she had finished laughing at me – the oh so clearly novice dad – she educated me into the word of indoor play and advised that there was a great centre about 50 mins away and that it will be a journey I would be very grateful of.

51 minutes later we are paying to get in and I could see the boys positively ‘chomping at the bit’, waiting to be let loose. Armbands on wrists the gate was opened…

And they were off, immediately running into the thick of it without looking back, we found seats and made them aware of where we were and they did not come to us for over 30 minutes (and these were still the very early days when they never seemed to leave our sides).

They ran, they climbed, they jumped, they slid, they shouted and they laughed – before they even thought about us. When we did finally come to mind they ran to us for a quick drink and then they were off again and it was like this for the next two hours or so.

I have described it as being like letting a dog off a lead – you could see the ‘need’ they had to get rid of all the pent up energy and it was actually a delight to watch.

Our sons are quite active little boys and of course four days stuck indoors was going to drive them mad – and by default us too – it is just shocking how oblivious we were to the blindingly obvious – even as it unfolded around us.

We live and learn and as painful as we the parents can find the hour or two in a soft play centre it saved our Christmas and has become a regular part of our life since.


12 blogs #10 Christmas Day 2017

I am sitting in the quiet of the kitchen in candlelight listening to the whirl of the dish washer. It’s peaceful after all the hullabaloo of the day. Cold sprouts, roast potatoes and the turkey are still on the table.

My six year old son went to sleep asking if he could pull a cracker tomorrow with our 82 year old neighbour. “Mummy I’ll let her have the present inside as she’s so old”.

He spent much of Christmas singing the same carol over and over again (jingle bells with the bit about Uncle Billy losing his ……, eating as many mince pies as he could find and then ripping open presents like he was being timed for the olympics. This year it was filled with “thank you Mummy and Daddy – wow I love this!”.

These comments wouldn’t have seemed possible this time last year. It has been like two years in one. My son has gone from a frightened hyper vigilant five year old kicking, swearing, hitting and screaming to a calmer more playful six year old. Last year he couldn’t attend the last few days at school as he couldn’t cope. He was running around the corridors wildly and I had to piggy back him out of a school sports cupboard back home. It was a relief to have him out of an environment which he clearly wasn’t coping in but I wondered how this year would pan out.

His behaviour had been triggered by events for sure – the change of the timetable with the nativity rehearsals and his LSA being off sick plus countless different people then replacing her. He felt neither safe nor secure . He had an EHCP which stated he must have consistent care but it wasn’t happening.

This year his LSA has not been away for even a day’s sick leave and the difference is huge. Our son now runs into school happily. He has gone from 10 mins in the classroom to 4 hours a day. We’ve had every treatment in the book from AIT (Audio Integrative Therapy) to Cranial osteopathy and Primitive Reflex work (INPP). We’ve also had therapeutic parenting sessions. We have begged, borrowed and stolen the therapies getting discounts where we can and using the Adoption Support Fund. Without them I don’t think we could have survived.

Things can change and Christmas is a natural hiatus in which to realise the change. He still can’t eat a meal without getting up five or six times and is like a mosquito buzzing from thing to thing but a happier mosquito. I still end up in tears every couple of weeks with the exhaustion of it all but even that is changing.

We all had melt downs on Christmas Eve but the big day has been a success – a lunch with just the three of us, presents under a tree, card games, log fires roaring around the house and ‘Arthur Christmas’ on a big screen We promised ourselves that if we felt stressed to say “nevermind” reach for a glass of vino and put another log on the fire.

I actually read a poem by Wendy Cope out loud at breakfast. No one was really listening but it meant a lot to me.


12 Blogs of Christmas #9. Etch a Sketch

As a child I always wanted an Etch a sketch, it was new back then in the 70’s and positively ‘hi tech’ to us who had been brought up on basic, traditional toys.

Advertisements for the – to be honest, pretty rubbish – pen and paper alternative were all over the TV and made it look positively glamorous.

And then the Christmas came when I was to get one – I knew because being 12 I had done that unforgivable thing of searching the house mid December to root out the presents we would be getting.

I was pretty pleased to finally be getting the gift that I wanted so badly and I was full of excitement on Christmas morning, however the excitement didn’t last too long. I was unwrapping my gifts with the growing realision that NONE of them were in fact those that I had seen a couple of weeks earlier.

I was obviously very puzzled and conclude that my patents must have worked out that I had found them and had exchanged each and every one. That will teach me I thought as I sat there full of disappointment and with a forced smile on my face.

So another year without the coveted gift.

About mid morning the family across the road who we were close to came over to wish us a Merry Christmas and we children all compared our gifts – and then the reality of the situation hit.

The boy the same age as me had all the gifts I had seen…including MY Etch a sketch.

Serves you right I hear you cry – and I would most certainly have to agree. It was a harsh lesson and rest assured I never went in search of my Christmas presents again.