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.

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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.

He is not my friend

A pet peeve of mine is children and parents describing their relationship as a ‘friendship’.

I’m in my 50’s and I am aware it may be a generational thing as I hear it an awful lot from younger parents – and I appreciate that I may well be a bit of a ‘Dinosaur’, but never the less I can’t stop myself from wincing internally every time I hear a parent describe their child as ‘my best friend’ or vice versa.

I understand that it is often just terminology and not literal, but regardless for me there are such clear distinctions between being a parent and a friend that even casually blurring the lines feels wrong.

Personally I feel that getting on with your child, having a wonderfully close relationship, sharing certain interests, being able to open up and share your feelings with them and encourage them to share theirs with you is not friendship – it is just good parenting.

So it is somewhat ironic that I quite regularly hear my 8 year old son declare that my partner is ‘not my friend anymore ‘ when he is angry or upset with him.

It usually follows a reprimanding of said son and no doubt my partner having raised his voice – which our son always struggles to cope with as he immediately perceives it as a sign that the security he has with us is under threat.

He is comfortable using the word ‘love’ and he declares his love for us daily – as of course we do to him – and I know for sure that he sees us as his parents , yet I question if he truly feels it 100% and understands yet that it is forever.

And maybe that is where the idea of a ‘friendship’ with us comes from, I guess it’s easier for him to relate to the word ‘friend’ and to see his relationship with us as such – even though we have never suggested anything of the sort.

I think that even with the constant assurance of our love he is confused by our anger when it arises and he sees it as being decidedly ‘unfriendly’.

I’ll let it go – for now – and as he grows and settles more and more I will hope that it will slowly disappear. If not and he continues to see us as friends then I’ll accept that and even consider it to be an achievement under the circumstances. However, rest assured he will never hear me using it in return.

Dear Daughter: Jelly arms

jelly-37810_640Dear daughter,

Granted, I am quite a bit older than you and that I am not as firm as I once was… Yes, I know that you do spend a fair amount of time in the car being shuttled around and you don’t make much of a fuss about it, and there’s not always that much to look at; but I’d like you to know – in the kindest possible way – that it is not necessary to remind me on each and every journey, that as I drive over speed bumps, holes in the road, etc, that the skin on my arms and legs “wobbles about like a jelly”. I realise that you think it’s hilarious and something you feel I need to know about but I’m here to tell you that I’m happy enough not hearing about it….OK? Good. Glad we’ve got that sorted now.

Being Older

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Adopting in my 50’s means that there is little doubt that I am an older (and the ‘er is me being kind to myself) parent.

Being an older parent has made me acutely aware of the negatives that age has wrought on my body, aware of every ache and every pain and aware of my inability to run and jump and play with my sons for long periods – as I would have been so capable of even a decade ago.

Being older I no longer have the energy levels or indeed the enthusiasm to be a constant and active part in my sons fun and games. I now have a need for ‘down times’ to reenergise and to deal with the stresses of the day – which is very frustrating when it clashes with when my sons are eager to play. In fact there is a need for quiet in general in my life now – even though that is pretty impossible with two young sons bouncing around the house.

Being older means that I am not remotely in touch with the ‘youth culture’ that my sons are just tapping into, I have never been into computer games or the like, I have never followed sport and even current music – that used to be a constant in my life – has now been replaced with talk radio.

Put simply I am aware that I can not give them the kind of parenting I would have been able to when I was younger and fitter.

Also –

Being older I have to accept the sad reality that my sons will possibly not have me in their lives that far into their adulthood and I have to face the fact that I will probably not be there for important adult milestones. I am assuming I will be for there to see them graduate, to become adults, but will I be there if the marry or have children? More importantly, will I be there for them when they need me for significant adult decisions or situations that they struggle to face alone, times when even though we are adults we turn to our parents to help us make sense of the world and the difficulties it can throw at us?

Being older I have focused on these negatives that my age brings to my parenting and I have worried about how it affect my sons now and how it will do so throughout their lives.

Yet –

Being older means that I have a maturity and wisdom that I can bring to my parenting. I think it has been especially valuable in helping me identify and to understand our sons needs, to help me learn how to deal with issues (especially trauma related issues) in a way that I would have struggled to get to grips with in my younger days.

Being older means that I now have a fuller perspective on what it means to be a parent, I think I see a bigger picture as I am no longer distracted by things that meant so much more to me in the past than they do now.

Being older means that I had already settled into a ‘comfortable’ more sedate life. I had already stopped the partying and I am now far more contented with family nights in front of TV and going to bed early – in a way that I never could have been previously.

Being older means that I do not feel like I am missing out, I feel like I have ‘been there and done that’ and I am happy to see others living the life I used to lead without feeling remotely envious.

Being older means that I have a long history with my partner (now in our third decade), it means that we are not working on our relationship with the intensity that is required for newer couples – especially when faced with difficulties. We are able to face the challenges adoption has brought to our partnership with more self assurance and a greater sense of security than younger relationships possibly offer.

Being older means that I am more financially secure which results in me not having to parent around the worry and stress that month to month budgeting can bring to a family. It means that our family has the luxury of a stay-at-home parent and it means that we are able to give our sons experiences that we would not have been able to a decade or so ago, experiences that they clearly learn from and which are of great value to them and indeed to us as a family, experiences that they clearly get great joy and happiness from.

Being older means that my life is far more established and that as a consequence I have time, more time to focus on my sons and on my family, more time to make it all work.

Actually – *****

Being older and coming to parenting so late has worried me greatly.

Being older very nearly stopped me from adopting and it was a huge consideration at the time.

Being older almost prevented my boys from having a forever family, at 5 and 6 they too were (rather ironically) seen as ‘older’ and being siblings and having attachment issues they were difficult to place, it has been stated that we were a last opportunity of adoption for them.

Being older almost stopped my world from being filled with a happiness and a love that transcends anything I could ever have imagined.

So –
On reflection I guess I can see that my worrying was in vain – as surely the positives so greatly outweigh the negatives.

There is no perfect age to be a parent – I guess no matter what age, we all just have to make sure that we try to excel in what we can. Isn’t that the best any parent can do?