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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12 Blogs: A Ghost of Christmas Past.

The Day is done.
The presents have been opened.
The Turkey has been eaten and the chocs have been scoffed.
Leafing though photos of the festivities on my computer I stumbled across an old folder I hadn’t opened for years.
Clicking on it, out tumbled hundreds of images of me and my husband as novice parents and our first Christmas together as a family. Our daughter must have been about 15 months old and it took me straight back to the early days.
I could remember looking at that little smiling face in the pictures worrying that I wouldn’t be good enough; that I would somehow let her down. And I was oddly freaked out because at the time I couldn’t quite picture the little girl she would grow into. I don’t know why it was so important to me but I needed to be able to look into the future and see us not just as the parents of a baby but also parents of a little girl and I couldn’t. Every time I tried it just got hazy. Maybe it was just the general anxiety of becoming a parent for the first time but there seemed to be so much to worry and think about!

Fast forward five years and surprise surprise here we are. No longer the parents of a baby but yes, parents of a little girl.
I hadn’t needed to worry about it after all because like most things in life – it just happened. It evolved.
For me it was a timely reminder to try to let go of things that I cannot control. To try not to waste any more time worrying myself into the future.

Easier said than done I know.

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 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.

12 Blogs of Christmas #8

Do you open any presents on Christmas Eve?

In theory no – it’s against my principles, but sometimes we cannot help opening “just the one” before midnight !

When do you put up and take down your tree?

Up: Almost as soon as the local Tree market opens and;
Down: probably not within the boundaries set by tradition/superstition.

What goes on the top of the tree?

A fairy (not a real one) or a star (again, not real), depending

Fake or real Christmas tree?

After a good number of years as a singleton with a re-usable fake tree, my wife has me converted to real and no way am I going back.

Favourite Christmas film?

It’s A Wonderful Life

Coloured or clear fairy lights?

Clear

Favourite Christmas song?

Depends on who is singing it – It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, if a choir; We Wish You A Merry Christmas, if our daughter.

Favourite Christmas food?

Sprouts. And my wife’s home-made sausage rolls. And Beef – I do not like Turkey !

What is the best Christmas gift ever received?

Socks

What is the worst Gift you’ve ever received?

Socks – it’s all about timing.

What’s the best part of Christmas for you?

Watching people open their presents; the second glass of wine with Christmas lunch

Most annoying thing about this time of year?

The West End

12 Blogs of Christmas #7 If you could be anywhere.

If you could be anywhere for Christmas where would it be and why?

Home, Home, Home!!!!!

If I could be anywhere for Christmas it would be at home with all three of my boys.

In fact, that’s exactly where I’ll be at home, with my family.

Just because I can and want to be.

Worcestershire cottage would be the only alternative, burning the fire log fire with the boys.

I’ve always loved Christmas and this year all I want for Christmas is to be at home, home, home with just me and the boys.

12 Blogs: Yuletide peace – within and without

So yes … The pull of the Christmas Vortex is as strong as ever. I’ve been sucked in and spat out a few times. By now, December is wearing thin on me.

I’m tired. We are all tired. The festive period comes straight after a ridiculously busy time. So I start the holidays tired.

A happy, relaxing holiday period of plenty seems a stretch. There’s still so much to do before Christmas morning!

My needs are usually drowned in everyone else’s, it feels. Drowned in whirlwinds of perfected expectations – my own and of those around, of the environment. It’s an old script. And I know it all too well. Friends and family often come to stay with us, and we go to stay with them. In this tornado of packing, unpacking, shopping, eating, wrapping, kisses and board games, I forget myself. I get short tempered – mainly after they or we have left, when life naturally slows down again. I love them all, and love the visits, but it is frankly draining. I won’t go there about adoption, because that we all know as the fancy antsy add ons. No, now it is me in focus.

I’m determined to do it differently this year. I’ve got a few guidelines in my head. They are my intentions, so all I have to do is practice. Over time, over Christmasses, I may even perfect them. Discard, re-jig them. So that I can be properly there for me. And for those around. And enjoy Christmas which I love.

So here are a few reminders of how not to do it, and a few pointers of how perhaps to do it.

DON’Ts of Christmas

· Bake (unless you absolutely and totally looooove it)

· Write Christmas cards (unless you absolutely and totally …) Sorry, guys….

· Spend time on fancy schmanzy wrapping (unless you absolutely…)

· Spend time on homemade this, that and the other (unless you…)

· Clean the home for Christmas (unle…)

· Jampack your calendar with visitors or visits every day of the holidays.

· Pretend that you can be gliding serenely over the chopped Christmas seas, without you feet peddling like crazy underneath.

· Take on the sole responsibility for all cooking and shopping over the festive period.

· Feel responsible to the good atmosphere at any one time.

· Spend all your energy on making sure every one else are happy and well.

DOs of Christmas

· Rest for min 1-2 hours per day.

· Watch a lot of films and christmas telly.

· Make sure not to have (any?) fixed plans between Christmas and New Year.

· Go for walk during the daylight hours.

· Let it flow/go.

· Let PJs rule the days.

· Go to bed early.

· Be lazy, boring and egoistic.

· Share the workload.

· Only use 70% of your energy.

· Have that extra biscuits (because it is not what we eat between Christmas and New Year you need to worry about, but what you eat between New Year and Christmas).

Because you can’t pour from an empty jug.

I know this and yet this time of year I feel challenged to do much too much. All the freeking time.

And yet… when I do slow down, and snuggle you myself, it becomes so much easier to do as well as with other.

It is obviously so much harder to do than to say, but I really will try to put myself a but higher up the list of needs I listen to. Hopefully there will be stretches where I am number 1. I’m finding it hard to let go, but I also instinctively know that when I do let go and slow down, when I’m honest about my needs – that is first and foremost to myself (no one else needs to know as much as I), demands magically transform to something I might actually like to do.

Brene Brown speaks about how she is much less kind but much more loving, when her own boundaries are in place. I think I get that.

Wish me luck. And good luck to you too.

Wishing you all the most peaceful and re-plenishingly happy of festive periods.