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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Always be by your side.

Photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

A few months back my 4 year old daughter astonished me by suddenly opening her eyes as she was drifting off to sleep and whispering “I’ll always be by your side Mama.” She gave me a sweet little smile afterwards and I was so taken aback that it brought tears to my eyes.

It’s not something I had heard from her before, nor is it a phrase I use so it was surprising and delightful to me. I will never forget it and for a time, it became a bit of a theme for us. We would say it to each other when perhaps previously we would have said “I love you”. It also became something of a weapon in times of conflict… “I don’t love you, and I’m not going to always be by your side” she would emphatically inform me, incandescent with rage over something I had done. My usual response would be “That’s a shame but I still love you and will still always want to to be by your side” But there were no concessions from her at times such as these.

Eventually we forgot about our little phrase and went back to the normal “I love you mama, up to the moon and back” that we had used for years.

And then something happened.

Her grandfather (my father) died and we were all thrown into the chaos of profound grief and bereavement while also attempting the day to day stuff of normal family life. Somehow I was supposed to carry on parenting when I felt like a child myself.
I did try to explain to her that there would times when mummy and daddy got a bit sad over this event and that it was ok if she did too; but this only served to make her feel guilty that she wasn’t as sad as us so I backed off it a bit. I was also worried about the funeral and the carnival of grief that would surround it, but she was surprisingly fine. She admired the flowers, took out her little box of crayons and colouring book, a few My little Ponies and grinned at everyone. She even said “Ooh I like your dress!” to one of my aunties.
For me, it was a day of joyous celebration of everything my father was and in the main I was pretty upbeat and happy to remember him… except for one tiny moment when I wasn’t and I faltered. Quick as a flash a little hand slid into mine and pulled me round to face her. She was smiling so broadly that I couldn’t help but smile back. It totally lifted me and after a second, a little voice rang out “Don’t worry Mama, I’ll always be by your side.”

Ask the Kids #3

boy-1298788_1280So I thought I’d try the questions WAF suggested for National Adoption Week on my five year old son. I felt a little uneasy with the questions, as some could be seen as loaded. It is like asking children with long antennae what other people think; they are bound to have a view. I was just worried he may be searching for what he thought I might like to hear, rather than what he thinks. What I really want for my son is for him learn to check in with himself and to trust himself and his feelings, what ever they may be. I wondered which route these questions would led us down.

What happened next I didn’t expect.

The first question was lost in conversation.

To the second, ‘What is the colour of my eyes?’, he answered ‘Blue. … Mine are brown.’ We looked into each others eyes as if to check, and smiled. ‘Yep.’

The next two questions about what makes me happy and sad, I thought potentially loaded, for the same reasons as already mentioned. So, I breathed in and asked

‘What makes me happy? Or what do you think makes me happy?’

‘Me.’ (We both laughed.) ‘Yup. You certainly do.’

‘What do you think makes me sad.’ Another loaded question, potentially.

‘Martin.’ 

‘… You’re right. … yes….’ He went straight to where it hurt.

At this point my son turned the tables on me and started to ask a host of questions. We never did finish the questions. This was an important pressing subject and we are still discussing it. Days later. It has taken many twists and turns since the other day at the lunch table.

Martin is a childhood, or youthhood friend of mine, who died after a short and aggressive illness. I didn’t make it back to say goodbye in person. He died only a week ago. And I cried. No, I sobbed. In front of my son, after reading a particularly beautiful tribute to him.

Why did he make you cry, mummy? Because he died?’

‘Yes, it makes me sad that Martin died.’

Why did he die?’

‘Because he got very ill.’

‘But didn’t he go to hospital to get better? Couldn’t the doctors fix him?’

‘He did go to hospital. A lot… But the doctors couldn’t fix him. He died of a very rare illness.’

We talked and talked and talked. He asked and asked and asked. About death, about all of Martin’s family and how they might feel now that he is no longer there. He was particularly sad to learn that his mum and dad were still alive. ‘They must feel very sad that Martin died.’ ‘Yes darling. I am sure they miss him very much.’

He asked what sort of a person Martin was. There a literally hundreds of wonderful stories about him I could pick from, so that part was easy. He was a silly and very very funny person, so it did good remembering. It also did good also to tell my son about some things from my youth.

And then…

We talked some more about death. About us parents. Especially daddy. And when he might die. And my son told me we are all going to die. But not for a long long time. That we would go to the sun to get energy and come back to earth to give it to the doctors so they can give it to their old patients. ‘The morning that daddy turns 100 he is going to hospital so they can fix him.’

We sometimes talk about death. I know he knows loss. And so talking about death and other difficult things is a part of our lives. It is more a matter of how than if.

When I cried, I could have answered ‘Oh, sweetheart, it’s nothing. Mummy just got something in her eye…’ But we would both know that wasn’t true. In effect I would have been lying. Straight to his face. Over time I might even teach him to lie to himself, and negate his feelings.

If there is one thing I wish for my son it is for him to be true to his own self. And that he can hear and express his inner voice as freely and respectfully as possible.

He reminds me daily that it is possible, necessary even, to speak of difficult subjects. Such as death and loss. Two very intertwined issues.

In his little body he knows what loss is. There is no shielding him from it. It has happened. More than once. Losing everything he knew overnight. Not talking about loss and death is like pretending it didn’t happen to him. It’s like not discussing the fact that he is not our flesh and blood, even if he is our son. Discussion on the other hand feels like acknowledgning that life is complicated. And for him more than most. It is certainly not all children that you can have these discussions with.

We are often told to shield our children from bad news and feelings. Our society are so quick with the fixes. ‘Have you tried …? It works a treat.’ Anything from insomnia to broken cups or relationships. Sometimes it sits better with me just to let the bad and uncomfortable feeling be. Not to quash it in fixing. Acknowledge it. Squarely. Show that we can contain it. Especially as parents. Modelling what we do with those feelings. Because none of us are shielded, and the kids watch our every step anyway.

My son has recently been voicing a lot of things about his own history. For the first time he has initiated talks about this birth mum, and to me more significantly, used her name. He has long remained silent or refused to speak of his background. Well that has all changed over the past month or so.

Very sweetly when I mentioned to him that a friend of his was adopted too, he asked if she too had lived with his own fostermum? He was very excited about this prospect of sharing history. Clearly, she is the place all adopted kids go to before they land with their adoptive families.

So the discussion around Martin, and death and loss are continuning. Several times every day. Now they have morphed in to musings and pondering about being adopted. I feel for the first time that my son is verbalising something very deep and painful in him. Like a prism he is looking, thinking, wondering, pondering and feeling around it.

Asking so directly what made me, his mum, sad, somehow opened lines of communication about what makes him sad. I feel he knows from the strength of my own feelings that I would understand his strength of feeling, or at the very least contain difficult issues and feelings, such as grief which of course is at the very heart of this.

Flowers

photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

I previously wrote a blog about the break down of the long term foster placement and guardianship of our sons older sister, I ended by saying that we hoped that the the new placement the sister had been moved to was a good one and would offer her the security she so deserves.

Thankfully that appears to be so, it does seem like a good placement and the new foster carers are committed and seem to be giving her the family life she needs and indeed some of the security that has been lacking in her life recently.

Most importantly she just seems happy.

She is a sweet child who has spent much of her life caring for others and as a result is thoughtful and selfless. She has had it tough all her life and being 4 years older than our oldest was more aware of the neglect and the consequences of that while in the birth family. At the age of 5/6 she was attempting to ‘mother’ our boys, stepping in where birth mum was failing.

What we have now discovered is that the almost 5 years she spent with the previous foster carers were not as positive as we had thought and in fact we have really had to reevaluate our reaction to the break down of that placement.

We were aware that the carers were very strict and lacked pastoral parenting skills, but it seems that the situation for the sister was anything but ideal, we have been told that she was made to do most of the housework and ironing as well as various other chores, apparently time was dedicated for this before and after school everyday and most of Saturday and if this is true it strikes us as being quite inappropriate.

Again we question where social services were throughout this, but now she has moved from that placement and seems happy I feel we should all be looking to the future.

So things are good – or certainly looking so. However we are concerned about the effect the break down of the placement has had on the sister. Yet again she has had parents who have failed here, yet again the family she thought was for life has proven not to be so, yet again she has been thrown into the unknown.

She is aware that – all going well – the new placement will only be until she is 18 as the new carers are not offering guardianship and as yet we do not see any suggestion that they will remain ‘family’ beyond that.

We have been really concerned for her and when we finally met for contact – after a year of not being able to – we asked how she was doing and if she felt settled and happy, she was her usual cheery self and said that she was pleased to be where she was and that life was OK, we asked if there was anything that bothers her or that she had concerns about and her response shocked and saddened us as she opened up and expressed her concerns for being alone after she turns 18.

We assured her that her fears were unfounded and that she was loved by all of us and that we would always be there for her as she was our family. We hope that we offered some kind of reassurance, but somehow we are not convinced as it was evident just how alone she felt.

Her exact words will always stay with us:
‘I don’t mind never being adopted I know it’s difficult for somebody to take a child of my age and that’s OK, the only thing that really bothers me is when I think of the future and not being in a family it upsets me to think that if I was to die there would be nobody to bring flowers to my grave.

She is 12.

You Won’t Ever Leave Me Will You?

20130511_114156As much as we know that the right thing is to insist that the boys stay in their own beds, we find nothing more lovely than a warm body crawling in between us as we wake in the morning. If either of them do wander into our bedroom in the middle of the night we take them back to bed immediately, but on the occasional morning that it happens we are more relaxed and are delighted to share in the huge comfort that it clearly brings to us all.
It’s a special time full of tight hugs, morning breath kisses and whispered conversation. There is an intimacy in these moments that is difficult to achieve as you rush about your day to day lives and it feels special and rewarding. It’s a time for reassuring them of your love, for forgiving the mis behaviour of the previous day or for preparing them for the day ahead, but most of all, for us it’s a time to relish the sheer wonder of being a parent.
It is one of those mornings and our youngest is snuggled between us with his arms around my partner, I’m listening to the whispers and as usual there is a smile on my face at the sweet things he is saying and the pure innocence of his conversation.
Then I hear ‘you will never leave me will you? Promise me that you and Daddy will never give us away?’
The heartbreak of these words – that could surely only come from an adopted child – touches my heart and erases my smile in an instant. We know he struggles with his past, we know he is confused and angry at the changes he has endured so far in his short life, but we really thought that he was now – after more than two years with us – sure of our love, sure of our role in his life – and we assumed – sure that he was totally secure in his forever family.
Clearly that it not the case and it’s a painful realisation.
We feel confident that we couldn’t give any more love than we do, that we couldn’t repeat more frequently how important they are to us, how we are the best family in the world and indeed that this family is forever. It feels that barely a day goes by when one of us isn’t reassuring them in every way possible.
We know they are happy, we know they have attached, we know they feel like we are a family. Yet regardless of all that we also know that our son’s lives to date have taught them that nothing is for sure and that families are not permanent.
They have lived through being removed from their birth family and then after almost three years from their foster family. Their various siblings and half siblings are scattered and are living in a number of different families, some permanent and sadly some not. In addition our life is full of other adoptive families, all of whom – of course – have children no longer with their birth parents.
How to un-teach what life has taught them? In fact, is it even possible?
What more could we do to convince them? To really make them understand that this is a forever family and that we will always be their parents.
Can our love and verbal assurance truly impact on their inner feelings and fears and can we override all that they have learnt and what has been the reality of their lives to date?
We have had our doubts and after our son’s early morning plea we are less sure than ever.
All we can do is to continue to do as we have been doing and just hope that little by little we chip away at those doubts that they are clearly harbouring.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: 2014

Image 52014 has been tough.

2014 was the year we lost three houses we tried to buy – including a ‘dream home’. It was the year we had to put our home life on hold after making an offer in January – not to complete a purchase until the end of November.

2014 was the year stamp duty changed and we completed on our new home just before the new rate. It was the year we paid £10,000 more because we missed the change by a week and a half.

2014 was the year the banks changed their lending criteria making it almost impossible for me to run my company through absolutely no fault of my own. It is the year when I have been forced to reconsider my future.

2014 was the year our son’s older sister’s placement broke down and we had to turn down taking on a third child as we felt it could destabilise the boys and threaten the family we feel we are still building. It was the year we had to make a decision that we know our sons could resent us for in the future.

2014 was the year that our cat died, it was the year that we lost our beloved pet of almost 14 years.

2014 was the year my brother went into hospital and stayed for over 8 months. It was the year he was diagnosed with a very rare blood disorder – complicated by an even rarer secondary disorder – and had treatment that 1 in 5 simply don’t survive.

2014 was the year that mid way through his treatment my brother picked up an extremely rare infection that attacked his spine and resulted in total paralyses from the waist down. it was the year that we thought he would never walk again.

2014 was the year our sister died, it was the year the cancer really took hold and we had to watch it eating away at her until her untimely end.

2014 was the year I had to collect my paralysed brother from his hospital bed and drive him over 2 hrs to say goodbye to our dying sister who he had been unable to see for months. It was also the year when it was impossible to have my brother with me at our sisters funeral.

2014 was the year my widowed father lost his daughter and almost lost his son. It took the wind out of his sails, and has taken away a big chunk of the reason he has to get up in the morning and has left him a broken man. It was the year he has became more reliant on me.

Putting it bluntly – 2014 has been the worse year of my life.

However – 2014 started 1 year and 3 months into us being a family.

2014 had –

365 days that started and ended with kisses and cuddles from our 2 amazing sons.

365 days when our sons have given us the need and indeed the reason to smile.

365 days when we had to put them first regardless.

365 days when we had to put on a brave face and to protect them from the difficulties and the sadness around them.

365 days of our sons giving us perspective.

365 days of our sons making it ‘all alright’.

365 days of us loving the wonder of being parents.

365 days of love – So very much love.

Maybe 2014 wasn’t so bad after all.

However –

Here’s to 2015.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Grandad’s garden.

Image 10I used to adore Christmas. Then last year, a week before the festivities kicked in proper, my Dad died. His funeral was on the 23rd of December. I gave the eulogy; I have no idea how I managed it. So, then and now, Christmas is a tough time.

Recently, I drove down to the coast with our daughter to visit his grave. I told her we were going to visit Grandad; my Mum came up with the phrase Grandad’s Garden as a better way to explain the trip.

En route, we all went to the shops to pick up a Xmas wreath and some white roses to take to his grave. In the shop, the daughter spotted some marshmallow biscuits shaped like a snowman; she wouldn’t leave the shop until we had put them in our basket.

When we arrived at the graveside, she took five white roses and planted them in Grandad’s Garden. As we stood there, my Mum and I lost in private memories, while it seemed the daughter got bored. Eventually she shouted, demanding “I want to go back to the car, Daddy” and no amount of gentle (or otherwise) persuasion would placate her. I was annoyed but also sad that my daughter had no real understanding of what it meant to us to be there. We got to the car and as I opened the door, she said, “Get the snowman biscuits, Daddy”. I told her she would have to wait until we got home to have one.

She looked at me and said “But Daddy, get them. I want to leave one for Grandad to have with his Christmas cup of tea.”

I’m finding it easier to begin adoring Christmas again.