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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10 Missed Calls

Like many today I am somewhat attached to my smart phone and I have it within reach pretty much constantly. However I was recently away on holiday and just decided that I wanted a day without it so left it behind on a trip to the beach. I didn’t miss it at all and in fact I barely gave it a thought throughout the day.

Arriving back at the accommodation it wasn’t sitting out anywhere obvious and I was still happy to be without it, some time later we were leaving to meet friends for dinner so I searched out my phone. I discovered that my brother had called, in fact I could see that he had called 10 times throughout the day as my phone was displaying 10 missed calls. There was also an SMS – ‘Call me bro’. That all seemed a bit keen – in fact it seemed a bit desperate.

Our 79 year old father had recently spent 3 1/2 months in hospital, finally recovered and well he had been moved into a care home just three weeks earlier – so of course I assumed this was about him:

– Had he had another fall and broken another bone or two?
– Had he caught yet another nasty, dangerous infection?
– Had he organised a alcohol fuelled party against the home rules?
– Had he insulted a resident or carer in the home and was getting his marching orders?
– Had he done a runner in his wheelchair?

These and other thoughts ran through my mind as I made the call to my brother. He answered and after asking how the holiday was going, he said ‘Sorry bro, there is no easy way to say this – Dad has died’.

It was a total shock, I had left my father less than a week earlier and although very unhappy to be in the home, he was physically well.

We had already set off for the restaurant and I was walking a little ahead of my family and friends, how to handle this information – most significantly for our two adopted sons – suddenly became the most relevant issue at hand and from necessity it had to take priority over my own emotions. Our sons have suffered so much loss in their short lives and it has clearly impacted our youngest quite severely and I had no idea how this further loss would affect him or his brother and of course being on holiday added an additional dimension and difficulty to breaking such shocking news.

Telling children of the loss of anybody close to them is difficult, however with the extra level of loss an adopted child has experienced it possibly makes it even more of a concern. Our sons knew that their grandfather had been very poorly in hospital, but they also knew that he had recovered and was well and they had visited him a few times over the past few weeks.

As I finished the conversation with my brother I was already aware that I needed to contain myself and to not give any indication of how I was feeling as I knew immediately that I would need to prepare the boys for the news over a period of time. Also, as we were leaving the next day we would soon be home, which I figured would be a much more secure environment for then to deal with the information.

So I said nothing, which of course made for a rather difficult meal and end to the day for me. However, I actually started to realise that I was also allowing myself to process the loss and deal with the shock privately, which I appreciated. I shared the news with my partner and friends after the boys were tucked up in bed and then the following morning I simply said to the boys that I had spoken with their uncle who had said that Granddad had become quite ill again and that we were quite worried, then again the following day when we were back home I brought it up and said that Granddad had sadly got even worse and as he was an old man we were very concerned that he was so weak. On the third day I said that there was no improvement and that things looked very bad – then that evening we told them that Granddad had sadly died.

They were clearly a little upset, but both of them appeared to take the news well. They had immediately started to ask if he was going to die when I first said that he was unwell again and I had answered that it was possible and having a couple of days to process the possibility I think at least helped remove the shock. We have spoken about Granddad almost everyday since and both boys wanted to come to the funeral, where they were very well behaved and respectful of the occasion, which we feel was evidence of them dealing with their emotions.

I am sure they will be processing the loss for sometime now, but it does however seem that they are coping with it. We of course will not take that for granted and will keep an eye on them and hopefully will be able to recognise any difficulties if they arise.

Meanwhile we will continue to talk about Granddad as still being very much part of our lives and we will share the many happy memories we have, hopefully the loss is then wrapped in warmth and love and positivity. I have learnt for myself that the best way for me to cope with loss is to always think of something happy, wonderful and positive about the loved ones who are no longer with us in a way that warms my heart and with each of those thoughts comes a smile – a genuine smile from deep down – and it’s very hard to be sad when you are smiling. This I am trying to pass on to my sons, for the loss they are suffering now and indeed for the loss they have suffered in the past.

Yearning for secure attachment

I assume that most adopters feel that the most crucial aspect of our relationship with our child/children initially is getting them to attach. I think it’s fair to say that we feel that attachment proves that we are doing a good job, that we are creating real security and that we are ‘getting it right’, in fact that we are unquestionably becoming a ‘complete’ family – and the sooner that it is achieved the better.

It’s only natural that we all yearn for that child/parent bond to be significant as quickly as possible, the bond that we are enviously aware is no doubt automatically there with birth children, yet is one that we have to work hard to achieve as adopters – after all we are competing with the ghosts of birth parents, foster parents and other parental figures that have been in their life prior to us, maybe even a teacher or a grandparent, aunt/uncle or older sibling.

Our children arrive as strangers and although they reassuringly turn to us right from the start we know that it is as their care givers and that it is led by circumstance and need – not emotion. We take what is on offer and as time goes by maybe even start to kid ourselves that it is real even though we know that it is too soon and more than we should be expecting, regardless we know that we have to keep trying, keep doing the best that we can to win our way into their hearts.

And gradually we see change, we see a increasing level of closeness, an intimacy that is new and of course so very rewarding. We feel that all our hard work is paying off and we allow ourselves to assume that all those fears of damaged attachment that the social workers planted in our minds throughout the preparation course and beyond are indeed unfounded – even for those of us who may have children who have been diagnosed with attachment disorder. We feel fortunate to have escaped the issues we were told could so clearly be a part of our life – forever.

Or maybe not! Maybe our child/children are not as settled as we hope for and maybe we are dealing with difficulties, with challenging behaviour, behaviour that we are truly struggling with, maybe there are clear signs that the attachment is questionable, signs that I think many of us chose to disregard or play down in attempts to convince ourselves that they have indeed attached, or at least started to attach.

My partner and I certainly did, we saw clear signs that our sons had attached from quite early on in the placement, or more to the point – we felt it. We felt the love, the bond, we felt the attachment and it seemed so real – and in the case of our oldest son amazingly it seems that it was.

However for our younger son, it is now evident that we really have been fooling ourselves. We certainly knew he had issues, which we always put down to the trauma he suffered. We knew that he was diagnosed with attachment disorder and that he displayed behaviour reflecting this, yet we still believed that there was true attachment. We feel his love, we see his joy when he interacts with us, we see his need for us and the unquestionable security that we bring.

Yet now we know that it is just not enough and that we still have a way to go regardless of the more than 5 years we have been together and we also know – and now accept – that there may never be full secure attachment.

Because of behaviour problems (mostly at school) he recently underwent a phycological assessment in view to undertake ‘theraplay’ and we have been truly shocked by one set of results in particular.

The therapist had asked our son to draw a circle and then a larger circle around this and the same again and again. She then asked him to think of all the relationships he has had and currently has in his life and starting in the centre circle write the names of the people that are most important to him and then work his way out as the relationships feel less important.

Our son wrote just 5 names, 4 in the centre and one in the second circle. These names include the one constant in his life – his brother – as well as his one and only friend and the family dog. Shockingly these 5 names did not include either myself or my partner.

They also did not include birth parents, long term foster parents (of almost 3 years), other siblings (who we are still in contact with regularly), a new aunt who he was especially close to until her death 3 years ago or any other of his new extended family – other than Granddad (my father), who we have not witnessed a particularly close bond to and who sadly has just died – adding to our son’s loss.

The therapist gave us time to digest the information and then said that she realised that it must be difficult to hear, but in fact was not too surprising. She pointed out that he had left off all the people he has got close to who have in some way deserted him – undermining his attachment. She said that our absence was evidence that he was still not able to fully attach to us because of the fear (probably subconscious fear) that we too would ultimately let him down and leave him – as all these people in his life before us have and as indeed Granddad has now done too.

We know the loss he has suffered has severely affected him, but I guess we hoped that we had broken through that and that the close, loving relationship that we have is proof of secure attachment and that we really had reassured him that we are not just here for him now, but that we always will be.

We just hope more than anything in the world that we will eventually get there. The positive is that we are optimistic and even if full secure attachment never happens, we feel confident that he will always know how much we love him and that we will always be here for him, no matter what.

The truth, the whole truth and not always the truth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few months after our sons moved in we went to visit a dear friend who was dying, he had arranged for somebody to buy presents for the boys, he engaged with them and he gave them lots of attention. Even though he was very poorly and in quite a bit of pain he made every effort to smile and welcome them and he clearly left an impression.

Although they saw him only once again they still remember him and talk about him, as far as we know this was the first death the boys had experienced and we did our best to be totally honest and to give them as much understanding that we felt their 5 & 6 years merited.

Of course they had questions, some simple matter of fact queries, others quite deep and difficult to know how to respond to. The most difficult was in response to my saying that death was very natural, that everybody dies and it wasn’t something to be afraid of. To which our 6 year old asked ‘so are you going to die and leave us Daddy?’. They had been with us for just over 6 months at this point and we had been reassuring them almost daily that we were a forever family and that we will always be here for them.

The temptation was of course to say no, which is no doubt what he wanted and maybe even needed to hear, but instinctively I maintained the honest approach we have when confronted with any questions from our sons and said ‘yes of course like everybody else I will die’, but added that hopefully it will be a long time from now when they are both grown up and maybe have families of their own. This appeared to work and seemed to put his mind at rest.

However, the subject of my death did raise its head in little remarks here and there quite a few times over the next couple of months, which made me realise that it was clearly something he was still thinking about and was possibly worrying him.

Eighteens months later the boys experienced another death and this time is was much closer to home when my sister died, she had built a wonderful relationship with the boys and they both thought the world of her and in fact our youngest seemed to have a particularly close bond with his special new Aunty.

Again lots of questions which we answered as honestly as we always have. However 18 months older meant that their questioning had a little more maturity behind it and that they were less willing to simply accept our answers at face value.

My ‘when you are both much older’ was now met with ‘how old Daddy?’ And my response of ‘when you are grown up and both men’ resulted in uncharacteristic on the spot mathematics and them pointing out that I would be nearly 70 when they were 20 and that people died much younger than that, like their Aunty who was only 53.

More attempts at reassurance and I pointed out that both their daddies (we are 2 dads) ate well, that we didn’t smoke, that we drank very little and that we were reasonably healthy which meant that there was nothing to suggest that we would not live until we are in our 80’s and that by then they would probably have children of their own. I also pointed out that their other daddy is almost 8 years younger so would likely be around a lot longer than me.

Again we could see them considering this and then with rather a glum expression we were met with ‘our uncle is older than Aunty and she died first’ A slight pause and then ‘and what if you both die together, who will look after us then?’
At which point we caved in and all our principles disappeared as I replied ‘Don’t be silly, that is never going to happen. I am sure that you will always have both of us and that we will always be able to look after you’.

Not the thruth that I put so much value in of course, but not exactly a lie either. Most importantly though it was clearly the reassurance they both needed as our deaths have not been mentioned since.

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.”

12 Blogs under the Christmas tree #3

20161223_131940If you could put one thing under the Christmas tree this year, what would it be?

 

A hug from my Dad who we lost three years ago, for you, me and our daughter.  That would be joyous.

 

Merry Christmas everyone.

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.