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.

Four Years.

Four years ago today you arrived in our home twinkly and tiny and so brave under the circumstances…
Or did we misread that?
In retrospect you must have been flooded with fear. Your little body stuck in a massive terrifying moment that went on and on. And because we didn’t know you, we assumed arrogantly that your smile was a symptom of calm and acceptance. A sign that we were in fact good parents already who had a good grasp of your needs.
I’m so sorry my darling for our naivety.
I’m so sorry I hadn’t a clue about the trauma you must have suffered.
I wish I could go back and cuddle that baby girl with the insight I have now. But I can’t.
So here we are four years on.
Four years of waking up to your chuckle.
Four years of wiping way your tears
Four years of being called mummy.
Four years of loving you so much it hurts that I’m not perfect at it.
Four big years.
I can remember trying to look forward in time to the little girl you would become but it seemed impossible, scary even. Like the 5 year old you would be a whole new little person I would have to meet and get to know all over again. What if you were harder to win over than the baby in front of me? Who in fact were you going to be?
And yet here we are 4 years on. You are simply you. A bigger, brighter more articulate version of that baby we brought home. It’s miraculous how children grow and develop so quickly and there is so much more of of it to do. So much more to look forward to.
Thank you for our four years.

Best years of my life so far.

Easily.

Here’s to many many more my beautiful daughter.

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.

A letter to the makers of Inside Out

20160929_235344Dear makers of Inside Out,
I just wanted to write and thank you for what I consider to be one of the best films ever made.

To explain, I have found being an adoptive Mum, at times, an extremely difficult and highly charged emotional experience. It is made more difficult by the fact that much of what I am feeling is very difficult to properly break down and understand. For me, your film articulated a lot of these feelings in such simple terms. I found myself in tears from early in the film when the yellow balls (representing happy memories) as core memories for the central character ‘Riley’ throughout her early childhood lead to her being able to build a really strong and positive sense of self-identity. In contrast my girls, without doubt, have early core memories which are blue (representing sadness) and so have had to build their early sense of self upon experiences which are sad and/or frightening. And just like Joy later in the film I can’t change that early sadness for them, I can’t remove it, it is something which is a part of them and which I have to help them to weave positively into their identity.

For one of my girls in particular who is regularly ‘driven’ by Anger, the film has helped her to start understanding that there are in fact a number of different feelings, that she can name them and that we all have them. She seemed genuinely surprised to hear that I have ‘Fear’ in my head and that I get worried about things. I asked her if she ever worries about anything and she said yes, that she worries about her sister going away. My daughter is 3. We have always thought that she was very anxious about transitions having moved carers 3 times by the time she was 18 months old but it had never occurred to us that she thought that her sister, the one constant, could maybe leave as well.

The film also gave us an easy segue into discussing birth Mum and Dad because at the very beginning of the film Riley is born and first sees her parents looking down happily at her. Happily for us we do know that this happened for our girls and were able to say this – so much nicer to have a visual depiction of it than just trying to explain verbally ‘your birth Mum and Dad loved you very much when you were born’.

And happily for me your film provided me personally with one of the best moments of my life. I was talking with the girls about which one of the little ‘people’ they thought was most like each of them and finally which one was most like me. I asked because I feel like I spend much of my time telling them off, being grumpy and tired so from that aspect I fully expected them to choose ‘anger’, or alternatively because I wear glasses and have a bob I thought they may plump for ‘sadness’. They shocked me by choosing Joy.

With love,
A grateful, re-motivated parent