On Adoption Grief and Mourning

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Last night I finished reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It took me only a few evenings to read it and at one point early in the book I recognized some of its lines. I had read these lines already. Really, what I remembered was a similar image, if you will, the lines created in my mind, as though I had been there before. I had been there when she had that particular conversation with her late husband and I had noticed his pile of books on the table beside his chair—the chair he would later fall out of in his sudden death. I thought to myself that this was odd. I’ve had the book for several years now. It has been one of dozens sitting (stacked) on my “to read” bookshelf (shelves). I don’t remember starting it before this time, but at that moment, in that space between Didion’s prose, I knew I had.

Then I remembered why I had stopped reading it.

I stopped reading it because I couldn’t handle Didion’s grief. I couldn’t walk her mourning process with her. I couldn’t do any of it because I was smack in the middle of the grieving and eventual mourning process myself.

Did you know there is a difference between grief and mourning? I guess I knew that. But who considers these things until they are experiencing them? And then how do you know to call it grief or mourning when what triggered the grief and mourning wasn’t from a death at all. It was from birth.

Not birth in the literal sense, but birth in the adoption sense.

I know this. I know that adoption involves loss and grief. Funny, I never read it in any of my adoption material before we brought the kids home. I must have been reading the wrong adoption books. I do remember reading it for the first time after the kids were home when I couldn’t escape the constant feeling that I was drowning and so I ordered more books and kept researching how to stop drowning. That is when I discovered this notion that adoption involves loss.

Of course it does—adoption exists because of loss. That wasn’t the part that was new or comforting to me. It was the next page that named the losses for the adoptive family: loss of the original family unit, loss of old routines, familiarities, comforting and peaceful home life…also, feeling the loss for the adopted child, and if adopting older children (here is where I leaned in) there are often multiple other losses depending on the traumatic pasts and special needs of the child(ren) adopted.

Oh, I could have written that page myself. Except I couldn’t have, because up until that moment I had thought all my grief was wrong, misplaced, unnatural. How can one experience grief over an event that was planned, facilitated, celebrated and mooned over? How does one experience grief in birth?

While reading Didion’s account of the year after her husband’s death, I kept wanting to overlay my own past years to see that our lines did indeed curve in the same directions. They were so similar. For example: some months after her husband died and while her daughter lay in a coma at UCLA, Didion says she remembers noticing a common trait amongst the very successful. They all absolutely believed in the power of their management skills. She equates this to their belief in their ability to control their own lives. It was a trait she valued deeply herself.

I believed in my ability to control my own life.

When my children came home, their behavior was unpredictable. They would seek attention from strangers. They tried hiding the food they didn’t want to eat. They lied. They lashed out at others who made them angry. They lashed out at me. They went through this phase for months (most of their first year home) where they rushed my husband every time he walked through the door, screaming and jumping on him while yelling, “Daddy! Daddy home! Me love Daddy!! No love Mommy! Hee, hee, hee!!”

Back when we lived in D.C., (some years before adoption) my husband started calling me, ‘The Warden.’ It was a title he’d picked up from a radio talk show he listened to on his way to work. The joke was an affectionate one. It was his way of poking fun of my no-nonsense approach to raising our children and general way of managing our home and though he made fun of me I knew he truly admired my home-making skills. It was a funny little title until our children from Ethiopia came home. Then it just became the Truth.

Control was my way of fighting for breath. Staying just enough above the water to poke my nose up for air. What was really trying to happen was grief. But because I hadn’t lost anything—or so I thought—I didn’t allow myself the process. Instead I barely let anyone use the bathroom without my permission.

All while I was being constantly congratulated and told what a fine family we were for adopting these two needy children.

There is also this in Didion’s account: her moving from grief to mourning. Here again, I didn’t know the difference nor that I was making the turn from one to the other. But just like knowing I had an experienced a major loss without actually knowing it, I also knew when I was making this transition, too.

Didion explains the difference between grief and mourning as this: Grief is passive. It happens. Mourning is the act of dealing with grief. It requires attention.

I think I grieved much longer than maybe I needed to—but who is to say what is a long enough time to grieve? Especially when the one who is grieving is not even aware she is in a situation worthy of grief! What I do realize now, looking back, is that without realizing it, I was helping the rest of my family work through their grief and mourning while unknowingly denying my own. I spent time individually with each of my boys on a weekly basis, offering them a safe place to share their fears, frustrations, and own grief. I did all the bonding and attaching things for my adopted children so they could grieve properly and form healthy bonds with us.

All the while I could never understand why I was always so dag-gone short of breath!

And now looking back, I see that my turn toward writing (in more than just my journal) was a way for me to turn toward—give attention to—mourning; moving past grief, a looking up and moving forward.

Didion’s telling about her mourning ends before her mourning does. One more way our lines curve together. But if you think, after reading all this that I am a sad person, or that I think we shouldn’t have adopted–that I think it was some big mistake—you would be wrong.

What I do think is that the writer of a recent Washington Post article who said adoptive families need lots of support, was right. I think he was also right when he said—with exceptions, of course—that having an adopted child can be similar to having a child with special needs (and often it is not ‘similar’ but a reality), and should be treated as such. I think he was right when he said adoption’s not right for everyone, although I’m not sure, had I known all I would experience post-adoption, I would have considered myself as one in the “right for” category.

By grace alone I stand.

And you know what else? I sure am thankful for people like Joan Didion who are willing to write about loss in a genuine way, so I can know that in my own way of magical thinking, I am not alone.

Copyright 2015 by Shari Dragovich

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