I received an email from a friend the other day, also an adoptive parent. She shared that her daughter was all “filled up” and why this was so, and I smiled, inwardly nodding as I understood the joy in her story. I witnessed a similar “filling up” with my son some weeks ago. My husband was doing some way-long-overdue spring-cleaning. In the process he discovered several VHS tapes hidden way in the back of his armoire. The tapes were labeled with our son’s name.
Fortunately we still have a device that plays VHS (how quickly technology changes…). My husband put the first tape in and there was our boy, six-months-old in Guatemala, with his foster mother, our attorney and us. We of course stopped the spring-cleaning to absorb and reflect on the chubby, happy, healthy infant that is now a happy, healthy, busy, effusive, engaged, and confident young boy (most of the time). We had never seen the video; it was in a package with the other, in the armoire corner, addressed to us from the agency we had worked with. I know; it should have been in the lockbox with the other irreplaceable tapes and documents, but instead it was in a pile of other stuff—important, but not gone through in ages.
Most of the short video was in Spanish, so my husband and I understood little of what was being shared by our son’s foster mom. We called our son in, excited to share it with him. He sat down between us on our bed, and then lay down between us—reaching for each of us, as he snuggled next to me, drawing us closer together. He was mesmerized. We watched again.
During the third viewing I asked him to tell us what was being said (he is fluent in his birth language). He translated as our attorney and his foster mother spoke, wiggling with joy between us. And I loved watching him witness himself as an infant, loved and healthy, obviously well nurtured by his foster mother. His foster mother stroked and kissed him as she spoke. She welled up with tears and her smile was gentle as her eyes were ever-present upon his face. The minutes were beautiful. We watched those minutes together over and over that afternoon, my son temporarily filling up that place deep inside of him where ambiguous loss dwells, receiving affirmation that he was deeply loved and valued long before his adoption was finalized.
Ambiguous loss is what many adoptees experience. It is the kind of loss we parents struggle to help our children cope with. There is no closure in ambiguous loss—often, physical absence but psychological presence—so we strive to help our children learn to accept its ambiguity, and tolerate it. Ambiguous loss matters because it can affect the grieving process, and therefore the psychosocial health of the person. Here are some suggestions of what parents can do to support their child?
- Foster a culture of openness about expressing feelings
- Help your child identify what he or she has lost
- Give your child permission to grieve their losses, and support them when they do so
- Include (and encourage) the birth parents and family in the child’s narrative history
- Be aware of and prepared for possible triggers
- Understand that grief over ambiguous loss often ebbs and flows throughout a person’s lifetime
- Model healthy responses to loss when they happen
Food for Thought: What other ideas do you have on helping the adopted child with ambiguous loss? For example, have you considered creating a loss/grief box or container and putting items, pictures or writing into it that represent those losses? The child can then talk about them and how they feel, and you can validate their emotions.