Chapter Excerpt

Hidden Losses

Row upon row of tombstones lined the lush lawns as I drove through the tall black iron gates toward my adoptive parents' graves. An elderly man filled a plastic pitcher at a spigot and the smell of freshly mowed grass filled the air. A new grave was being dug across the way, a vivid reminder that loss is an undeniable part of life.

On the seat beside me were two long-stemmed roses, symbolic of my late-blooming gratitude to my parents, who had weathered the growing-up years with me. I was returning to their graves as an adult who had finally come to grips with the fact that adoption had, and continues to have, a profound impact on my life. This was to be my day of reckoning, forgiveness, and closure.

As I exited the car and headed toward my parents' graves a tidal wave of grief washed over me, and I felt like an orphan once more. How I hate that feeling! I was gripped by the cold, hard fact that the people who loved me most were buried below.

I tiptoed over the mounded grass to their rose-colored headstone. RETHA G. AND MIKE J. COOK, the etched letters read. As I ran my fingers over the smooth granite stone, I whispered, "I hope you knew how much I loved you. Thank you for loving me when I was so unlovable."

Without a doubt, my parents did their best to be the kind of parents I needed. And I wanted nothing more than to be the kind of daughter they could be proud of. However, our hearts rarely, if ever, connected. Instead, we were like ships passing in the night.

Outwardly, we appeared to be a close family. We took vacations and played golf together. I remember my parents proudly watching the events of my life unfold. I was a model child: captain of the cheerleading team, first-chair clarinet, homecoming representative for my class. But behind the scenes I was starving myself, being sexually promiscuous, and stealing. My parents didn't have a clue. I never thought about the discrepancy between the good girl/bad girl aspects of my life or considered sharing my struggles with my parents. I was driven by a force I wasn't even aware of.

What was the problem? Was it my parents? Were they second rate? No! Was it me? Was I damaged goods because I was adopted? No! A million times, no. The problem, or enemy, was ignorance--ignorance about unresolved adoption loss and the need to grieve.

The "L" Word

As with most everything in life, adoption has positive and negative elements. None of us wants to acknowledge the negative, painful side--that is, loss. But the truth is, the very act of adoption is built upon loss. For the birth parents, the loss of their biological offspring, the relationship that could have been, a very part of themselves. For the adoptive parents, the loss of giving birth to a biological child, the child whose face will never mirror theirs. And for the adopted child, the loss of the birth parents, the earliest experience of belonging and acceptance. To deny adoption loss is to deny the emotional reality of everyone involved.

An adoptee's wounds are hardly ever talked about. They are the proverbial pink elephant in the living room. Dr. David M. Brodzinsky and Dr. Marshall D. Schechter, a psychologist and psychiatrist specializing in adoption, say in their insightful book Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, that loss for the adoptee is "unlike other losses we have come to expect in a lifetime, such as death and divorce. Adoption is more pervasive, less socially recognized, and more profound."

Grief is the natural response to loss, and those touched by adoption must be given permission to revisit emotionally the place of loss, feel the pain, scream the anger, cry the tears, and then allow themselves to be loved by others. If left unresolved, this grief can and often does sabotage the strongest of families and the deepest potential within the adopted child. It can undermine the most sincere parental commitment and force adoptees to suffer in private, choosing either rebellion or conformity as a mode of relating.

Since adoption loss is somewhat difficult to understand, I will use the gardening technique of grafting to illustrate not only adoption loss but a variety of adoption dynamics.

A Lesson from Nature

A grafted tree. Magnificent to behold. One of a kind. Contrary to nature. Luxurious leaves and intricate roots. Loaded with horticultural challenges for a gardener, but ultimately yielding a tree with unparalleled beauty.

The adopted child. Magnificent to behold. One of a kind. Biological features often contrary to yours. Intricate roots that need to be healed. Loaded with behavioral challenges for parents, but ultimately yielding a life of unparalleled beauty.

How do you react to the above? Some might be saying "Yes! A thousand times, yes! This describes our child. She is one of a kind and we are so glad she is ours." Others may be saying "You'd better believe our adopted child presents us with challenges! He can peel wallpaper off a wall at the speed of a shining bullet, make holes in the drywall of his room, be verbally and physically rebellious, tear up anything in his room, and then collapse in a pool of tears."

Wherever you are in the spectrum of possible reactions, believe me, you are not alone! As the editor of a national adoption newsletter, Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News, I receive many letters from adoptive parents who are searching for answers. How can I most effectively parent my adopted child? What are some of the obstacles I may encounter? Why is my child acting out? Am I doing something wrong? I also receive many letters from adults who were adopted as children, searching for help in dealing with their long-buried past.

Also, on a personal level, I can understand your questions and concerns. When I was adopted fifty-three years ago at ten days of age, my parents' desire for me was just the same as every other adoptive parent today: they longed to see me thrive and live up to my fullest potential. They also longed for that parent-child intimacy that lays the foundation for all other healthy relationships in life. If only we had known years ago what I have learned in the past several years about adoption and loss.

Back in the 1940s when I was adopted, adoptive parents were counseled by well-meaning professionals not to talk about adoption or the circumstances surrounding their child's birth or his birth family. After all, "Babies don't remember," they said. "Don't talk about the differences in personality or appearance; capitalize on the likenesses!" Birth mothers were given the same message: "Go on with your life. Put this behind you and all will be well."

Frankly, it is this kind of counsel, sometimes given even today, that makes my blood curdle, for it is the seedbed of denial and has proven wrong for many thousands of adoptees and their families who were never given permission to face and grieve their hidden losses. Child welfare supervisor and open adoption practitioner James Gritter explains in his hope-filled book, The Spirit of Open Adoption, "We must be careful not to sanitize, sentimentalize, or even glamorize the pain of adoption; it really is miserable stuff, and it is intensely personal. It is interior. The pain of adoption is not something that happens to a person; it is the person. Because the pain is so primal, it is virtually impossible to describe."

Not every adopted person experiences his loss in the same way or at the same level, of course, just as not every abused child responds the same way to his wounds. One adopted adult in his early thirties told me, "After my wife and I had our first child, my adoptive parents gave me the little bit of information they had about my birth family and told me they would support me if I wanted to explore my history or search for birth relatives. I'm not sure why they even think I'd be interested; I'm not. I've always felt okay about being adopted, and my parents are my parents. I don't feel any big need to know any more than I do about my past, and I'm not aware of any adoption issues I need to deal with."

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpted from Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew by Sherrie Eldridge
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