by Erin Brouchard
One of the hardest parts of being a young adoptive parent was the misinformation I received about how long or how much my kids would experience loss and grief. My kids were almost 1 and 4 when they joined our family, ahead of adoption.
Many times, I was told something like, “well your daughter is so young, she won’t remember what happened” or “she’ll get over it faster.” One social worker told us it would take about two years of living with us for every year our son had lived with his biological family before he would be “over the trauma and behaviors.”
The challenge with grief and loss is that it doesn’t always follow a linear path. There is no one size fits all timeline for how to “get over” losing your entire family and identity.
At each new stage of development, at each new milestone we share with our kids, we are reminded of what they have missed out on.
My son has reached the age where he’s starting to show interest in girls and asking questions. Questions like, how to let a girl know that he likes her and what to talk to girls about.
This is a new stage for both of us and it’s brought up a lot of feelings because he’s having these conversations with me instead of his first mom. Because he’s thinking about how he’s going to tell someone one day that he’s adopted. Because he’s wondering whether he’ll invite his first mom to his wedding or not. And if she comes, will she be in the family pictures?
And suddenly, this first crush, this first thought of having a girlfriend is hijacked by his loss.
Here’s the thing: if I assumed that he was “over” the loss, because it’s been nine years since he joined our family, I could and likely would have missed the sadness. I could have missed the opportunity to have this beautiful conversation about why this sadness was hitting him at a time when he was also feeling excited. I would have missed another opportunity to drive home the “and” of adoption.
Listen, for all you parents in the trenches right now, I’m not saying our children will never heal or that their behaviors will stay as intense as they are right now. The brain is capable of re-wiring and forming new connections. They can move forward in their grief, but the loss will still be there.
Here are a few things that helped our family move forward in our healing journey.
- Accepting that loss will always play a role in their lives.
Our kids have experienced loss and are acutely aware that their lives look different from that of their peers, siblings or cousins. They miss their first families and have this sense of loss and of not belonging that may never be lessened. They have this sense of loss and of not belonging that may never be lessened. That’s a lifelong feeling. We must throw out our expectations that they will “get over it” within a certain timeframe.
- Talking openly about that loss and sadness, normalizing how they are feeling.
My son was feeling sadness. He was thinking those thoughts. By being aware and inviting him to share his feelings with me, I got to be part of the conversation. I could normalize how he was feeling, listen and validate his feelings and offer some reassurance. Had he not felt comfortable with letting me in, he still would have felt sad, but may likely have retreated and struggled on his own. This could have further sent the message that he isn’t loved or accepted, which adopted kids so often feel.
- Teaching coping mechanisms so that they can feel sadness without resorting to anger.
When my kids were little, a lot of their sadness came out as anger, meltdowns or explosive behaviors. As they’ve gotten older and we’ve normalized feeling sad, they’ve learned better coping mechanisms. For both of our children, talking helps. They can also choose to take a bath, go for a walk, cry, snuggle up with someone, listen to music or draw to help them acknowledge their sadness. The important thing is, they get to choose how to respond to the sadness. It’s been important that we validate the feeling, while empowering them to choose their own reaction to that feeling.
Healing is a process that involves acknowledging that they do have a lot to be sad about and we don’t have all the answers to the sadness. Adoption is all about loss, even when it’s not about loss. For our kids to grow into adults who have overcome their trauma, instead of adults who are overcome by their trauma, we must be co-pilots with them on their healing journey. As co-pilots we help them navigate each new stage, validate what they are feeling and give them the tools to process their loss and cope with their sadness.
Erin Bouchard is a foster, adoptive and biological mama. She resides in Ontario, Canada, where she enjoys hanging out with her mama, being outside and drinking copious amounts of coffee. She’s been involved in the foster care system for 15 years. She and her husband are licensed, therapeutic foster parents. You can find her on Instagram as @traumainformedparenting or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/traumainformedparenting.