Where Grief and Joy Meet in Adoption

For weeks we’d been listening to Bing Crosby croon his dreams of a white Christmas, so when we woke to a snow covered landscape Christmas Eve morning it was the stuff of dreams; some real Christmas magic. With the backdrop of snow flocked evergreens and the promise of a roaring fire at home, I helped to dress our three excited boys and set off for the local sledding hill. There our youngest experienced sledding for the first time, bundled in snow clothes and wrapped in a scarf, protected on both sides by his older brothers. Here was this child, our son, wrapped in a dozen layers speeding through snow with wild abandon, the most gorgeous smile stretched across his face. This child who without adoption would be spending this Christmas differently in a sunny, lush Florida town. In my joy watching his exhilaration, there’s also familiar grief. The life he has, the life left behind. And always, the wish his first mom was here to see him now.

Adoption can be like that. Joy will tip the scale and then a sudden and overwhelming grief surprises you and comes to rest quietly alongside. There’s a day in November where joy and grief meet at an intersection on our calendar every year. Some people call this “gotcha day”, “forever day”; it’s when families built by adoption remember the day they first became each other’s, officially, forever. Sometimes to celebrate there are gifts, balloons, a cake. Not unlike a birthday they’re celebrating a birth, the birth of family. 

As a mom to a beautiful boy who came to us through adoption I recognize the joy and the gratitude. I also know the deep pain, the grief, the irreconcilable loss. For the child for whom forever means forever saying goodbye to a culture and language, or the child for whom forever means bidding farewell forever to visitations and the possibility of a happy reunion, for the infant child like ours for whom forever means a new name and new landscape, for the first mama for whom forever means a lifetime without and relinquishing precious firsts into the hands of another.

So in November when we remember the date our son’s adoption was made final, I struggle with this. There was a joy that sealed him to us and a searing loss that separated him from his first mother. How do I say, I’m so glad you’re ours and equally I’m so sorry you’re not completely hers. I’m thankful to be the one to whom you lift your arms and cry “mama”, and I’m sorry the maternal ties that grew so full and rich with your first mama were severed. I’m thankful my arms carried you from the hospital room, and I’m deeply sorry she walked down the long sterile corridor with empty arms. There aren’t balloons or Pinterest boards that help me say that. So maybe instead I allow space for the grief and for the sadness. I hold my son’s tiny hand and fragile heart, and we walk through the muddy waters together. We allow space for joy and family and grief and loss to coexist. We make room for story, for what was lost, for what won’t be and for what forever is.

We celebrate forever family every day; affirming that he belongs, we belong to each other. The words we use to color our son’s world are you are loved, you are chosen, you belong, you are ours, we are each other’s, our family is forever. And for the murky, tangled places we carve out room that says I see your loss, I know this day of our great joy was filled to the brim with your great loss. It’s ok to eat confetti cake and to cry sad, pained tears under the joyful banner of forever. You still belong, you still are ours, we still belong together.

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