The loss of a long term foster child…the loss of a foster-to-adopt baby that the family had dreams and plans and expectations of adopting…the loss of a potential child when an adoption falls through…coming home from the hospital to an empty crib when a potential birth mom has decided to parent the baby you thought would be yours…there are no Hallmark cards for these occasions.
These losses are profound and like a death, yet there is very little acknowledgement of the loss or opportunity for closure which can make it even more difficult. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to these types of losses as adoption loss with an understanding that it encompasses similar losses such as that of a long-term foster child.
For family and friends of a family experiencing adoption loss, it can be difficult to know what to say or do and can even be difficult to understand the extent of the grieving.
Eleven years ago, we lost our daughter Amera when she was 20 months old. We had had her since she was just three days old and had expected that she would be our daughter forever. We loved her as a daughter, had dreams for her, envisioned our lives and future and family with her in them. Technically, we were missing only one thing for her to be our daughter in the eyes of the law…an adoption order. Technically, she was still our foster daughter the day she left without us getting a chance to say good-bye, never to return. Technically did not matter one bit to my heart.
From that experience and from watching some of those close to us suffer similar losses, I write this in the hopes that it will help future friends, family members, even churches and organizations to come alongside these mourning families and hold them up when they most need it.
In the coming weeks, I will have others sharing their experiences with this and offering suggestions. These are mine.
- Have No Expectations – From day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, they will be dealing with fresh and unexpected emotions. They may be fine in the morning and fall apart in the afternoon because they found a sock from the child they lost in the laundry pile or ran into someone at the supermarket that asked them how their kids were. Even someone asking how many kids they have can trigger an outpouring of anguish. Give them grace. Do not expect that they should get over this in a set amount of time. Do not expect that they should grieve this less than a death. Do not expect that they should be getting “back to normal” or able to function they way they could before. Grace. Love.
- Offer No Judgement – Do not judge the way they are handling the situation, how or when they are choosing to tell their other kids, when it is the appropriate (in your opinion) time for them to get back on the waiting list or to take another placement. Do not offer advice unless asked. Do not judge. Grace. Love.
- Give Practical Help – Note that I did not say to offer practical help. Often people in such an intense state of grieving won’t know how to ask for help or even take it if offered. You could say “I am going to stop by around 11 if you will be home. Would you rather I did a load of laundry or stopped on the way to pick up your groceries?” Obviously, being that direct will depend on the level of the friendship but dropping off muffins or cookies or a few casseroles for their freezer is appropriate even for acquaintances to do. You could also organize a meal schedule with a group of friends to ensure that the family is getting meals at least a few times a week. If they have other children, offer to have them over to play for an afternoon to give the mom a break and time to cry without worrying about her kids being upset by it. Or offer to babysit at night so that the couple can go out on a date. Adoption loss can be very hard on a marriage. Love in action.
- A Listening Ear – When they are ready to talk, be there to listen. Let them know that though you may not understand what they are going through, you do know that they are in pain and you want to be there for them. It’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say. Listen without offering advice or judgement and above all, never say that they put themselves in the situation of potentially being hurt by trying to adopt or signing up to foster in the first place. Just love.
- Help Them Keep Busy – After our daughter left, one of the things that saved my sanity was keeping busy. I had friends who would call me up and invite the kids and I to go to the park or the beach or come over for a playdate. In the beginning when I was just numb, one friend would call me up and tell me what we were going to do that day. She would cheerily say “pack a lunch for your kids and some sunscreen and we’re going to go berry picking” and I would go along. Staying busy helped so much and was also great for my other kids and for the guilt I wrestled with about what they may have otherwise missed out on that summer with their mom such a wreck. Even just inviting them out to a movie (a comedy or action, not drama) or out for tea in the evening gives a few moments of welcome distraction. Love in action.
- Offer to Pray for them – Ask what they would like prayer for. They may find comfort in knowing that there are others praying for the child they lost and praying for their family. Love.
- Acknowledge the Loss – Probably because people don’t know what the correct etiquette in this situation is or because they don’t quite know what to say, often they say nothing. This can hurt the family further as they feel isolated and feel as if their loss has been discounted. Acknowledge the loss the family has experienced. On our daughter’s second birthday, it was heart-wrenching not to be able to celebrate with her or even know if she was ok. Some of our friends came over and had cake with us and we talked about her and acknowledged the day of her birth. It meant so much not to have to get through that day alone or pretend like she didn’t exist. Cry with them. Love.
- Talk about the child – You may think that you are being more sensitive not to talk about the child they lost, but it is actually more painful when people avoid the subject and act as if the loss didn’t happen. Reminisce about memories that you have of the child they lost, give them copies of any pictures you may have, ask them questions about the child (when it seems appropriate to do so). If the loss is of a child they never knew like in the case of the loss of a potential adoption, they had dreams and plans and a love that was real even if they never held that child in their arms. Allow them to talk about those things. They will never stop loving that child. Love them by loving that child also.
- Just be there – Even if you don’t know what to say or don’t know what to do, just be there. Love.