You don’t understand, but that’s okay: Advice for friends and family of those touched by adoption loss

You don’t understand, but that’s okay. You don’t need to have the answers, and you won’t win a prize by being right. You won’t be listed in the Friend and Family Hall of Shame for not recognizing, diagnosing, and correcting whatever feelings and experiences we are going through.

Your best friend’s mother’s great-aunt’s roommate may have done X or responded to Y or gone through Z, and everything may have been all right. Or have seemed all right or been narrated as being all right to outsiders. You’ve most likely heard a story for a story told by someone on the outside, rather than experienced it first-hand. Most people have a unique response to their situation, and common patterns are only that–patterns. For every common assumption, there is an exception.

“But Jenny’s sister adopted a little girl, and she can’t imagine being without her. It’s a wonderful thing for everyone,” you say. You urge your loved one to agree: Adoption is a beautiful thing.

Maybe you don’t realize that adoption is lifelong rather than the brief few years of infancy and childhood. What will happen eighty years from now, when that little girl is a resident in a nursing home and can’t get the appropriate medical treatment because she has no medical history from her family? What will happen twenty years from now when she wants to start a family of her own but doesn’t have the family history to know she should get tested for inheritable diseases?

“Think how awful it would have been for you to languish in an orphanage, get abused in foster care, starve on the streets, never get an education, and grow up to be a prostitute,” you say, truly believing with all of your heart that you are saying something kind. “Focus on the good,” you want to tell your loved one. “Your life could have been so much worse.”

It could have. So could have yours. Do you wake up every morning grateful not to be a prostitute, dead on the street, or without an education? Or are you thankful for your blessings without stopping to think that you may not deserve these “privileges” any more than your loved one? Gratitude is a wonderful emotion that helps us to overcome envy, unhappiness, and self-centeredness, but it should not be ordered to change behavior. Stop and think, please. When was the last time you gave thanks to your mother for not aborting you? When was the last time you gave thanks to the deity of your choice that you didn’t have to grow up in foster care? When was the last time you told your biological child, “You should be grateful we didn’t send you away for adoption?”

We don’t think this way. We see adoptees as “different,” not deserving. We see adoptees as “less than,” and they are not “us.” Adoptees should be grateful to have an adoptive family because otherwise they would have starved to death. Right?

(Anyone who has tried to adopt can tell you about the astronomical fees and waiting times to process an adoption. If an adoptee had not been adopted to that particular family, they would have gone to another.)

“But I don’t think any of these horrible things,” you say. “I love her!” (or him). “I’m the lucky one to have her in my life. If she hadn’t been adopted, I never could have known her.” 

It’s a logical fallacy to argue from might-have-beens. If she hadn’t been adopted, perhaps she would have been raised by extended family or an adoptive family who lived close to her first family. Maybe she would have been raised by her first family. Or possibly she could have gone to emergency respite care and been returned to her family at a later date. Maybe it would have been great; maybe it would have been awful. Human nature compels us to tell stories to create meaning out of our life’s occurrences. I was meant to meet my wife because I stayed late after the concert even though I don’t usually do that. God meant for me to choose this job because I saw an advertisement on the metro. We create stories for ourselves to make meaning of our lives, which is a normal human tendency. It enriches our lives and brings us closer to one another.

The problem is when we create stories that exclude all other possibilities. As painful as the thought may be, a life could have occurred in which you did not meet each other. The practice of adoption disrupts families and lives.

“None of the other adoptees say things like this,” you protest. “Aren’t you getting melodramatic? Shouldn’t you stop wallowing, grow up, and get over this already?”

What is the appropriate amount of time to grieve the loss of family? Who decides who should receive permission to grieve, and for how long? When has it been “long enough?”

“But I hate seeing you unhappy,” you say. “Can’t we move on? I hate feeling helpless as I watch you in a place I can’t understand.”

I know. Part of loving someone is wanting to make everything better. It’s a good intention and a good impulse. When things can’t “get better” or be resolved, however, it leaves your loved one feeling confused, isolated, and perhaps even ashamed. “Why can’t I be grateful and happy?” he or she might think. Then, instead of sharing with you, the feelings get hidden away.

“I didn’t like my own parents, either. I might not have been adopted, but I didn’t have a perfect childhood. My parents weren’t great to me. I had things happen to me, too. So I know what you’re going through.”

With all due respect, you don’t. And that’s okay. I don’t understand what it’s like to experience any number of things. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me one human being in the company of many human beings. Instead of trying to fix and take over, I sit back and listen.

“What was it like?” I ask. “What would you like to talk about?”

Sometimes, people want to talk about recipes for bacon-wrapped appetizers. Other times, they want to talk about the painful experiences associated with adoption loss.

As a friend, family member, and loved one, all I can do is listen.

“I’m here,” I say. “I care about you, and it’s okay to be who you are.”

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The Right to Remember, for Veronica Brown (May We Be Wrong)

Veronica Rose, child born to Christina Maldonado and Dusten Brown and

shuttled back and forth between families more often than Christmas fruitcake

People say we don’t have the right to care about you

that our tears are

silly

self-indulgent

ignorant

that we are wrong for our emotions and responses

people say to us

“Shame on you!”

not understanding

fourteen or twenty-four or forty-four years later, you will be us

and our shame will be yours

People “know” what adoption means, until they are the ones faced with loss

not the ghost child of their infertile dreams

but the flesh and blood of those who bore them

you will reach for what was lost to you

People say your life will be wonderful and that you should be grateful

that you are a very lucky little girl to be cherished by adoptive parents who want you more than anything in the world

Please, God in heaven, may they be right

May our tears be useless, senseless fancies of a saddened generation

whose sorrows will never be visited on others

May your life be joy

May you be a shining light

May we all be wrong

for your sake

we pray

Matt and Melanie Capobianco, please prove us wrong.

To Veronica Capobianco on her 18th birthday

Dear Veronica,

Whatever your adoptive parents have told you for the past fourteen years, I hope they have told you this:

You were loved, cherished, and wanted by your father. I don’t mean Matt Capobianco, even though you have grown up calling him “Daddy” and “Dad.” I mean Dusten Brown, the man who turned himself in for jail time rather than relinquish custody of you.

When you were four years old, the nation alternately cheered and wept, congratulating the Capobiancos or consoling the Browns. There were a lot of politics involved surrounding the people who decided what should happen to you, all the way to the Supreme Court.

I’m sure you know this already. You looked yourself up on the internet, or heard it from friends, or fended off unwelcome interviews from media representatives.

Maybe Melanie sat you down, when you were five and ten and fifteen, to tell you the story of “you.” “A mom and a dad wanted a baby very much but couldn’t have one, so God sent a baby angel to the wrong mommy’s tummy. She was too young and not married, so God fixed the mistake by sending you to your real mom and dad. And we love you just as much as we gave birth to you. You are our beloved daughter.”

“What about my other parents?” you might have asked. “Didn’t my bio mom and dad want me?”

“They loved you very much,” Melanie probably told you. “But your mom was very brave and selfless, so she sacrificed everything to give you a better life. She knew we would be the perfect parents for you, and she knew you would be the perfect daughter for us. And haven’t we given you the best of everything?”

“Of course,” you reassured Melanie, because you knew the unspoken code of adoptees. You had to protect the feelings of those closest to you because you were once given away. You could be given away again. “I love you. But what about my dad?”

“Not your dad,” Melanie would chide you. “Dad is your dad.” Matt, she meant. “He made some very big mistakes, and he went around saying bad things about us. He even had to go to jail because he broke laws.”

“He did?” you asked. You were a bit scared, thinking someone with your genetic material could be bad enough to get sent to jail. “Is he dangerous?”

“Not anymore,” Melanie would reassure you. “Mom and Dad got together all of our friends, and we told everyone that you belonged with us, your real parents, and we would fight all the way to the Supreme Court to make sure you got to stay with us.”

“You loved me that much?” you asked, not sure how to respond. It made you feel guilty, in some strange way, to know you had been in the middle of a tug-of-war between families who both said they loved you, but only one could win.

“Of course,” Melanie answered. “We did go to the Supreme Court, and those nice justices agreed with us. They saw we loved you very much and you were right for us, so they made your birthfather go away. We’re your real parents now, Ronnie. You wouldn’t want to hurt us by talking about him, would you?”

You didn’t. So at five, or ten, or fifteen, you learned to stop asking questions. You were grateful, happy, and obedient. When you were told to smile, you grinned wide for the camera. You said “thank you” for the nice gifts and practiced piano every day after school.

And when a boy first touched you and told you that you were beautiful, you tried to shut down the twinges in your stomach.

Is this what my dad said to my mom? Is this how she got pregnant with me? 

You watched Melanie, feeling guilty as you awoke to your sexuality, because your body could give you what Melanie never could have–a child created from your flesh and blood. You lived your childhood hearing you were chosen and wanted, and your shoulders sank–just a tiny bit–under the pressure of fulfilling an infertile couple’s dreams. When Melanie had “the talk,” warning you away from boys or perhaps even shouting at you to never, ever let a boy do “that” to you, part of you wondered.

Does she think it’s sinful to get pregnant before marriage? Did she think my mom was sinful? Am I a product of sin?

Yet you loved them, with all of your heart, because you were a child and children need to survive. After the first few days of “I don’t want to go!” and the screams of inconsolable grief dissipated, you learned to smile on demand.

I hope the Capobiancos had answers for you, once you learned more about your case. I hope they were able to explain why they needed to cut your father out of your life and then sue him for everything he owned.

A lot of people were angry and saddened at your loss, Veronica. We watched you torn away from your father, stricken with grief because we also have lost family. We prayed we were wrong, that it was for the best, and that you would grow up to be healthy and happy. We mourned as you lost your identity, your right to your original birth certificate, and your connection to your Cherokee heritage.

But most of all, Veronica, I thought of you on this day. The day you are of legal age, old enough to start looking for answers on your own. Maybe you are starting your final year of high school, or maybe you are on a fast-track to a prestigious college. Maybe life was hard for you in the wealthy family after all, so you had to take care of family members. Maybe the psychological stress of your repeated traumatic separations became too much for you, and you are in treatment for addiction or abuse or self-harm. Maybe, God forbid, you didn’t make it. Not all adoptees do.

If I could tell you one thing today, it would be this:

You don’t owe anyone anything.

The Capobiancos adopted you because they wanted a child. Not to “rescue” you. The Browns wanted to raise you because you were their own. You have two families with competing claims on you, and if you connect with the Browns again you will become the focus of a subtle or dramatic tug-of-war, constantly shifting layers of loyalty that always result in hurting at least one person you love.

You didn’t ask for this, Veronica. If you made it this far, you are a survivor. People will criticize you for being nice or too nice to the Capobiancos, being nice or too nice to the Browns, and being good or not good enough in your various endeavors. Your life will be under a microscope when some journalist gets your contact information and entreats you to do a follow-up interview.

“I’m just fine,” you’ll say. “I’m very happy, and I love my family.”

But at the day’s end that smile will slip sideways, where no one can see. You’ll ask yourself if something is wrong with you, and you’ll dismiss it as foolish when you have so much to be thankful for. You’ll reassure Melanie that she did the right thing and that you love her and she is your real mother, because that’s what she needs.

What I hope for you, Veronica, is that you will love yourself. That you will take care of your own needs.

There are others who have walked this path before you, and we will wait with open arms.

We love you, Veronica, and we have prayed for you these past fourteen years.

Please take care of yourself. What you need is important, too.