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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