When Death Comes to Visit – Reflections from an Adoptee

I walk past the stone fountain in the middle of the entrance and into the doors of the manicured long term care facility where my dear friend and neighbor has lived for the past two years. The smell of fresh popcorn from the popcorn machine wafts through the foyer as chatty, visiting families determine whether this complex is a good fit for their loved one. I quickly do my Covid-19 screening and turn left down the hall, making my way toward the memory care unit.

Inside the memory care unit, the superficial amenities that initially charm families are less obvious. The air smells stale and slightly of urine as residents walk around confusedly or sit, slumped in a wheelchair, in front of a T.V. On this day, my neighbor is lying in her medical bed, and I’ve been instructed by the staff to not reposition her. She winces in pain when I wrap my hand around hers. I look down at her bony fingers, resting in my palm, and remember these hands patting my little butt while she told me that I was such a perfect girl and showing me how to pop the purple buds of the hostas that bordered her backyard and baking a sweet treat for me whenever I ran across the street to visit my favorite neighbors in the world. She looks at me with large, pleading eyes, and I can sense Death, an unwelcome observer in the room, waiting for the right time to strike.

I am not a stranger to Death. Like many people around the globe, the past two years have been filled with grief and loss. In this timeframe alone, I have lost an uncle, a family friend, my neighbor’s husband who was like a grandfather to me, and I have watched as more and more of my mother’s friends become widowed. I fear the loss of my godfather, who is once again battling cancer, and I am preparing to grieve the death of a high school friend’s mother from terminal cancer. With each new death, I become increasingly cognizant of my own parents’ aging and mortality. The thought of being orphaned twice, particularly before I feel fully settled in my adult self, terrifies me.

During this past year, I also witnessed death professionally during my work with a child grief center in a counseling capacity. I facilitated bereavement support groups for children who had lost someone important and for adults who were now parenting grieving children. I also conducted virtual and in-home visits with children and families who were experiencing the anticipatory grief of losing a family member with a terminal diagnosis. When I initially applied for this position, I was asked about major losses I had experienced, how those experiences affected me, and how they enhance what I bring to a grief organization. Longtime readers of this blog will not be surprised that I naturally stated the most impactful losses for me came through adoption.

Gaining an American family and all of the joys and privileges associated with that came at the expense of losing my first family, language, country, nationality, and culture. Because of this, I have known from a young age that grief and loss are powerful, complicated feelings and that grief does not exist in a vacuum. It is possible for people to hold contradicting emotions simultaneously, and the presence of one feeling does not make the other any less valid. I feel so fortunate that I had parents who allowed my young self to cry and grieve and didn’t rush this process for me, even though they were not experiencing the losses I was going through. I believe the losses I’ve experienced as an adoptee help me when working with children who have lost their parents because I can empathize with their experience. I am able to listen deeply, be present, and extend understanding to different ways children might grieve. Additionally, I think the losses in my early life have made me comfortable with talking about hard issues and emotions.

I also wrote about another significant period of loss when I was in the third grade. My aunt, church pastor/weekly volunteer in my classroom, and dad’s good friend all died within months of each other. I remember asking if it was better to have all of these people die at the same time, so that the grief came intensely but all at once, or if it would have been better to have space and time between each loss, so that the feelings weren’t as strong but the sadness would linger for longer.

The grief I carried from these first major losses since my adoption hit hard. To process this myriad of feelings, I remember going to Target with my mother one evening and picking out a large, light pink notebook with flowers on the cover that became my death notebook, so to speak. I pasted a local newspaper clipping about a quilt my aunt completed before her death, a poem I had written about her, a handmade get-well card she never received, her obituary, and her memorial service program in the first few pages. I did the same for my pastor and father’s friend and flipped through these pages whenever I wanted to revisit memories of these people.

For years, this pink, floral notebook was comforting to me during the deaths of my elementary school crossing guard, who always sang “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and carried peppermints in his coat pockets; a high school peer, who made Honors Physics class bearable; older friends from church, who challenged me on my faith journey; my lovely grandmother, who was a Scrabble and crossword puzzle whiz; and my grandfather, who had an affinity for chicken paraphernalia and Hershey’s kisses. The image of a small child carrying around a “death notebook” sounds almost comically morbid in a Wednesday Addams kind of way, but as I reflect on what I now know about adoption, grief and loss, and child development, my dedication to this notebook seems perfectly reasonable.

I was creating proof of these loved ones’ existences and documentation of the love and good times shared between us unlike what I am not able to have with the loss of my own first parents. I have no photos or newspaper clippings to put in a loss book, nothing tangible to know or memories to embrace and to let go. I have no one to provide me with the stories or pseudomemories of events from this part of my personal history. The loss of my first parents through adoption leaves me with the lingering questions of how you can miss someone you can’t even remember and how to honor someone you can’t even name. I learned early that I could not trust my child-sized brain to remember something as important as my most impactful loss, so how could I possibly remember all of these other subsequent losses? My musings on this topic remind me of Katie Naftzger’s wording that some of the trauma of adoption occurs because we have “no words, no witness, and no documentation” for our loss.

Though it still sits on a shelf in my desk cabinet, I no longer feel a deep need for my death notebook. Death and loss will always be hard and may always be harder because of my early, unresolved losses. But as I have experienced continuous, meaningful losses in my adult life, I am now more comfortable sitting with Death and warmly inviting her into the space. I am confident in my living memory of dear ones and my accounts from regular journaling. I trace the handwriting of letters written to me by deceased loved ones and find joy in the stories behind little mementos that will always remind me of these special people.

As I say goodbye to my beloved neighbor, I kiss her forehead, brush her soft hair out of her face, and promise to return the next day. Outside of her room, I stop and turn to the shadow box that marks her room as hers. There’s an old black and white photo of her at prom, a white nurse’s cap, a photo with her daughters and grandchildren, and other small trinkets that remind me of everything she encompassed in life. I know these memories and qualities are what she wants me to hold onto, not this sick body and brain that are no longer serving her anymore. I glance in once more at my dear friend who looks like she’s about to fall asleep to the soothing voice of Johnny Mathis, and I ask Death to be swift and kind with her. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to someone, and as long as I have my memories and documentation of our special love, I know I’ll be alright even in her absence.

Click the image below to view my interactive Bitmoji classroom with children’s book recommendations about death. The cover image for this blog post is from the book, Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You.

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