Tonight after dinner, my littlest started crying and jumped into my lap. Nothing seemed to have happened, so I was confused as I was asking him what was wrong. Between sobs he managed to say that he did not understand why his dad was killed.
This is not the first time that he has cried about his dad. His biological father was tragically shot to death a few months before our adoption finalized. Our boy was very close to his dad and was crushed by his death. Once the adoption was final we were planning a visit to the zoo, but now he would never see him again. It’s been over two years since his dad died and he still speaks about him with regularity, even making strangers squirm as he introduces himself with, “Hi my name is Geno.* My dad died.” It’s an omnipresent part of his psyche.
What do we, as parents, do with this depth of pain? Even if our children haven’t lost a parent through death, they lost parents through adoption. They lost other family and their whole lives before they came to us. Pain like this cannot be easily soothed and it cannot be dismissed without creating further harm.
Children readily pick-up on what is okay to talk about and what isn’t. If they believe that they cannot discuss their past with you, they will not and a vast well of their pain will become inaccessible to you. It might even get so buried by an adoptive family culture that “the past is best left in the past” that they suppress it to the point that they are not able to process through those feelings either. As parents, we can feel so much heartache to hear their stories. We can be post-secondarily traumatized by hearing about their trauma. We can feel anguish to hear about how much they love and miss their first family and their former life. So it is all-too-common to shut-down conversations or outsource all of it to a therapist.
But our kids need us to be strong. They need us to set a tone that whatever they feel, whatever they want to say about their past, whatever they need to express – we can handle it. They need to know that we won’t fall apart or put our feelings of distress at hearing it ahead of theirs. And I will not sugar coat it or shame anyone for being inclined to shrink away. It is so hard to hear and such a heavy load to bear, but it is one of the most important things you can do to help your children heal.
Thankfully, there are tools that you can use to help integrate their past – the good, the bad, the ambivalent. And one of the best tools is to create a comprehensive lifebook for them. According to MLJ Adoptions, ” A Lifebook is a connection to an adopted child’s past, a record of the child’s personal history and a valuable tool for helping a child understand the difficult transitions in his or her life. It is a detailed record of his or her life prior to adoption and a window into the child’s identity. Lifebooks give an adopted child the opportunity to tell his/her story, both in what occurred before adoption as well as what their hopes are for the future. Part scrapbook and part memory book, lifebooks are uniquely individual, can be plain or creative, and belong only to the child. They are personal records and the child determines when, where and with whom they can be shared.”
Tonight when Geno started crying, I was able to hug and kiss him and tell him I was so sorry. But more concretely – I asked him if he wanted to look at pictures of his bio dad. Cuddling on the couch, looking through his book and talking about his life allowed him the safe space he needed to process his feelings, and he know that I could handle it. Over the next half an hour or so, he felt better. His past was integrated into his present, his grief was honored, and his feelings were validated. While we were sitting there, his older brother got out his book. All of us sat together and talked about things that were in their books. We admired the pictures and talked about the bio families, their former foster parents and significant events in their lives.
All my kids love their lifebooks. Sometimes they turn to the books frequently and pour over them with a lot of emotion. Other times they casually glance at them and enjoy the photos. Oftentimes they sit quietly on the shelf waiting for the next time they’re needed. Their lifebooks have made difficult conversations a bit easier with the structure and layout of a book to guide us a little. It makes their past more concrete and clearly not something that we will hide, ignore or pretend didn’t exist. Our kids’ stories are their stories, independent from us. And lifebooks are an excellent way to honor their personal history.
*Not his real name