Don’t call us, we’ll call you

January 23, 2017

Coping strategies, Day 60

5 November

I never thought that I would be a foster parent. I mean, going back a ways, I didn’t plan on being any type of parent. But even once I embraced the idea of parenthood and had a sensitivity toward foster children’s needs based on some of my nonprofit work, the narrative in my head was always that I was too emotionally fragile to be a foster parent myself. I would get too attached, and then with my depressive history, I would be thrown into an emotional tailspin when the children had to go away. Which they do. And they will, right up until you finally find that fourth floor, last door fit that was meant to be with your family. So I’ve been trying to face this question head-on:

What will I do when he has to go away?

What will I do that day? That week? That month? What will I do to memorialize him and his place in our life, but still keep moving forward? There is no such thing as closure still rings true to me, but what does that really mean in practice? How do I hold on to all the love and joy while simultaneously letting go of the one who produced them?

Of course, my first instinct is to do some research. What have other foster parents found helpful? Have there been any studies on that topic? But quite surprisingly, I ended up feeling resistant to that idea. Maybe it’s influenced by lack of time, but I also have this feeling of wanting to carve out this path for myself. I had tried to start that process back when I was writing my new life story, identifying at least two things I thought would be important: Create a place to remember each child and Escape. The first one will be easy, I think, if not totally defined at this point. I’m sure I’ll feel sentimental about practically everything, so it won’t be hard to fill something like a “loss box.”

But the second, it turns out, I’ve probably gotten worse at in the last 3 years. Even before we got the baby, I had given up “Dear Prudence” and no longer had a particular show to watch regularly (though thanks to Robin-Elise and her Netflix gift, I can binge watch with the best of ’em when I’m in a funk). We reduced our dining-out budget in order to save for a new home (did I mention we’re moving? minor detail…) so restaurant meals could not be a go-to. (I have, however, allowed myself the luxury of spending $3-5 during each of the baby’s visitations in exchange for using Panera or Barnes & Noble wifi.) In short, my strategies for “escape” are a bit non-existent at the moment (let’s be honest, I’ll probably escape into work because: workaholic), though I’m sure I’ll allow myself a meal out on the day we have to give him up.

I’m on the hunt for more coping strategies, but in the meantime, I’ve found quite a bit of comfort in a quote that my new friend Ali shared on Facebook:

grief(source, I think)

My grief will be proportionate to my love. So it’s going to be intense, and it’s going to well up in my eyes about 70 times a day, just like my love does now. What will I do when he goes away? Just keep right on loving him.


October 30, 2014

A study of grief

I feel a little bashful writing about Kaila again. When I wrote about our last day in the sunshine, I thought it was just my own small remembrance in my little corner of the internet. I think of this space as a place where I’m talking to myself, current and future, and about 30 or 40 others who know me well. What I didn’t realize is that by putting in a link to one of her memorials, my post was being shared on that post. (The workings of the interwebz are still a mystery to me).

Within a couple of days, I had a few hundred hits coming from the memorial post. I felt a little embarrassed, exposed. I didn’t want it to seem, especially to her family, that somehow I thought her death was about me and my pain. But as a few people reached out to me because of that post, I realized that other people were aching to read about her, talk about her, hear anything related to her in the same way I was. My post meant something to them; feeling exposed is okay in pursuit of the greater good of connection and catharsis. Also, the fact that the most action my blog has seen in several years was because of her made me proud to have had a friend that was so beloved.


When you have a history of serious depression and are faced with a tragic event, your husband is pretty much willing to do anything you want and your mother is biting her fingernails waiting to see if this will push you over the edge. Your irrepressibly joyful 4-year-old, on the other hand, will wake you up each morning with, “Are you still sad about Kaila? Can you play with me today?” I’m not immune to that tugging at the heartstrings, but the answer for a couple weeks was, No, not today.

It may be strange, or even pretentious, to say that I am deeply affected by death, but it’s hard to articulate it any other way. (I am highly sensitive, after all.) I remember feeling the same way around the death of each important person in my life: life must stop completely. Anything less would be a betrayal of all they meant to me. So I kind of closed up shop for a couple of weeks. I worked some, but took days off, came late, left early. I let some things slide in my online classroom, thinking I would just have to settle for sub-par reviews this semester (though as it turns out my students and supervisor have been amazingly supportive). One night I even hid in a vacant classroom at church during an activity I was supposed to be responsible for; I just couldn’t face real life responsibilities.

Four things filled those suddenly cleared-out days: thinking, crying, reading Daring Greatly, and watching Psych. During those first couple of days, I was convinced that I should stop fostering such deep relationships. I have put a lot of effort into cultivating close family and friend relationships and sometime in the middle of the night on September 25th, I decided that that was a terrible way to live. I should stop that immediately! Because the pain. Oh dear God, I could never live through this pain again! Of course, I instinctively reached out to several friends, probably strengthening those relationships — very counterproductive when you’ve decided that the safest thing is to cut all ties with other humans.

I don’t believe it was coincidental that I was reading Daring Greatly for my online book club at precisely this time. Though not a perfect book, it was the perfect read to remind me to lean into the vulnerability inherent to human relationships. Even if I successfully cut ties with ALL THE PEOPLE, I would still think about them, probably frequently and beyond all reason. (I know this because for years Neal has been telling me I need to just forget about an old friend. He’s very subtle: “She doesn’t want anything to do with you! She’s cut off all contact with you!” Still, every November I think anew about sending her a birthday card.) The book also helped me recognize and face head on some shame I was experiencing related to “survivor guilt.”

We had only barely started watching episodes of Psych (I never caught it in its original run), but it will always have a special place in my heart now (although it might have earned that just from Dule Hill’s tap dancing alone). I would wake up, open up a browser to log into work, and promptly start crying, at which time Neal would call it a Psych day and turn on episode after episode. It was strangely effective in increasing my productivity. I’m still trying to understand how my brain works — Neal has some theories — but I think it is almost always in at least two places at once. If one of those places was Kaila’s death, I was darn near paralyzed. But if one of those places was Shawn and Gus, I could manage to accomplish some of my work tasks.


Life went on like this, doing the bare minimum for survival and job maintenance, until two things happened: a beautiful dream and Kaila’s funeral. It wasn’t what you might call traditionally “beautiful;” there was all the strange randomness inherent to dreams: several layers of leotards that Kaila wanted me to try on (she gave me many clothes over the years, so that’s not as weird as it sounds), a microscope and spare set of glasses that she begged me to store for her in my sock drawer until she got back. As in real life, there was SO MUCH laughing as I tried to determine why exactly I needed to store her microscope in my dresser. I woke up from this dream, slowly, very slowly. It was cold and dark and 5:00 am, but I felt warm. Like I’d just been for a visit to North Carolina. Like I was soaking in the sun at Duke Gardens. I could hear her unrestrained laugh all over again.

I knew that I had to attend the funeral but when the day came, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I have a great respect for the power of that public farewells, but this was the hardest one I’ve ever attended, at least in part because it was preceded by a 3-hour drive to get there. I know plenty came even farther, but man, it’s just awful to drive that far for an event you wish in the worst way was not even happening. As I walked in the door of the church building where her service was held, we were greeted by a poster-sized picture of her, a truly stunning picture I had never seen before. In what felt like a very violent reaction, I turned around and buried my head in Neal’s shoulder. It took me a few minutes to reemerge and greet her family. The funeral was more or less a series of these sudden sobs and leaning on Neal, but it was incredibly important. I think I left at least some of the pain there. The next day I graded 45 papers with no Psych-crutch to get me through.


I’ve often thought what would happen to all my online accounts, social media, chat programs if I died. Should I make a list of all these applications along with my passwords so that in the event of my untimely death Neal can delete each one? (Please tell me I’m not the only one that ponders this at least quarterly . . . ) That’s been one of the distinct things about losing Kaila in comparison to all the elderly people I’ve said goodbye to: she’s always there. In my phonebook and “most recent texts” list. On gchat, Google+, and Facebook. When I log into Skype, and on this mysterious “People” page that my laptop created on its own apparently based on who I seem to have the most contact with. Her pictures and contact info still show up everywhere. My first instinct was to delete her from all my various contact points. I took her out of my phone, but felt a pang of guilt as if I was trying to erase her. I decided to leave things as they were, but have questioned that decision after a couple of times seeing her in my contacts list while at work and experiencing sudden waves of nausea. That instinct to cut all ties with people was wrong, and I think it’s just as wrong to bury all the things that remind me of Kaila even though that feels entirely logical at times. But how selective should I be in what things I keep around? How much control should I try to exert over how often I’m reminded of her? I hung the program from her service on our hallway tackboard, which in a 964-square foot house is one of the most frequented spots, and so far it is doing a beautiful job of reminding me of all the love, light, and happiness that was part of my relationship with Kaila.


I can’t only give Brene Brown credit for helping me through the turtle-hiding-in-its-shell phase. In my music-as-therapy efforts, I put on R.E.M.’s Reveal on the drive home from a client visit. I got to “I’ll Take the Rain” just as I pulled into our driveway and predictably broke down in tears. I seem to come back to this song periodically for its reminder: rain and shine, a package deal.

I used to think
As birds take wing
They sing through life so why can’t we?
You cling to this
You claim the best
If this is what you’re offering
I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain.


I never did finish anything I wrote about my Grandpa or his death in 2011. I regret that now, both because he was a remarkable person that is so dear to me, and because I feel compelled to study my own grief to know how to get through what lies ahead (I think of this post as the real beginning of that study). The morning of Kaila’s funeral I found out my Grandma was quite ill; she was diagnosed with terminal cancer 6 days later. This cycle of grief is just beginning.

September 28, 2014

Our last day in the sunshine

Filed under: Personal — Tags: , , , , , , — llcall @ 3:31 pm

Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

There are so few quotes that really stick with you forever. That sort of follow you, haunt you. This one from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of mine. It comes to me in word and mood whenever I have the vague feeling that I may have left something undone.

Several days ago I found out that my dear, dear friend is no longer with us. It was not a complete surprise to me, and yet, I’m still in shock. Because it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years right up until the moment that . . . whole dreams were forever irredeemable. It was pointless, of course, but I could’t help searching our emails and chats to see what more I could have done. There’s the exchange just a few weeks ago when she cancelled our scheduled Skype session because a deadline came up. Should I have called anyway? Kept calling? Did she ever reach out and fail to find me at the other end?

But what started out as pointless email searching slowly turned into smiles, almost laughs. A thousand inside jokes flooding back. We were so fun and funny together; I’m sure if everyone knew, they would have turned our relationship into a TV show a long time ago.


Those smiles and almost-laughs didn’t last long. If there’s one thing I’ve learned irrefutably in the last few days, it’s this: survivor guilt is a real thing. The pain of loss mingled with guilt has been physically crippling at times. I’m trying out all the coping strategies I had planned on using to deal with the inevitable pain of the foster/adopt process: reminding myself, There is no closure; seeking for it will be fruitless. Watching Psych obsessively for distraction. I’ve been reading, also obsessively, all the online memorials to her that I can find. Her Facebook page has become an impromptu repository for others’ first and last memories of her, all capturing some wonderful dimension of her life and personality.

I also need to create a place to remember (it was one of my cardinal rules). It’s not about the first moments or the last moments, but it’s what I want to remember most: May 29, 2013. Duke Gardens. We walked on bridges and fed ducks. We brought fruit and nuts and sandwiches to enjoy in the shade of a beautiful tree. We sent Addison on “secret missions,” to interrupt young love and ask awkward questions of people on first dates — all in pursuit of a few minutes of adult conversation. We booked it across quiet Asiatic gardens for bathroom emergencies. We laughed. SO MUCH laughing, a stark contrast to the tears and pain that would follow later that day, and in the months to come.

It was our last day in the sunshine.

DSCN9111_resized[1]DSCN9114_resized[1]DSCN9123_resized[1]DSCN9124_resized[1]DSCN9127_resized[1]kaila and addison cropped

Love you forever, Kaila.

May 24, 2013

A new story of my life, part IV

Final installment for the foreseeable future. If you want to catch up, here’s part Ipart II, and part III.

I started this in October 2012 and tried periodically to finish it, but I guess it just needed like seven months to “bake.” That, and it’s freaking long.* It takes a long time to make this many words semi-coherent (which I hope I’ve managed to do). So here’s your “tl;dr” in case you only want the adoption update and not the ten-hour journey through my psyche:

In a few months, we plan to move a few hours away to a different county in California. Once there, we’ll restart the process of understanding the local public and private adoption resources, particularly focusing on foster-to-adopt programs. When Addison is between five and six years old, we hope to foster-to-adopt a sibling set of two kids. Maybe a five-year-old and a two-year-old. Or a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Or possibly a five-year-old and twin babies. Or . . . you get the idea. There’s an endless number of specific combinations, but we’d like the older child to be around Addison’s age.

For those not familiar with the foster care system, age 5 is kind of a magic number (well, not “magic” in a good way). When a child reaches five, they are considered an “older child” and are less likely to be adopted. Enter us.

So that’s it. Seriously? That’s what took me seven months to articulate? Here’s the trip down the rabbit hole if you want the whole experience:

Last weekend [last October] Addison met her new cousin, baby Brayden. For the last couple of months before Brayden arrived, Addison totally noticed that something was going on in Aunt Rish’s tummy and she was getting a little impatient.  “Baby come out!” “See him!” She was pleased to finally be able to see and hold him. So I was only mildly surprised when on Monday she said to me,

“Hope you get a baby in your tummy.”

You do?

“Yeah, a baby ‘pider.”

I think we dodged a bullet this time, folks. I thought she was already going to start demanding her own squishy little sibling. Thankfully, she’s really into arachnids and insects. But if my growing up years are any indication, the demands for a brother or sister will start eventually and be persistent. I remember my brother and I being insistent about our need for another sibling, no doubt because we each wanted an ally in our battles against one another.

So I figure I better finish this “new life story” so I have something to tell Addison when the questions come, even though I’m not completely sure how to tie all these disparate threads together. I hadn’t quite meant to leave this story in such a mournful place, amidst all the doubts and fears. Those doubts covered a variety of issues — a lot of them about the specific difficulties of adopting — but at that point my neck issues, which in August made doing almost anything, much less childcare, impossible, were looming large. It was really hard to think about adding another little person or two to our lives when the realization that at almost any moment my mobility could be drastically reduced was so fresh. Still, I couldn’t deny that I had been having feelings much stronger than those doubts for many months.

I. Synergy

Synergy. It’s the only word I could come up with. Various elements coming together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In parts I and II, which seemed decidedly unconnected, I was just starting to map out a new vision of how past life experiences I had mostly separated mentally were actually inextricably linked. There was my work at CORE with youth in foster care. Stop. Then there was my prisoner work. Full stop. Then later there was my work as a parent. Even though I have made avoiding fragmentation one of the central themes of my life, and have always wanted that oneness to be reflected in an overlap between my work/home/inner life, in practice, mothering has been quite distinct from studying incarceration — unless you draw a parallel to our desperate attempts to keep her locked up during “quiet time” so that she doesn’t trash the place. (Come to think of it, there is probably some useful philosophical exploration of the concepts of retributive vs. restorative justice in childhood disciplinary tactics. No, stay on topic.) But when the idea of adoption, and especially adopting through foster care, started to seep into my psyche, it was like watching many little puzzle pieces fly together magnetically. They were still all jumbled and in need of sorting, but they were clinging tight.

I thought about how often foster care came up in my thesis interviews, enough that my co-investigators and I were kicking ourselves for not having included any related questions in our quantitative survey. Many of the men had spent time in foster/kinship care; sadly, some of them could barely distinguish their time in juvenile detention from their foster care experiences. And now some of their children were similarly experiencing foster and kinship care while their parents were incarcerated.

Early on, I read this passage in You Can Adopt: “Parents sometimes hesitate to tell children difficult details of their personal histories (conception from rape or incest, a parent in prison). But most secrets eventually come to light. And when they do, the fact that they remained secrets tells the child that he or she should feel ashamed. Adopted children need to know their entire life stories, not just the good parts.” I thought about how I have spent the better part of the last decade learning how to discuss these difficult topics with sensitivity and fairness. And I considered that with a little practice and guidance I could learn how to translate what I know about these topics to a child’s language, so that they could look on their pasts with compassion and forgiveness rather than anger.

In short, I realized that all this work I’ve been doing over the last decade was both an end in itself, and the beginning of something else. Something that I’m pretty certain will be the most taxing and trying experience of my life.

II. For whom?

“Those who choose to adopt a child do so with a great deal of hope, but their expectations are usually internally driven, and may not be based on the realities of the situation.” — Adopting the Hurt Child, p. 16

In my study (admittedly, still limited) of foster/adoptive parents, I have concluded that these “internally driven expectations” are critical. It seems that often unhappiness arises because of internal expectations that have not been made explicit. Adopting the Hurt Child certainly makes the case that a large number of the foster/adoptive parents they encounter have had unrealistic expectations. Later in the book they make the point that “parents who adopt a child who is missing a leg, for example, don’t expect love, stability, and permanency to recreate a limb. They simply expect to help the child secure the best prosthesis and cope well.” Unfortunately, most youth in foster care are dealing with more complex emotional issues — things that love, stability, and permanency may ameliorate over time, but most likely will never “cure.” As I start to build my little toolbox of strategies for dealing with the tough times ahead, Don’t expect a new limb” has become my simple reminder to examine the reasonableness of my expectations.

Deconstructing my expectations has inevitably led me to one crucial question: For whom are we doing this?

  1. Is adopting for me, to fill a hole that having no more biological children left in my heart?
  2. Is it for Addison because she should have a sibling to grow and play with?
  3. Is it for  “our family“? (A sort of amorphous concept but one I have heard myself voice before.)
  4. Is it for the children, to give them a better opportunity than they would have otherwise?

And finally, which of these motives are more predictive of a positive experience navigating the foster/adoption system? (Note to self: Do literature search.) (Note to readers: Feel free to answer/speculate in the comments — I’m curious if you have any thoughts/experiences!) What I know at this point is that I have felt the need to actively let go of reasons 1, 2, and 3; if 1, 2, or 3 occur as a byproduct of helping some children in need, we’ll be thankful for that little slice of mercy. But the first three all inherently place expectations on the child (that they will fill a gap, a hole, be a sibling, meet our needs somehow), when #4 is really all we can guarantee — that we will provide them with opportunities for love and stability that they might not get elsewhere. “We have to fill our own gaps,” I remind myself (though, luckily, we’re not completely alone in that).

At first glance, letting go of motive #1 seemed impossible. My desire for another child runs so deep; surely, I would always feel some secret, idealized hope. But one day I realized, No, I have a precedent for this. This prisoner work I undertook so long ago, I did only to provide greater opportunity to another group in need. It wasn’t to meet a need in me, although I have experienced many wonderful byproducts. It wasn’t for external validation since I was met with more criticism than support initially. It wasn’t for any monetary gain (that probably goes without saying, ha!). I did it because I saw a need and I wanted to help. I know I can do that again. I have to remember, “I have a precedent for this.”

Letting go of the idea that another child would somehow meet my needs has ultimately changed the whole landscape. When we first talked about adoption, we both thought we wanted a baby. Who doesn’t, right? But as my baby hunger subsided, I realized that if I could reframe this whole process around the needs of the children, it was likely that the babies in foster care were least likely to need us, based on the simple fact that others would want them. When I looked into all the different foster programs, I was excited by the possibilities: older kids and sibling sets; 30-day shelter care for newborns; intensive teen programs; aftercare-type programs for 18-21-year-olds to help in the transition to adulthood. This not only changed the landscape of what type of children we might take in, but it also opened up the timetable. We could take in a child Addison’s age or a little younger. Or we could provide shelter care for infants when she’s a tween. Or we could have teens or young adults when she leaves for college. For the first time, it began to occur to me that perhaps my life’s work will fall as much (or more) in the foster care system as the criminal justice system. And that this first step will be just the beginning.

III. Reframing

When I started to feel little inklings that maybe more of my future work would be with foster care, I was not immediately taken with the idea. More than a little reframing was in order; a process that ended up being almost as much a theme for 2012 as “stronger.” In case you haven’t noticed, I have invested an awful lot of my time, energy, and passion in work related to incarceration and I’ve had no shortage of future plans in that regard, next steps for when my children were a little older. Suddenly, all that felt like it was being upended in a call to something slightly familiar, but still very different. To complicate that even further, it was the ultimate fusion of work and family. In a way that I had never fully conceptualized until I started picturing myself in that role, I realized what an impossibly difficult thing we ask of foster parents: Be a mother, but also a semi-dispassionate case worker. Welcome them, love them, integrate them into your family, BUT facilitate them rejoining their original family if at all possible. Provide them with stability, right up until the moment that they are taken away. Talk about emotional and cognitive dissonance . . .

How do I start preparing myself for the reality of that? This was my starting point, I think: I won’t be their mother. Not at first; maybe not at all. All I can do is to mother them. If I define myself as their mother, make it a noun, the system/their other parents/the judge could easily take away that identity. But they can’t take away the mothering acts that I will do for them, regardless of how long or short our time together. This Christmas on a rare foray into fiction, I read the first Harry Potter book. I’m glad I did as it had this little tidbit right at the end, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” It’s a pretty thought, endowed with some mystical power in the book, but I also believe there’s truth there. So I’ll tell myself that, too: “I won’t be their mother, but my love will give them some protection.” And at the very least, I will teach them how to brush their teeth, something my old friend Tina did not learn until she was 11, years into her stay in foster care. (Or perhaps Neal has taken over all dental hygiene forever; either way, teeth WILL be brushed.)

Besides reframing what it will mean to be a “mother,” I had a fair amount of work to do in reframing my own abilities. As I mentioned in part II, after the emotional collapse that was my miscarriage, the story we began to tell each other was that adoption would be too tough for me to take. I wouldn’t be able to handle its difficulties with anything approaching equanimity. But when God sends you a message — you will be an adoptive parent! (subtle, no?) — there’s nothing else to do but strike all those other stories from the record. Apparently, adoption will not be too tough for me to take. Also, I will be able to handle the difficulties with something approaching equanimity. Obviously, “I can do this.”

Of course, getting that message loud and clear and actually internalizing it are two different things. I had to keep digging to get at the root of this idea that I would be unable to handle adoption. I think the root is this: A deep depression is always right at my door; that is, if it’s not already camped out in my room. This always seemed to be a perfectly reasonable assumption. After all, I clearly recall my first depressive episode being when I was 6 years old. And then there were things all along the way until it all got really bad in my late teens. Have you ever tried to get life or health insurance with a history of clinical depression? There’s a litany of questions perfectly calculated to remind you of what a mess your psyche has been. I’ve had to answer a lot of insurance questions over the years; it’s no wonder that I have held on to the belief that a deep depression was always right around the corner.

But here’s a few facts I need to tell myself more often: it’s been almost 14 years since my last really catastrophic depressive episode. In the subsequent years, I have had only two real episodes: after the miscarriage and after Addison’s birth, both things that sometimes make even “normal” people depressed, and neither approaching anything like what I have experienced in the past. I’ve been to almost 4 full years of therapy/group counseling in the subsequent 14 years. Now that it’s been more than a decade, I no longer have to answer insurance questions about it. According to the actuarial tables, then, I am cured. Also this small thing: I experienced a miraculous healing and deliverance from nearly every symptom of mental illness that I experienced from age 6 to 20. It’s too bad I’ve struggled to say that so loud and clear all these years. So I need to accept this:  “I don’t have a major depressive disorder anymore.”

IV. Ambiguous loss

“If [the parents’] decision to adopt stems from personal loss — loss of a birth child or infertility — they must assess where they are in their own grief cycle to maximize their ability to help their new child. After all, adoption is about loss, and facing that loss is one of the first steps in the child’s healing process. It is, therefore, critical for parents to take stock of how bereavement is handled in the family so the child’s loss can be addressed appropriately.” — Adopting the Hurt Children, p. 80

I have been a fan of ambiguous loss theory since I first stumbled on it while researching a paper on young couples dealing with chronic illness, but it took on even more personal meaning during my miscarriage. (I wrote this during that time, although I never mentioned that a miscarriage was what prompted those thoughts.) Ambiguous loss was first applied to various relationships in which a person may be physically present but psychologically unavailable (like dementia or traumatic brain injury) or physically absent but psychologically present (like soldiers missing in action or incarceration). It has since been more broadly applied to situations in which we may encounter loss that is invisible (in some way), difficult to articulate, or unresolvable.  Pauline Boss, the theory’s creator and patron saint, believes it is the most difficult type of loss because “there is no closure; the challenge is to learn how to live with the ambiguity.”

It would be hard to overstate how huge this concept is when it comes to adoption and especially adoption through foster care, where many children may have faced the loss of multiple families, homes, schools, cultures, even cities or states. Eventually I will have to turn my attention to how I can help any future foster or adoptive children deal with their own ambiguous losses, but over the last year I’ve been focused on what it will mean for me as a foster parent. I remind myself, “There is no closure. Period.” Although I have always felt like I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, looking back I see plenty of time wasted by looking for “closure.” What is closure, anyway? And why have I so often told myself it was necessary or desirable? I’m not going to make the same mistake this time. When a child comes into our lives, only to leave again, I want to hold them in my heart while still moving forward. There is no closure, not really. And even if there were, why would I want it? Wouldn’t it be closing off a beloved child?

When I first wrote about ambiguous loss back in 2008, I was grappling with how to memorialize my lost child, a child that was invisible to virtually everyone but ever so present to me. Eventually Neal came up with the perfect memorial: he suggested we each write our “final” thoughts in a beautiful notebook. After using the notebook (a going away present from my dear friend Marshay when I left D.C.) as our wedding guestbook, we had continued to write notes and messages in it for each other. It seemed like a fitting place for a final memorial to our first child. The only problem was that I couldn’t bring my usually verbose self to do it. Neal went first, writing three beautiful pages of love, light, and hope. He crafted it over several days in January 2009, ending with this thought, “We look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world.” As moved by his words as I was, all I could manage a few months later was an entry that started like this:

We agreed that we would both write in this book as a way to memorialize and grieve the loss of our first child. I find that I cannot do it. I thought that it would offer a final resting place for so much sorrow, but it feels wrong to bury that sorrow. Every time I think I’m moving on, this pang comes as if that moving forward negates the importance, even the existence of the child that I already loved. . . . I don’t really know how to bring either this entry or this chapter to a close gracefully. I just know that I’m getting out of bed in the morning, I’m teaching a class, taking a class, teaching Relief Society, having neck surgery, smiling, crying — all vestiges of my pre-baby life.

To be honest, after we wrote these entries, I seldom wanted to read them. The notebook now represented pain. While I had been the primary writer before, Neal began to write more often and I virtually stopped altogether. In fact, I remember once actually putting it under another book so that it would be obscured from my view. But as I’ve asked myself this very concrete question, How am I going to deal with the ambiguous loss that we will intentionally introduce into our lives?, I have come back to that notebook often. Even though a place that had previously been a source of comfort now carried sadness in it, with time I could appreciate a new type of comfort it offered. It became a concrete place to go with my sorrow, and then to emerge from it. It offered peace of mind, knowing that I didn’t have to cling so hard to my grief for fear that I would forget altogether. There would always be a place to remember. (Months later, this blog became another memorial.)

So that was my first answer to that question of how to cope: Create a place to remember each child that comes into our life. A new entry in our book? A painted handprint? I’ve heard of people who have figurines (probably not a good match for our minimalist tiny-house dreams) or wear necklace charms (doubtful since I couldn’t even get in the habit of wearing a wedding ring) or plant trees (maybe, if we have our own yard). Only recently did I learn that creating a “loss box” is a strategy to help adoptees work through their feelings. I’m not sure what form our place of remembrance will take, but I know it will be essential for me.

The second coping mechanism I’ve been pondering is something I wrote about over a year ago: Escape. I’m certainly still a work-in-progress on this whole fun/escapism thing, but I’ve figured some things out in twelve months. For starters, I like to have a TV show, just one, that I keep close tabs on. I have gone through periods where I watched no TV at all and periods where I watched a TON of TV. I think what adds considerable enjoyment to my life is having one that I look forward to each week. Lately, my show of choice has been Project Runway (ironic, no?); I mourn for its glory days on Bravo, but I still enjoy it when paired with Tom and Lorenzo’s commentary. I think I would prefer a dancing show like So You Think You Can Dance?, but there were just too dang many episodes each week so I had to cut it off. Besides that, I enjoy reading a weekly advice column from Slate‘s “Dear Prudence.” With our upcoming move to the mountains (a town of 2,600 people!), other fun things I’ve been doing here (the beach, occasional restaurant visit, etc.) will require some reworking, but I think I’m on a good track. It doesn’t hurt that Addison is getting more fun all the time (always interspersed with frustration, of course). (How clinical does this paragraph make “fun” sound? Sheesh.)

The third coping mechanism is easy to say, but hard to do: Focus on what I can controlInterfacing with the criminal justice system over the last decade has certainly given me a primer on frustrating, exhausting, often heartbreaking bureaucracy, but I know we’re putting ourselves on a collision course with a lot, LOT more of that. So I need to, in every stage and situation, focus on what I can control. Rereading the above passage out of our notebook reminded me of some of those basics: I can get out of bed; teach my classes; fulfill my church assignments; smile; cry (fingers crossed on avoiding the neck surgery). I can focus on mothering acts, instead of all the things I would like to change in the child welfare system. I have a precedent for this, too, after all: despite the occasional blog post advocating changes in the criminal justice system, I intentionally decided that I did not want to focus on the system per se, but rather on the individual people I could reach out to during their sojourn there. 

I have a lot more reading to do on coping with ambiguous loss (this book is up next), both for myself and for facilitating that process with the children, but I feel that more than four years ago, I identified one of the key things to hang on to: There is no ambiguous loss in God’s eyes. This past year I have experienced a remarkable degree of clarity about myself, my past, and my future. I hope in reading this, and other things I will write over the next few months, it will be evident that I have learned to put words to some ambiguous losses from my past; it’s not the end of pain, it’s not quite closure, it’s a clearer way forward. I know God has been my close companion in this process, healing some things, while at other times reminding me that not everything has to be healed to be productive. 

As Neal said four years ago, we look forward to families that transcend the limitations of this world. With all our doubts and questions, we are certain we’re on a beautiful path to that.

* I thought about posting this section-by-section, but for my sake, I wanted to capture it all in one place.

Blog at