Sibling Grief In Adoption

“I never know what to say when someone asks me how many brothers or sisters I have.”

This came out of my 12-year-old’s mouth while I was driving the other day. There was no warning for a statement such as this. No conversation that I can think of that brought it on. We were listening to the radio and she just blurted it out. It caught me off guard and I wasn’t really sure what to say. I have tried my best not to shroud in secrecy that her father and I relinquished the daughter that came before her. I would never want to give any of my children the impression that IKL is someone we should be ashamed of or someone who should be kept secret. To do so would deny her and denying her would be to deny our love for her. Regardless of this, for a child growing up with a sister who has been lost to adoption, challenges unique to these “parented children” are most definitely present. She is not ashamed of her sister and would love for nothing more than to have some sort of relationship with her. She used to be very vocal about how she has four siblings, not three. It seems that, over time, the reactions she has garnered from people have made her more aware that she has lost something. She is now uncomfortable disclosing to people that she has another sister, out there in the world, that she doesn’t know. She is uncomfortable with the fact that she doesn’t know her and this is, most likely, what is bothering her the most.

It is in moments like this that I freeze. Mom is supposed to have all the answers and yet I stumbled along not knowing exactly what was best to say. Instead of offering her a solution I sympathized with her. I stated, “I know how you feel, honey. Sometimes when people ask me how many kids I have I don’t know what to say either.” Her reply emphasized her guilt. If she did not include IKL in the “sibling count” then it made her feel horrible to dismiss someone so important in her life, her sister. If she did include her the questions came – some of them she could not answer and it reminded her that she had suffered a loss in her life, a tremendous loss. She was clearly looking to me for advice and stalling was not good enough. She wanted answers from me.

“You know that you don’t have to tell people how many siblings you have if they aren’t someone important in your life, right? You can say ‘I’d rather not discuss my sisters and brothers.’ and that is okay.” This was not a good enough answer for her. She said, “Well, like on worksheets at school when sometimes they ask you how many siblings you have or when you have to write about your family or family tree. That stuff. I feel like I’m lying if I don’t include her and I feel like I’m lying if I do.” And there it is. The catalyst for her dilemma. It is a legal lie to say that she has another sister, an emotional one to say she doesn’t. Where does the middle ground exist? It really doesn’t. She continued, “You know because I’m like really close to G and D and M but I’m not so close to IKL.” It was with this statement that my heart wanted to break into a million pieces. “Not so close” wasn’t sufficient enough to describe the lack of relationship between A and IKL. There was no relationship. She didn’t know her at all. Yes, A has written her letters, but the communication has been one-sided. IKL has never spoken to A. In A’s mind, however, it wasn’t safe to admit this. She needed to say they were “not so close.”

I had no answers for her. I told her that she should do what her heart told her to do and screw everyone else. Yes, that’s what I told her. If it made her feel uncomfortable to have to explain that she had a sister that was relinquished, then don’t tell them. If it made her feel bad to deny her sister, then do tell them. Still she was unsatisfied. Both of those options left her feeling bad. I told her how sorry I was because that was all I could do. One last statement and the conversation was done. “I just wish I never had a sister that was adopted out and that she just lived with us and we were normal.” My heart broke some more.

When going over options and deciding whether we should “choose” adoption, our other children were taken into consideration. The experts were telling us that we needed to consider the financial and emotional strain a new baby would place on the kids we already had. Another mouth to feed and care for would take away from them and they may suffer for it. I never imagined that the heartache adoption would wreak in my children’s lives would be so much worse than going without material things for a little while or having one more person to share mom with. My 12-year-old’s psychologist, in her first report, wrote that A told a story about a frog. The frog’s sister had been given up for adoption and the frog worried about this sister all the time.  She noted, “Underlying anxiety issues in regards to biological sister relinquished for adoption” How could this possibly be? I was told that my children would be better off. How could the ONLY child who has not one memory of the daughter I gave up be suffering so much? This was not supposed to be, yet it was and it is. There is nothing I can do to make it better. I am powerless. I cannot force a relationship and I cannot take back the years that were lost. I don’t have a time machine. I can only try to help her through her grief while I am still navigating mine.

I know that some of you may be thinking that she is picking up on things I have said or done. To that I say, “Are you stupid?” Why in the world would I project my feelings onto her? IKL is talked about as something positive in our household and nothing else. A has come to feel this pain on her own accord, because something is missing in her life. Already having one older sister she knows that bond that sisters share, which adds to this. She is constantly thinking about the “what could have been.”

Should I have never told my children about IKL or the adoption at all? Then they wouldn’t have known or felt any of this grief. No, they wouldn’t have. Not at all growing up. Except when they did find out, and they would have, it may have been more destructive and devastating for ALL of my kids, IKL included. I refuse to keep her a secret. She deserves more than that. And I refuse to lie to my children. Even if it is a lie by omission. These lies will have to be addressed one day and I do not want to go down that rabbit hole.

Sibling grief in adoption loss is very real. Parented children, born prior to placement as well as after, are affected by it. There are no books about it, no expert advice. There isn’t even a children’s book in existence that deals with the loss of a sibling to adoption. There are literally no tools to help parented children navigate adoption. What I’m learning is that they do face a lot of the same challenges that us adults face. The only difference is they had no say so in it at all. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Like adoptees who sometimes feel like their lives are not in their own control, parented children can sometimes feel the same way.

It can hit you like a ton of bricks, the realization that your choices have caused your children psychological issues. Some will say, “Well, we’re going to have an open adoption so my children will always know their brother/sister and won’t have these problems.” I just laugh. I was going to have an open adoption, too. Go ahead and make your plans and hopefully they will work out. But when they don’t, you’ll be left picking up the pieces.

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