Monday, April 23, 2012

Stages of Grief for Adoptive Parents of Hurt Kids

Grief. It hits hard and it hits often. We can be having a nice day and then something triggers it and suddenly we are lost in it again. It takes a few minutes, or sometimes even a few hours or days, to get back on track. Adoption, which the outside world sees as such a happy thing, has a lot of grief mixed in for all members of the Adoptive Kinship Network (formerly known as the adoption triad).

Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross developed a model of grief commonly known as The Five Stages of Grief that she talked in her book "On Death and Dying" that was published in 1997. I've been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks, and it seems to me that adoptive parents go through these stages. Here is what it looks like for us:

Shock and Denial Shock can happen the day your child arrives or several months or years later. Many adopted children don't have issues that arise until they are in their early teens, and if they arrive at birth, that's a lot of years where things are going well. For us it was about the fourth day after the first two of our older kids moved in. We thought we were completely prepared and that we could handle anything. And suddenly we realized we were in over our heads. For most of us there is a day, somewhere along the line, where we are shocked that things aren't going to go as planned. It could be the day that our child is diagnosed with something we said we couldn't or wouldn't ever parent... or the day that we found out that they have been in contact with a birthparent on Facebook. But we head into a period of shock where we almost feel numb and aren't sure what to do next which we turn into denial. "This diagnosis isn't accurate." "The kids are going to get better." "This isn't happening to me." "I just have to wait it out." "I am sure that I'll find the answer really soon and everything is going to be fine."

Anger Once we pass through the shock and realize that we have a situation to deal with, then we can become angry. Thoughts like this come across our minds or even come out of our mouths: "This is NOT what we signed up for!" "I am beyond angry at the county for not telling us everything." "There is NO way that I can do this." And we seethe. Unfortunately, for some people this is where they get stuck and kids suffer because of it, as do they. All of us are here at some points, I think, but the trick is to get beyond it quickly.

Bargaining This is the stage that I call "Looking for the key." Once we realize that we do have the situation to deal with we begin to frantically search for THE answer. We run from conference to conference and from professional to professional trying to figure out how we can best fix our kid. We try something for a few weeks and when it doesn't work we try something else until we exhaust ourselves trying everything we can find. Sometimes we promise God things in order for him to want to reward us by healing our kids. Whatever it takes, we are willing to do it AS LONG AS the result is that our kids are going to be fixed when we're done.

DepressionThis can happen when we realize that nothing is working. The intense energy that we have spent seeking the perfect solution has us exhausted and emotionally frazzled and we figuratively land in a heap on the floor, exhausted and despondent. Again, sometimes this stage can last for a very long time, years even, and if we get stuck in this stage we and our families suffer.

Acceptance This is the place where we can say, "It's all going to be OK. I can't fix it, I can't change it, but even so I'm going to be OK and we're going to be OK." I think this comes for everyone who realizes that they can only change themselves and not their kids. It's a willingness to stop trying to control anyone but ourselves and to accept our kids as is, whether or not they ever change. It's a peace that is hard to explain until you get there.

The interesting thing about the five stages of grief is that the book was written to suggest that they are linear -- in other words, they fall into place, one after the other. The idea is that you pass through then one at a time and never go back once they are done. However, since then, many theorists have suggested that people jump in and out of the stages and don't always do them in order.

It's my theory (and probably not mine alone) that adoptive parents live with all of these jumbling around in their hearts and heads. We go through a few days of acceptance and then suddenly something happens and we are back at shock and denial. Or we take a brief swim in a pool of angry, or nap in the sewer of depression for a while. But there are ways of surviving all these stages of grief, whatever order they come in.

The first is faith -- possibly in God or a higher power, or maybe just faith in ourselves that we ARE going to not only survive but thrive in the chaos of parenting hurt neuro-atypical children. And the second thing is to have a sense of humor. Be willing to laugh at yourself and the things that your kids do. See humor in the weirdest places. Share your story with others in humorous ways. And finally, surround yourself with people who get it.... support groups, online folks, good friends are all ways to maneuver in and out of denial bargaining, anger, and depression, but having your baseline be acceptance -- a place that we can all learn to live with MOST of the time.

Whatever place you find yourself today, acceptance can be just around the corner. Strive for it... it's a good place to be.


Other Mother said...

I think the stages of grief can be revisted by the kids as well as the parents. Different triggers or life stages bring about different reactions for all of us. It's the commitment that holds it all together.

Adoptive Legacy said...

Thank you for this post. It is seldom that I read something and say to myself "that is exactly how I feel." Especially your comment about how it's not linear that we experience several of these emotions in different waves. I've also noticed that with having six kids I can be in a different stage with each of them which is quite the daily emotional roller coaster. GREAT POST!

Adoptive Legacy said...

Thank you for this post. It is seldom that I read something and say to myself "that is exactly how I feel." Especially your comment about how it's not linear that we experience several of these emotions in different waves. I've also noticed that with having six kids I can be in a different stage with each of them which is quite the daily emotional roller coaster. GREAT POST!

Sharla said...

Thank you for this. So often, the focus is on the stages for the kids, but there truly are stages of grief for us parents. I recognize myself in all of these. Great post!

Christine Reed said...

This is pretty accurate to my experience, too. (My husband and I adopted two girls when they were 13 and 10. They are now 18 and 16.) I'd like to think that I've moved on to acceptance, but sometimes I unexpectedly get hit with a wave of remembered pain and grief. Only now, I use it to remind myself to show compassion for the girls, who also have grief for the things they've been through.

Without God, I could not have come to this point.

Lisa said...

This was perfect!! I realized about 7 yrs ago that the stages of grief were exactly what I was going through with several of my kids. The school and social issues were exploding and I was just drowning in my grief. I was stuck in each stage and jumping around those stages for far too long (well, still am since the issues keep coming). I still can be completely thrown off balance when something new rains down, but at least I recognize it for what it is. I keep telling myself that certain things just won't matter in a few years as a way of getting thru the day sometimes. I don't know where anyone ever got the impression that adoption was all about kittens and rainbows - it sure isn't around my house!

Mommy Linda's said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for posting this. I expected things to be rough the first year or so after we got our children at 3 and 4 yo, and things did settle down to some degree. Then adolescence hit, new secret contact with the birth family which later came into the open after my daughter planned to run away to them, and new manifestations of FASD and a diagnosis of mild MR. I've found myself bouncing from one stage of grief to the other, and am encouraged that it is normal to feel that way. Your post is a gift of God to me at this time. Hugs!

momwithbrownies said...

Wow, do you every know what's what. Thank you for this.

We've adopted 4 children from "the system." It has taken me 7 years to come to terms with the fact that I can't "parent it out of them." I can't fix them because they aren't broken; they just are who they are.

Bi-Polar/Depression really sucks for an 8 year old and it is painful for his twin brother to witness; let alone understand.

RAD sucks in a 12 year old, and it is painful for the family to witness.

But, in all the sadness there is joy in knowing that, were they living in their birth homes, they would be worse; probably undiagnosed and flailing helplessly without help.

Though it's hard on us, it is harder on them. I thank God that we have our blessings...and that He gives us those peaceful-moments-of-a-life-jacket to hold on to, when we hit those unexpected rapids.