I was dressed in a clown costume: colorful babydoll dress, bloomers, big shoes, red nose — work — getting ready to run the annual July 4th 5K in Skagway, Alaska. As I was stretching at the starting line and playing towards the crowd, my husband came up to me, grabbed my arm and tried to pull me down a side street. Disturbed by his intrusiveness, I pulled back, ready to demand an explanation when his face seemed to melt.
His gray complexion and the way he reached out for me pressed reality in my face. Like in a movie scene, my body crumbled to the ground and like in a lucid dream I levitated above me: My body lay slumped in the middle of the city’s Third Street, in the middle of the hoop dress like a direct hit. The sound that escaped my lips still echoes through this empty street – and in my skull.
In the days and weeks that followed, people expressed their condolences. They placed gentle hands on my forearm and silently nodded or, more commonly, uttered the phrase, “I am so sorry for your loss.” Emails filled my inbox, and heartbroken messages and sad face emojis popped up on social media.
These compassionate offerings were welcome, if painful, reminders that I was a mother who had lost her child. But her kindness marked a clear demarcation from the last time I mourned the loss of that same child: after relinquishing my parental rights 23 years ago.
Back then, no one reached out a compassionate hand. No one said they regretted my loss.
There were no congratulatory balloons or condolence cards in the hospital after the birth of my son. Family and friends just left me alone and even the sisters didn’t seem interested in staying any longer. However, these moments alone with my newborn son are among the most bittersweet of my life. The days I spent recovering from a cesarean gave me time to hold my baby boy and kiss and sing while explaining to him — and trying to convince myself — why another family is better would be than me
Upon my discharge from my mother’s home, where I had spent the final months of my pregnancy, there was no mention of a missing baby. Daily activities returned to normal. I don’t blame my family for not acknowledging my child’s absence; how could they if I couldn’t admit it?
No one had given me the tools to process the sadness of his absence, the overwhelming pain in my chest, or the empty feeling in my arms. Instead, I took the blue baby blanket I stole from the hospital, wrapped it under my swollen face, and cried in my room with the door closed.
But I didn’t cry long. Since adoption was technically my “choice,” I didn’t feel like I could grieve.
I was twenty years old, poor, uneducated, and single, not having the qualities of a “good mother” that I cared about. So, like many birth mothers, I dissociated the trauma of giving up.
From the beginning of my “decision making consultation” the pregnancy worker/adoption attorney, part of a religious organization, had used very specific terminology. First, even before my son was born, she used the term “birth mother” rather than “mother-to-be,” which is both demeaning – banishing me to a baby incubator – and coercive, as it creates an expectation that I would give up my baby. She then used words like “brave” and “selfless” to describe the adoption, conveniently – or intentionally – without mentioning the trauma that comes with giving up, and she insisted I didn’t “give my baby away.” would, but would “place” him.
Looking back, I see this as gaslighting and better understand how it serves to devalue or disenfranchise the sadness of renunciation. And the ambiguity of the loss—the fact that my son was alive but absent—contributed to the tendency to sweep him under the rug. And in my case, my silence and shame was reinforced by snide comments from acquaintances such as “I could never do such a thing” or “How much did you sell your baby for?”
But when my son died at twenty-three, everything was different. We had only been reunited for five years and had only met face to face once, but people automatically expressed their condolences, no questions asked. There was a funeral, a ritual to mark the course of his life and to honor the grief of his loved ones.
grief we have shared as a group.
At my son’s funeral, I had the honor of sitting next to his adoptive family, for which I will always be grateful. Since his death they have shared memories, stories and anecdotes about our son. I appreciate our time together. But when I was healed, I discovered that I couldn’t process my grief the same way his family did because the memories weren’t mine. As an example, the first Christmas after my son’s death, I struggled to find ways to acknowledge the loss and process my grief. Grief experts I spoke to recommended that he set his seat at the table and cook his favorite meal, but my son had never sat at my table and I didn’t even know what he liked to eat.
That brought me to the big question I was trying to formulate: How could I honor and mourn someone I didn’t even know?
When asked if I would have children before my son and I got back together, I often said “no” and remained aloof rather than face any accusatory or pitying looks or the embarrassment I felt. When he turned eighteen, I shyly but happily began to say yes.
I began to admit that I put him up for adoption as a toddler and realized we were navigating the roller coaster of reunion. After he died, I discovered that there was less stigma to having a dead child than an abandoned one, so I said, “Yeah, but he died,” which you’d take for granted, but I soon discovered there was is not like that.
See, when she’s engaged, that question inevitably turns into something along the lines of “What was he like?” And my truthful answer is, “I don’t know.”
As the intensity of the pain decreases over time, grief experts recommend that parents say their child’s name. And many parents, at least those who have done their grief work, want to because it triggers fond memories. But I don’t have them, and I wish desperately I had them.
When I hear people tell first-time parents, “You should be happy that your child is in a good family” or “You should just move on, you can have other children,” I can’t help but see the pain that this despite all the good causes intentions.
I want people to realize that the grief of not having a child deserves recognition. And this familial and societal recognition could be crucial in starting the healing process; i know it was for me
So I challenge people: if you know someone who has given up a child, maybe next time you say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because even if that parent has willingly given up their parental rights, you still have one child lost.
It’s grief, and most of the time it goes unrecognized, but it doesn’t have to be.
Candace Cahill is an author, silversmith and musician. Her forthcoming memoir is titled Goodbye Again: A Memoir. You can learn more about her work at candacecahill.com or follow her on Twitter @candace_cahill_.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
https://www.newsweek.com/giving-son-adoption-23-years-later-life-turned-upside-down-1711477 “I gave my son up for adoption – 23 years later my life was turned upside down”