Grieving the Child Who Did Not Die
I gazed at my thin contorted body through the mirrors surrounding me on all sides. The face looking back seemed dazed, eyes empty and unfocused. My hair and makeup were given barely a moment’s notice that morning and it showed.
As I studied my reflection, the yoga instructor gently called to us to extend our legs, push with our arms, or tuck our heads. I obediently complied, willing my body to listen in a way I could not will my heart. I briefly wondered if my mom told her class about my loss. And if they didn’t know, should I tell them? It never occurred to me that announcing my experience to the class would not be necessary, practical or particularly wanted. But even if it had — even if everyone had asked, “Why so down?” — I know that the words from my mouth could never match the feelings in my heart.
Because I was grieving the child who didn’t die.
My relationship with my child might not have been typical. Nor was the end of that relationship.
But our love and our loss could never be more real.
An unlikely hello.
Ryan and I said “hello” to our son Z very unlike how most people meet their children. We adopted our daughter a few months earlier and spent that summer enjoying having the foster system out of our lives. And then, one Thursday afternoon over lunch, I got a call from our agency director. A baby named Z needed a home for an indefinite amount of time. It could be a week or two. It could be forever. Would we be his family for as long as he needed one?
We’d said no to these kinds of calls before. But we couldn’t this time, the situation was too heart-breaking. And so we drove to his current foster home, and held for the first time this little waif of a baby whose eyes were closed as tightly as the swaddling that encompassed his frame. Two days later, after he came into our home with all his belongings in one plastic grocery sack, I looked deep into his eyes and made him a promise:
I don’t know how long you’ll be mine, but I will forever be yours.
It was a promise I meant. It was a promise I kept.
He was tiny when we met him.
Barely 12 pounds at 5 months old, wearing 0-3 months clothing. He awoke every 20 minutes around the clock, with the most heartbreaking, guttural cry. But when he was fully awake, his eyes shone with light, love and the purest of joy. I held him that day, and I held him every day for the next year and a half. I took him to every appointment, watched as he learned to crawl then walk. His first word was mama, and he directed that to me. We taught him to sleep and to eat and to play. We gave him unconditional love and the stability of a family. And he attached to us, deeply.
In our home, there were no distinctions between “biological love,” “adoptive love,” or “foster love.” We loved each of our children with all we had. We were 100% family. For 164 hours each week, I was his mom. He went to his bio mom the other 4 hours of the week for visits, during which time I worried and thought of him and wondered how he was.
The state barely gave him a transition to his bio home before we were told to have him at his bio mom’s house at 4 pm sharp on the agreed upon date. (And when I say, “agreed upon,” I mean bio mom and the state agreed on the date, and we complied because foster parents don’t have rights.) We did all we could to make his last day with us meaningful.
I implored time to stop, to stretch out, to last forever so I could have more time with this child I raised as a son
I held my beautiful Z as he peacefully took his last nap in our home while I wept as silently as I could, my tears damping his soft curls. I video-taped the last few minutes of him playing in our home with his sisters for the final time, and then told my girls to give him a hug and say goodbye. He was not, as we had to remind them and ourselves, their “forever brother.” My girls didn’t fully understand what was happening, even though we tried to prepare them for this moment.
I scooped my little man up into my arms, all toddler now and almost 2, his body no longer belying what brought him to us in the first place. He draped his chubby arm around my neck as I walked to the garage. I hugged him longer than I should, and my husband reminded me we were a few minutes late, which could be seen as a violation of the court order. So I placed him in his car seat, looped his arms through the straps, his eyes fixed on me as I did so. With two clicks and a tug, he was secure. It was the very last thing I would ever do to make sure he stayed safe. I kissed all over his sweet face. Took one last picture of him with his arm outstretched reaching for me, shut the door and stepped back. My husband pulled out of the garage, down the driveway, and slowly turned out onto the road. I followed him with my eyes until he rounded the first bend on our road, and then every feeling around this goodbye hit like a tsunami.
I wailed without restraint. My stomach twisted and revolted. I ran to the bathroom and hung my head over the porcelain bowl as my body tried to rid itself of the hurt but only managed to rid itself of the contents of my stomach. My two daughters tiptoed in behind me, patting my head and telling me it would be OK.
It’s been two years now since I watched my husband take my son away to his bio parents. I haven’t seen him since. In some ways my daughters were right. It would be OK. And in other ways, it will never be OK.
It wasn’t a death.
It wasn’t a death — and yet it felt like a death. I reminded myself of the beauty that he was still alive as often as I could. I can still have hopes and dreams for his future, even if I am not a part of those dreams. Even if he never remembers me or the time we shared as family. He still had a future and in that is hope and joy.
And yet. It was the death of a relationship. The child I raised through infancy, this child I loved fiercely with a mother’s heart, was out of my life. I would never be his mom again. Maybe I was not what you typically think of as a bereaved mom, weeping over the body or headstone of her precious child, all hopes, all dreams, all potential lost forever. But I was bereaved.
As a woman who experienced recurrent pregnancy loss and secondary infertility, I had the words to describe my experiences of mourning a child lost in pregnancy, and I had a built-in community of women who offered solidarity, support and validation for my grief. And yet with the loss of Z, I didn’t know how to verbalize that this experience caused me just as much pain as the loss of my children in the womb. I didn’t know how to be this kind of bereaved mom.
Grieving the child who did not die.
I have come to understand that grief is so much more than a response to just death. It is also a response to the severing of a relationship forever. It is, as they say, “love with nowhere to go.” And there are so many kinds of families loving with nowhere to expend that love:
- A biological mom or dad who has placed her child for adoption, believing they are doing the right thing for their child, but living inside with an aching hole that will never be filled.
- Extended family who could not keep in touch with a child who was adopted out of the family.
- A birth parent who was unable to keep the rights to their child.
- Parents whose adult child has cut them from their lives permanently.
- A family whose child is missing.
- A step-parent who raised a child but had no legal rights to stay in touch.
- A hopeful adoptive parent who was matched with a child, only for the adoption to “fail,” the country to close its borders, or for the parents to change their minds.
And while the circumstances prompting the grief might vary, there are many feelings we share when it comes to our bereavement . . .
1.There is no closure.
My ex-husband referred to it as feeling like your child has died. For me, it was closer to what I would think a parent whose child is missing or kidnapped feels. The ache was bone deep while at the same time I would search crowds trying to catch a glimpse of her and would jump each time my phone rang hoping it was someone telling me there was a change and she was coming back home. I still find myself imagining what she may looks like now and worry I would walk by her without recognizing her after 4 years.
It feels like your child was kidnapped, and no one cares, you have no one to share it with as “it was the plan” but your fears, anxiety, and guilt are at an all time high, and your hope at an all time low . . . . much like what I imagine are the feelings of the bio-parents at removal.
On the one hand, I can totally understand how having “no closure” sounds like a good thing. There’s hope that we’ll get to see our child again!
On the other, this lack of closure makes it so very hard to grieve. When our foster son left, we were promised visits. We anticipated the change in relationship with our child, we grieved that he wouldn’t be “our son” and we wouldn’t be “his parents” anymore — but we still clung to the hope that in the coming weeks, we would at least get to see him and give him a hug. Over the course of the next year, we slowly came to understand that these promised visits would not come to fruition. During that year, I held out hope for a text message, for an offer, for an update. Each month that went by without connecting with him felt like a new death.
Furthermore, his home is just minutes from mine, and his siblings went to my daughter’s school. Our communities were so close, I was always on the lookout to see him at school pick up, or at the grocery store, or the post office. Several times I saw his mother, and sometimes I was able to drop gifts at his front door — once while seeing his little fingers prying at the blinds, but his face still shrouded from view. I was so close. And yet still so very far. And then I wonder if one day, when he is old enough, if he will search us out and try to connect?
While a lack of closure offers hope, it also can offer false hope — which in turn delays or complicates our grieving process.
2. My child lost their family. I not only mourned for me. I mourned for his losses too.
We had a foster daughter from the time she was 11 month old till she was a little over two years old. She was going to be our little girl forever, but a judge and a social worker messed up . . . . We went on to adopt two more children but will never get over the loss and her last words to us when she was picked up! She said, “I come back?” We will always think of her and hope she is doing well!
Imagine one day you’re at home, and a social worker walks into your home unannounced and uninvited. “Pack up your things,” she orders. “We found a better family for you.” You are then forced to say goodbye to your husband and children, are transported to a new house with nothing more than a grocery sack for your belongings, and are greeted at your new home by a strange man and strange kids. “Here’s your new family,” she gruffs, and then tells you you will never see your first family again. And even if you did, it would only be to visit, like friends or distant cousins.
That is what a foster or adopted child goes through. First when they are pulled from their home of origin and placed in our care. And then, if and when they are returned back to their bio family. When Ryan dropped Z off at his bio mom’s house, then turned to walk away, Z ran after him, arms reaching out, yelling, “Daddy!!!” My husband had to leave him there. Ryan came home more broken than I had ever seen him before.
When our son left, yes I grieved for all our family lost. But I also grieved deeply for the losses he surely felt in his body and heart, but didn’t have the words to communicate.
3. It’s hard not to worry. Constantly.
It felt like we were abandoning him.
We always wonder how our child is doing. If they are safe, hungry, etc.
If a child died, we wouldn’t worry about whether they are safe, fed, loved, or happy. We wouldn’t have that pit in our stomach, knowing that they probably in part feel that we abandoned them. I didn’t know what to hope for! Hope she’s safe and I never see her again? Or hope that something not too horrible happens quickly so that I get her back!? I clearly remember telling my counselor that it would have been much simpler if she had died. And only my one friend who had traveled this path before me could understand. It was so so terribly lonely.
“It feels more like we abandoned a child, instead of saving him,” I recounted to a friend. And it was true. I worried constantly for his safety. I imagined all the scenarios of what could happen, and often does happen, in his kind of situation. After 17 months of helping this child heal, returning him to the place where he was originally unsafe was terrifying. And there was nothing I could do to protect him. I lay in bed at night worried he wouldn’t have enough to eat. Worried someone would take advantage of him. Concerned he wouldn’t have have love and stability and safety. Stressed that he missed us and didn’t understand where we went.
In fact, I still worry. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop.
4. There are triggers everywhere.
It’s so complicated. But, the grief and heartache are real and we need people to stand in that with us and acknowledge it and tell us we loved well.
Our child was deeply ingrained in our lives. Every routine, the fabric of our house, our schedule, all wrapped up around this placement of a child in our home. His leaving felt like ripping a wound open again and again. Each time I walked by his room. Or found a toy I forgot to pack up and send with him. Or discover the clothes I had packed away for his visits to us that would never come. I went to mom’s group with one less child in my arms. I attended church, where some people knew me well enough to know that we had three kids, but not well enough to know why we suddenly went down to two. Memories of our time with him popped up on Facebook each day.
Through the years, the reminders of his presence (and absence) in our lives have become bittersweet. While I’ll always miss him, I’m thankful the triggers also now remind me of the joy we once shared.
5. Moms and dads are not the only ones who grieve.
We grieve and remember the milestones and birthdays and Christmases we had together.
Children grieve the loss of a potential sibling through adoption or foster care just like they might grieve the loss of a child in pregnancy. That sibling felt like their forever sibling. And as parents, we not only have to grieve ourselves — we need to help our other children manage their bereavement around losing a sister or brother. My girls tried hard to understand why Z couldn’t stay. But when we took in a foster child for a week just a few months after Z left, I watched both my children react with deep fear. When our baby was born a year later, they kept asking, “Can we keep her?” They loved her but were so afraid to get attached.
Our extended family grieved too. Our parents lost a grandchild, our siblings lost a nephew, our nieces and nephews lost a cousin. We all felt the pain of his homecoming.
6. I was afraid people would think I was replacing my son.
The hardest part I have is someone asking when we are going to get another kid completely discounting the heartbreak and not understanding they are not replaceable.
My husband and I were matched with an expectant mom who, after giving birth, told the agency she changed her mind and that she gave the child to a friend instead. What I wished people knew was that a “different child” does not fill the hole. We were missing this child. This child that we had been praying for for four months. The child whose ultrasound I had in my purse. The child whose room I decorated, the child who I purchased all those clothes for . . . We have since been given the ultimate privilege of being parents to a sweet baby girl, but there are times I think about how old he would be and what is happening with him.
The day our foster baby left I found out I was pregnant with my son. A piece of my heart remains with the baby who left. And in my heart, I have three children not two. I will never see him again and that breaks my heart.
Three months after our son left, and after five years of trying, we fell pregnant with our rainbow baby Ellie. As scared and hopeful as I was about being pregnant again, I told my fears to my husband. “We’ve already been a Lewis party of 5 before,” I said. “And now, we’ll be a new Lewis party of 5, with different kids. I don’t know how to do that. I think everyone will think, ‘Now she has her own kid, so she’s OK.’ I’m never going to be OK with Z being out of our lives.” My husband thought for a moment and said quietly, “No, I don’t think you’re right. We’ll be ‘Lewis, party of 6 minus one. We’ll always be minus one.'”
While our rainbow baby has brought tremendous joy and healing, she will never replace the space in my heart for Z. We’ll always be minus one.
7. Our grief often starts before the loss.
Anticipatory grief is a real thing too. Often we know months ahead of time that things are changing. And the grief process starts then and when they leave.
Often, when I cradled his little infant head up next to my face, when I breathed in the scent of him and felt the full weight of his frame resting comfortably in my arms, I asked myself, “How will I ever give him back?“ and I kept asking that over the next year and a half, as his case ebbed and flowed and plans and timelines changed. Would I be strong enough, brave enough, to hand him back and still keep breathing? I asked myself this every time a social worker came in our home and informed me our time was coming to a close. I started the grieving process the moment I began getting attached.
There is no timeline for grief, they say. And that is ever so true in the case of the loss of the living child.
8. We still want to talk about them, and love it when someone says their name.
There’s also something to be said about always remembering that child. I will always be her mom for the first 6 months of her life. She’ll always be in my heart and prayers. You don’t just forget a bio/adopted child if they pass away and you don’t just forget a foster child if they leave.
After adopting our son from foster care, we parented three other boys temporarily. Most of the world sees me as a mom of one, but I will always have four boys in my heart. The three others are doing well with their biological families. Some I miss more than others, miss them all any ways. Family, friends, and society do not understand the grief that followed when they left. I still have contact with the two brothers which has helped the process. We may not have day-to-day contact, but I can still be a part of their lives. You even grieve a teen who thoroughly stressed you out and leaves while you are on a business trip then never speaks to you again. While we had a strained relationship the entire year he lived with us, there is still grief. You wonder if you were beneficial to him, if you made a difference.
I will always be thankful our family and friends got to know little Z. I love it when they say his name, remind me of a memory we shared, or recall something funny he did. While I may not still be his mom, he’ll also always be a son in my heart.
9. You can love and grieve a child you haven’t yet gotten to hold.
I grieved hard over a baby girl we were matched with for nearly a year but were never able to bring home. We named her, watched her grow from afar, decorated the nursery for her… It was our second adoption loss, after years of trying to have a second child. My biggest struggle was never feeling justified in my grief over ‘my’ baby girl. I’d never even met her. Nobody around me understood. I had a hard time allowing myself to grieve and share my feelings, even with my husband. Just having ‘permission’ to grieve — confirmation from someone that my feelings were normal — would have been so helpful. That’s one of the first times I realized how lonely adoption, and the process of getting there, can be. I still wonder about and pray for the little girls I never brought home, even sixteen years later.
We were in the process of adopting an unborn baby boy when we found out Mom had actually not been entirely truthful with us and the child’s biological dad wanted custody. We gracefully stepped aside for him to be able to raise this baby. The hardest part? People saying, “You jumped in too much too soon.” No one would say that to a couple prepping to parent a child that they loss to miscarriage. (Then again, maybe some would?)
We were parents for that short time. We were in love with that sweet babe. I can’t just “be happy it happened early.” I can’t just “trust it was all for the best.” Those feelings come later. Much later. We deserve time to grieve without judgment. I am so insanely grateful for the ones we know and love who said, “We are so sorry for your loss.” Because that’s what it was. Loss of a future as a family.
Just like many of us begin loving our bio children from the moment we get that positive pregnancy test, adoptive parents often begin loving the children they hope to adopt from the moment they “meet” them. Whether that’s through a phone call, an email, or a photo shared — the love, the hope and the dreams for that child all begin. When an adoption falls through, hopeful parents don’t just “get over it” or move on. They have to grieve the very real loss of a future with a child they loved.
10. The depth of our loss is often invalidated by others.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was grieve a child that wasn’t dead. Please don’t ever tell me to go home and love the children I do have. The two have nothing to do with each other. Please don’t tell me that it just wasn’t meant to be. Tell me that you are here if I want to cry from the depths of my soul. Say it’s ok to miss my child despite having 10 others. Tell me that he was beautiful and perfect and wanted. Throw me a baby shower even if he may not stay. Just walk with me in understanding as I process something that God never meant for me to have to bear.
A mom of many that has grieved foster children and a failed private adoption.
I also don’t find it helpful to hear the comment, “Well, we all know that it’s best for children to be with their birth families” No. We don’t know that. Yes, it is the goal, and is often what’s best, but not always. And its hard, so hard, to accept that they are not going to grow up the way I wanted them to — and yet, they are with their birth family, and that has importance too. It’s so very complicated. I still miss them because they were mine . . . for a while. They continue to be mine in heart.
Having people say, “Well they were never yours anyway,” or “they were just foster kids” is really hurtful. That the pain is SO real. So much like the grief with a death, except they are alive and you have to worry about them every single day.
“You signed up for this.” There are a million things I want to say to those who don’t think I have the right to hurt because I signed up to be a foster parent. “It wasn’t a death.” This I know, which I’m thankful for and appreciate the differences of those experiences. “You weren’t his real mom.” If you mean I didn’t give birth to him, you’re right. But if you mean I did not really mother him day and day out, then you are wrong. To Z, I was mom.
It’s not so unlike what we hear from those who don’t understand pregnancy or infant loss. “He’s in a better place.” “You were so early.” “At least you didn’t get to know her.” “It was just a mistake.” “You should be thankful for the kids you already have.” The platitudes might be different — but the hard truth remains the same: Our society has a very difficult time valuing the lives of children, appreciating the magnitude of what is lost when we lose a child, and imparting empathy into our grief.
11. It’s not all sad.
Grief is complex, especially for foster care. We grieve the loss to our family, but celebrate the reunion of another.
It is hard for people to understand that we are rooting for their bio parents and attaching to our foster child on the deepest levels. We are glad they were reunited but are rocked by grief at the same time.
We had two sisters with us for 13 months, we made the decision not to adopt them and they were adopted by people we know, and still I mourn the loss even though it was the best possible outcome.
Because we have a great relationship with mom and supported reunification 100%, people are surprised that I still miss my former foster daughter terribly, three years after reunification. Sure I can talk to her and see her pretty much whenever I want, which I’m VERY thankful for, but it’s not the same as her living with me and being my daughter. Even though I never called her my daughter or called myself her mom, that’s how I loved her. And still love her. In some ways my grief is frozen because she didn’t die, she’s happy and loved, and I’m really, really glad for that. Being sad for myself feels petty given all that has gone right for my little buddy.
I was torn when Z left. I wanted him here with me, desperately. And yet I recognized that he was with his birth mom who had done all that was required of her to do. She fought for him, and really, could I ask for less? Could I hope for less? Doesn’t ever child deserve a parent who is willing to fight to get them back? When I gave birth almost a year after he left, I held my daughter and thought of Z. I thought of how much his birth mom must have missed him while he was in our home. And maybe for the first time, it began to feel right that he was with her. Hard –hard as anything. But ultimately, I hoped, it was the right thing.
While I was heartbroken to say good-bye, I’m still so thankful we had the chance to know him and love him. He is worth every single tear I’ve cried.
To all of those who are grieving the child who didn’t die, I want you to know you are not alone. This amazing community of bereaved parents takes you in with open arms. We affirm the love you hold for your child, we validate the grief you feel in your loss, and we welcome your stories of the child you hold in your heart and not in your arms.
Have you grieved a child who did not die? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.
Are you a mom who has struggled with infertility or loss, or are building your family through adoption or foster care? Contributor Rachel Lewis invites you to her private support group called Brave Mamas. She’d love to have you along. Click here to join.
Rachel is offering a free booklet, “Your BFF Guide to Miscarriage: 5 Ways to Comfort a Friend Through Pregnancy Loss” on her website, The Lewis Note. Click here to get your free guide.