Korean adoptee Kira Carman reflects on the grief and loss that she and many other adoptees face, and shares her advice from her own experience of learning to heal from these losses — and go on to live her “best true life.”
Many adoptees have large pieces missing in their early history, gaps that can’t be filled with records or memories. While I don’t know all the details of my birth family, I know that they were not able to keep me, and that a member of my birth family saw to it that I was safely left at a police station so that I would be tended to and properly cared for, and I am deeply grateful for their attention to my safety.
In addition to not knowing all the details of their young lives before they were adopted, I’ve found there is a grief adoptees* carry in their hearts that is unspoken, often unacknowledged, but nonetheless very real and felt. Children who are abandoned and placed for adoption lose a family at a very young and tender age. They lose a mother, a father, grandparents, perhaps even aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins. They lose a community, a city, sometimes a country, a language and an entire culture. I’ve found that these first wounds of loss can over time cause not just abandonment issues for adoptees, but also significant grief that can remain dormant over quite a long time.
One reason the pain of loss can remains hidden for so long is that one does not have time or the emotional resources to cope with grief when one is surviving, adapting to a new culture and language, and adjusting to being cared for by a family rather than hospital or orphanage staff. It’s an adjustment, and for a long time, there’s no reason to grieve because the adopted family is meeting the adoptee’s needs. In my case, there was a time when my top priority was undertaking the simple task of trusting men, or trusting a person wearing a white doctor’s coat, without having a tantrum. Safety, comfort, trust issues, adaptation and separation anxiety tend to trump the need for the first wounds of grief to take their full course of healing.
It’s a strange, curious emotional lull. It lies in the low places, hides out behind feelings of comfort and acceptance — and perhaps the familiarity of routine — until something triggers it.
Adoptees almost inevitably at some point in their lives find themselves bereft and in the grip of sadness and an unnamable pain that blindsides them. The triggers may vary. Maybe it’s when a beloved pet dies, when family dynamics get difficult, when they lose a job or when a marriage falls apart, when a grandparent dies, or when a friend becomes terminally ill. The grief and other emotions they feel may be out of proportion to the recent stressful events that triggered this underground spring of grief. At that point, it may be nearly impossible to discern what emotional pain is due to the current circumstances and what pain is due to past echoes of loss. It may not be necessary to tease the emotional threads apart. I would suggest that the awareness of such a tangle can help greatly in supporting oneself or a loved one through the maze of grief.
It’s said that when a person you love dies, all the other people who have passed before rise up and die again. That is, the pains of previous losses are relived as if the recent losses press and dig an unmerciful finger into old wounds. I would suggest that this phenomenon of reliving old grief during times of loss or significant transition can also trigger the loss adoptees experienced when they lost their biological family. This is true whether or not the biological family is living or dead, found and reunited or not. This makes it tricky. It’s a grief that can be instantly coated in shame because to acknowledge that grief may feel disloyal to one’s adopted family. The adoptee may emotionally revisit an uncertain past while their loved ones and friends are baffled and want for very well-meaning reasons to say, “But look, you got another family, a good family, and they care about you very much.”
That is true and it’s also true that the pain of having lost an entire family at a young age leaves an indelible mark, which needs to be acknowledged, healed and brought to completion in an adoptee’s heart.
How does an adoptee do all this healing of grief without possibly feeling disloyal to their adopted family?
It may be helpful to remind one’s support system that these old wounds can be addressed precisely because of the stability, love and acceptance they offer. It is their love and support that allows an adoptee the safety to feel and express their emotions as they arise. If their family is for any reason uncomfortable with hearing these expressions, then they need to be honest, so that support may perhaps be found from other sources — from friends, therapists and teachers. Family counseling is an option. It may also be helpful to keep the lines of communication open and, if necessary, give the adoptee space to sort out conflicting emotions.
The hidden stream of grief is an unwelcome guest in an adoptee’s life. Fingers get pointed to the obvious causes, the immediate stressors, and it’s very easy to overlook the impact of those first and early wounds. However, if the old unwelcome grief guest can be embraced for what it is — as an opportunity to heal — then the pain offers a hidden gift. It offers the gift of loving two families: the one that gave them birth, life and history, and the one that gave them a stable, loving family and hopeful future.
It is important to have awareness of this loss that so often goes unacknowledged because it happened so long ago. It is a loss that also very easily gets glossed over in favor of looking at the obvious bright side… “Life turned out OK, you got adopted.” I want to bring attention to this because awareness is key. Our issues often have a long unconscious history and if you find that you are having a particular struggle with a loss or significant life transition or rite of passage, it can be helpful to ask:
“What other losses could have been triggered by these recent stresses?”
“What hidden wounds need to be heard, healed and brought into the light of truth and understanding?”
“Maybe my reactions aren’t out of proportion. What about this situation is bothering me the most? Why?”
Inquiry and awareness are powerful. If you’re unhappy, ask, seek help, trust, heal, and know that your best true life is not just the good times where you celebrate all that is going well and right in your world. Your best true life also happens during those times when you feel the deepest pain and unearth the courage to embrace and transform it into love and acceptance. It’s the greatest gift we adoptees can give to ourselves, to be true to every aspect of our lives and ourselves. We must not shrink away from any fear or pain that would suggest we are less than the fabulous creative souls that we are, for we are so much more than our histories, our stories or our wounds.
May you live your best life with courage, grace, love and hope.
Kim Han Nah, Korean Name
Seoul, South Korea, Born 1978, exact birthdate unknown.
Adopted December 19, 1980 at approximately 22 months old.
Myrtle Beach, SC
*Kira is not a mental health expert. She learned about grief and loss in adoption while studying psychology in college and through connecting with fellow adoptees as a family member and friend.
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