A Bouquet of Empathy for Those Who Grieve on Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to all you non-bio mamas out there. I see you. I feel you. I am you.

2015 Five years ago on Mother’s Day I mourned yet another negative pregnancy test and celebrated the completion of my first book.

2016 Four years ago on Mother’s Day I mourned the distance between Florida and Ukraine and celebrated the fact that very soon I would be a MOM!

2017 Three years ago on Mother’s Day I mourned the quick passing of time as my “Boys of Summer” grew up before my eyes, and I celebrated the cards and chocolate and flowers they gave me on my first Mother’s Day as somebody’s mother.

2018 Two years ago on Mother’s Day I mourned the loss of my joy and innocence as an adoptive mom and celebrated the truth that my sons were safe and healthy and had a better life they might have had if My Honey and I had not become their adoptive parents.

2019 One year ago on Mother’s Day I mourned the fact that my sons still call me by my first name and I celebrated the miracle that they would soon graduate from American high school. I was incredibly proud of them both.

2020 Today on Mother’s Day I mourn the missed opportunities to keep my mouth shut and love without expectations and celebrate the fact that I will soon be a grandma—in spirit, if not by name.

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“Today would have been my mother’s birthday.” My Honey said the words softly.

“How old would she be?”

“Eighty-nine.”

No wonder he’s been quiet all day. Loss affects everyone differently, but it affects everyone. Even those who love those who have lost a loved one. Read that again. Yes, even us—the ones who are here, waiting…praying for their grief to go away. Sometimes it never does.

I’ve watched this thing called grief eat holes in the souls of people I love. Death is a caustic thing. Especially the death of a mother. Especially the death of the dreams of mothers.

When we live with or love someone who is trying to figure out how to grieve their loss, we risk getting shredded by the shrapnel of their anguish. It’s easy to make it all about us when our loved one’s pain and anger erupts from their personal volcano. Disappointment and sorrow flow like lava, sometimes swallowing entire households until no one can move or breathe anymore. I’ve survived this lava-flow more than once in my lifetime.

Unresolved grief destroyed my first marriage. I thought cocaine was the culprit, but that was just the numbing agent. Unresolved grief fueled his need to numb. I blamed the drug. I should have blamed the pain.

Unresolved grief came across the ocean on a plane from Ukraine nearly four years ago. Some baggage cannot be easily left behind. I didn’t see it when we picked up our luggage from carousel number three in Jacksonville International Airport. I missed it as our friends and neighbors and church family waved flags and balloons and hugged the four of us until we couldn’t breathe. It eluded me as I cooked and shopped and tried to teach two foreign teenagers how to read and write well in English.

Somehow, my joy of finally becoming a “mother” blinded me to the fact that my gain was their loss. While I longed for them to embrace me and call me mom, their hearts were holding on to the women who birthed them and gave them their DNA. I didn’t understand. I felt the resistance, the rejection, the full-blown hatred at times. But it wasn’t about me. Those were just the numbing agents. I blamed my precious boys. I should have blamed the pain.

On My sweet Honey’s deceased mother’s birthday, he withdrew. Then he snapped at me and withdrew again. Then he apologized. My head was spinning. My heart was hurt. Later he reminded me he was remembering his mother on her birthday, six years past her passing.

My Honey is a grown man. A Christian. A pastor, even. But he snapped like a Texas turtle when I got in his way on a day when grief reared her ugly raw head. I blamed My Honey for snapping. I should have blamed the pain.

If a mature adult can snap at someone they deeply love on a day when their heart is aching, imagine what an adopted teenager can do when all they have known and longed for is destroyed and replaced. They never asked for the circumstances that set them up for adoption. They didn’t dream their birth moms would disappear from their lives forever. Or be replaced by a woman whose love feels foreign or threatening to their fading memories of the person they miss more than anything in the world.

If I’ve learned any lesson in these five years between fertility testing and watching my teeny tiny window of nesting motherhood disappear in the rearview of reality, it’s this: Don’t expect anything for yourself from anyone who is grieving. I will say it again. For anyone out there who is trying to be a mom to someone who did not come from your own womb: Crucify your expectations of what it will be like to be an adoptive mother, stepmother, foster mother or any other kind of mother. You. Have. No. Idea. I know I certainly didn’t.

I knew what I wanted. I knew what I needed. I knew what I was going to do and how I was going to make this happy little life for all of us. And I KNEW how much I loved my boys. But they didn’t. And they couldn’t. And nearly five years later, they still can’t. And you know what? It’s okay.

Because I know I did my very best with what I had.

Could I have been more trauma-informed? Yes. Could I have been less afraid of bad things happening and less protective of the darling boys I loved so much? Yes. Could I have had thicker skin and a better sense of humor when things got tense and words got cruel? Yes. But, could I have loved them or wanted life’s very best for them one ounce more than I did or do? No. They might not know that yet, but I do. God does. And one day, maybe they will, too. I hope so. I pray so. I believe so.

Whatever your mama-story, dear reader ~ I am praying for you today. I understand some of those feelings that make Mother’s Day difficult for moms like us. Maybe you can give your son or daughter the gift of helping them remember or honor their birth mom in some way today. And maybe you can set yourself and your family free from the trappings of expectation. Whether or not you receive anything with Hallmark written on the back, you ARE an amazing mom. You ARE doing your best. You ARE doing unto Christ whatever your do for His precious kids. And He will remember you when He comes again to take us all home to a place where there will be no more sorrow, no more pain, and no more death.

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Regardless of the symptoms of their children’s grief and pain, or the choices their children make, with God’s power and presence in them, “Mothers are patient, mothers are kind. They do not envy, They do not boast, they are not proud. They do not dishonor others, they are not self-seeking, they are not easily angered, they keep no record of wrongs. Mothers do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. They always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere. A mother’s love never fails.”

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (Adapted from the NIV)

Photo Credit: Sarah Alfield – Thank you for capturing this sweet memory of My Honey and his mother.

He Knows Them By Heart

I fell off the wagon today. I worked for nine hours at school. It’s Sunday.classroom

Yes, work is often my drug of choice. Some numb with food. Some with drugs, or media. I numb with work. As a teacher, it’s easy to do. The job is never quite finished. I could have stayed longer this evening, but I noticed darkness creeping onto the campus, sending shadows down the long, silent hallway as I hung my sixteen second graders’ writing samples in preparation for Open House on Tuesday.

I didn’t want to come home. It’s too quiet here. I can hear the clock ticking in the other room. I can see the boys’ shoes lined up underneath the sideboard near the front door. Even though they are naughty for leaving them there, I smile. They must have unloaded those when I wasn’t looking and replaced that space in their suitcases with Nerf guns or remote control cars.

Squatting to reach under the antique cabinet, I gather four pairs of well-worn, outdated shoes. Shoes my Summer Boys brought with them from their Ukrainian orphanages to America. Shoes that were too small the day they arrived. Shoes they were supposed to take back so other kids could still get some use from them. We had packed those shoes. I didn’t want them to get in trouble for not returning the things they arrived with. It’s too late now.

Taking the shoes into the tiny bedroom that used to be my office, I line them up against the closet door. I’ve barely been in here since they left last weekend. The room is a disaster. And it smells like teenage boys. But, that’s not what keeps me away.clothing on floorWhat keeps me away is the raw emotion I experience when I think of the two boys who shared this space for two months. What keeps me away is the longing to come in here and say, “Goodnight,” when I know their bunks are empty. What keeps me away is the ache I experience when I sit here, in my office chair, (the one they swiveled around and around, loftily demanding payment from Honey or me if we dared cross unbidden into “their” territory), trying to imagine what they are doing tonight. Only it’s not tonight. It’s tomorrow in Ukraine. It’s Monday – a school day.

God, I just want to talk to them. I want to hear their voices, even if I won’t understand their language. I want to look into their eyes and see if they are really okay, regardless of what their mouths say. I know them by heart. If I can just see them, I will know if they are afraid or alone or upset or content with their circumstances.

But, I can’t speak with them. I can’t see them. I can’t really know anything except that they landed safely and that they are back in their orphanages and back in their schools and back in their normal routines. And that they are (according to the chaperone), “okay.”

Are they really okay, Lord? Or are they “okay” like I was “fine” last week? “Okay…” with a nameless gnawing ache that does not go away, no matter what I’m doing. “Okay…” with the drumbeat of everyone’s busy life moving quickly all around me as I feel like blackstrap molasses in winter, s-l-o-w and dark and heavy with the bitter aftertaste that comes once the sweetness is gone. “Okay…” as I numb the ache with work and avoidance and grumpiness with my Honey who doesn’t understand where all this unusual emotion is erupting from. Are they okay, like me?

I don’t want to relapse into workaholism. But it helped to just be in a sterile space today: organizing and arranging and sorting and grading and planning and hanging student work on the walls. It helped to be away from home where the bananas are turning spotty and brown before my very eyes. This would never happen if the boys were here. Away from home where I know I need to wash their sheets and clean their room. unmade bedBut if I wash everything I might forget the scent of their space in our home. That almost-good smell of Axe body spray and antiperspirant barely masking the unmistakable musty sock stench emanating from underneath the bed. If I clean and tidy every evidence of them away, will they disappear from my memory, too?

I have a friend whose children are in foster care. I also have a friend who fosters children… who come and go and come again into her home. And I have a friend who mourns her choice to abort her unborn baby all those years ago. They each understand this ache, this longing to hold the child who holds your heart; this wondering that cannot be answered, either because of their own choices, or those of a system that controls the destinies of children who cannot control their own lives.

Rarely does a child not mourn the loss of their mother when extraordinary circumstances separate families. Frightened young kids don’t beg to be shuffled from temporary home to temporary home until the powers that be can finally decide what permanent living arrangements are in the child’s best interest. And nobody asks to be removed from their mother’s womb prematurely. Yet these tragedies happen multiple times every minute of every single day on planet Earth.

Refugees, homeless, orphans, aborted babies by the billions – What an ache God must have in His heart as He looks at the planet He created. How He must long to bring His children home. Our Father knows each little one by heart. He knows our scent, our secrets, the very number of hairs on our heads. He says He knew our names before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5). He knows our pasts and our futures. He knows the plans He has for us (Jeremiah 29:11).

He knows these kiddos, too. The ones we long to hold in our arms. The ones we beg to come home. The ones strung out on drugs. The prodigal ones who seem to be running farther and farther from us and from Him. And He knows the names of the ones we wish we could turn back time and resurrect. He knows them all. He loves them all. And He never ever forgets any of them.

When we connect with Him, we connect with them. When we commit them to Him, we can trust that they are in better hands than our own. When we pray over them, we can KNOW that we are heard and that heavenly beings are immediately dispatched to minister to their tender hearts.

Lord God, I’m sorry I worked too much today. I’m sorry I avoided the pain of my reality. I’m sorry I tried to numb the ache with busyness, just like I used to do when my whole life was chaos. Forgive me for turning to my drug of choice instead of turning to You. Help me to deal with my newly empty nest in healthy ways. Help me to trust Your plans for our future. Love on those boys for me today, okay? In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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If you want to pray a powerful prayer over your loved one(s), just plug his/her name into this Psalm wherever it says “me” or “I.”

1You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

2You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

4Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

5You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

7Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

8If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

12even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

13For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

15My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

17How precious to me are your thoughts,a God!

How vast is the sum of them!

18Were I to count them,

they would outnumber the grains of sand—

when I awake, I am still with you.

Psalm 139:1-18 (NIV)