Laying My Burden Down…

Today in cyberspace I came across this post that talked about how we all walk through life carrying a burden like some oversized suitcase. For some, it’s divorce. For others, it’s infertility or some dark moment(s) from the past.

Our children each have a suitcase, too.

One of the things that struck me about this post is the idea that each of us have to learn how to take out and lay down the heaviest junk in our suitcase, so we can carry it. This doesn’t come naturally … and in point of fact, it’s something that in an ideal world parents teach their children.

When I encounter people struggling with divorce, I often refer them to Lisa Dudley’s website and her excellent book, “Divorced. Catholic. Now What?” For teenaged burden-bearers, I also like to give Lynn Kapucinski’s “Now What Do I Do?”  I just gave a copy to one of the girls in my religious education class, and her mother immediately wrote to thank me for giving her a resource to help them talk more openly and constructively about what the girl was going thorugh.

Is your child struggling with some burden or grief?  Don’t forget you are the one who is best able to help him or her process what she is going through. Get professional help if needed … but do talk about it.

My friend Judy Miller sent me this link about an upcoming adoption workshop she is offering, a six-week e-mail course that covers a variety of aspects of adoptive parenting.  If you’re feeling in need of a little extra support, this may be a good resource for you!

Weekend Ponderings: Time Passages

Memorial Day Weekend is a family holiday at the Saxton House. Four years ago this weekend, Chris and Sarah were welcomed into our family through adoption . . . and into God’s family, through baptism.

We always try to spend as much time as possible together, enjoying each other, on these weekends. And yet this weekend, I confess there is a bit of a pall over our festivities. Yesterday a dear friend of ours passed away — Father Roger Prokop. I wrote a little about him at “Mommy Monsters” today.

Today’s Gospel, then, speaks very clearly to me today, from John 16:

“For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me
and have come to believe that I came from God.
I came from the Father and have come into the world.
Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”

I wonder how the apostles felt when Jesus said this to them. Did they know just how little time Jesus had left? Did they contemplate what life would be like without Him? Did they suspect, even momentarily, that they would experience such profound spiritual intimacy with the Eternal One? Or did they simply get caught up in their dread and grief?

It’s been four years now since the Saxton Family became the Saxton Family. It’s been longer than that since Father Roger and I saw each other with any kind of regularity — we joined a parish close to our new home shortly after the kids arrived. And yet, I miss him. I know that, even now, he continues to pray for us — even as we pray for him.

Other priests — good men, all of them — have become a part of our lives. But Father Roger will always hold a special place in my heart. His life was to me a living reminder of the God who loves His children, no matter how far away they move.  Rest in peace, dear friend. 

Happy Feast of the Annunciation!

small-family1Today we celebrate the Feast of the Annunication, the day the angel appeared to Mary and announced that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Incarnate Christ. Her gesture of obedience — the “yes” to God’s plan for her to become a mother while she was still unmarried, and to raise His only Son to manhood — was an act of pure courage.

God’s act, one of pure mercy. Despite the fact that the world didn’t understand, didn’t recognize, and certainly didn’t want the sacrifice … He came and lived among us, first as a helpless infant, then as a young man, then as a teacher … and finally, a living embodiment of God’s eternal grace.

Today, God continues to live among us, though in many ways His Spirit is resisted even more than it was two millennia ago. Lives through the Church, both through the sacraments and in His people. The Spirit continues to speak, through the ongoing tradition and teaching authority of the Apostles and their successors, through the written Word of God, and through divine interventions — miracles — all around us.

Most of the time, we think of these “miracles” as positive outcomes. A healing here, a reconciliation there, a flash of inspiration or transformation that yields tremendous spiritual fruit. And yet, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “God shouts to us through our pain.” From this perspective, even tragedies like this can, from a certain perspective, rightly be seen as divine intervention. Our Good Shepherd knows what it will take to reach even the most stubborn sheep.

May God grant that even in this situation, the shout of His Spirit fall on ears ready and willing to listen.

Ghosts and Superheros: How Children Cope with Loss and Grief

shadowRecently Christopher has been preoccupied with ghosts (thanks in part to his older brother, who in typically older brother style regaled his little brother with horrific stories of things that creep and bump in the night). We’ve talked to him about the guardian angels, who protect him through the night. But the imagination is a powerful thing, and several times Christopher has wound up in our room (on the floor in a sleeping bag).

His preoccupation with ghosts and superheros borders on the obsessive, I think … and yet, I hear that this is not uncommon with children who have experienced trauma. It’s part of the way they process what has happened. For Christopher, the superheros (such as his Pokemon DS) provide a distraction and escape from Big Feelings that just won’t quit.

I recently came across this article that describes the “Basic Ph Model” for how children cope with ongoing trauma and stress. This would have real applications for children who have experienced a real — and not just anticipated — loss. Many foster and adopted children would fall in this category, as well as children who has lost a parent through death or estrangement through divorce.

The article describes the six “copying styles” most frequently used by children, which include:

*  Beliefs (drawing comfort from their family’s religious and cultural values, especially through meaningful ceremonies)

*  Affects (venting feelings and emotions, often by talking with a trusted adult)

*  Social (seeking support and comfort from friends and extended social network)

*  Imagination (processing feelings through creative outlets such as drawing, play therapy, creative writing, etc.)

*  Cognitive (processing through problem solving and planning safety contingencies)

*  Physiological (physical activity as a way of providing a welcome distraction, giving the child a “break”)

Author Frank Zenere observes about this last strategy: “Directed physical activity has a dual benefit, allowing necessary buffer time and permitting informal processing of traumatic experiences to occur in a non-threatening format. Opportunities for formal and informal physical activities should be abundant.”

One of the hardest things any parent can do is help a child navigate the uncertain currents of loss and trauma. However, knowing what to look for — and how to adjust our approach to accommodate the needs of a particular child — can make all the difference.

Family You Don’t Get to Pick

christoper-communion-close-upThe past few days I’ve been corresponding (sometimes through the comments section, other times privately) with a couple of birth/first mothers who say they want to understand the implications of reunification from an adoptive parent’s perspective. One of them asked me (I’m paraphrasing here): “Why WOULDN”T you want birth family members at milestones like birthdays, graduations, and weddings? Don’t you invite aunts and uncles and extended family members?” (Yes, but no one confuses them with the parents!)

Each triad is so different it is difficult, if not impossible, to make blanket statements about how adoptive families should — or should not — navigate these situations. The saddest cases, of course, are those adoptive families that would like more information and/or contact, and have no way of getting it. On the other end of the spectrum are adoptive families who lie awake nights, contemplating a move to the other side of the country so birth/first family members don’t kidnap the children while they sleep. Most families, I suspect, fall somewhere in the middle.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was greatly encouraged by Patricia Dischler’s book Because I Loved You, in the way she described open adoption dynamics. It is reassuring to know that there ARE birth/first families who genuinely support the efforts of adoptive parents, and have no wish to supplant them. Frankly, I’d like to hear more stories like those … Stories of successful birth/adoptive family integration. (If you have such a story, I invite you to post it here, either in the comments or as a guest post or link.)

I have one friend, who is both a birth mother and an adoptee, who has the gift of a truly integrated extended family.  However, I can also point to six other triads I know personally, that have not been able to manage this for a variety of reasons, from lack of information about birth parents, to unwillingess of birth parent to have contact, to addiction or mental/emotional stability issues making it impossible to sustain contact.  

The prevalence of open adoptions is making it increasingly common for adoptive and first/birth families to sustain contact from the outset. As foster parents, we had weekly agency visits with the birth family of our children for the first year and a half — always a very intense situation, and one I would have given my right arm to avoid altogether. (I penned a little ditty about one of these visits here… in a post called “The Family You Don’t Get to Pick.”) Agency days were invariably the days when all hell broke loose, with wall smearing and food throwing and general surliness and craziness all around. It took 3-4 days just to recover, then we got to do it all over again.

Six years have passed. The kids no longer see their birth parents, and see their older siblings about once a month. And yet, clearly the memories are still very much present. Chris especially is missing his mother and siblings, which is a normal part of foster-adoption, the grieving. And as any mother knows, the only thing worse than enduring a loss yourself … is to watch your child go through it. You fill up the love banks as often as you can. You let him talk. You find ways to make him laugh, or play, or enjoy himself. Sooner or later, the sun comes out again. But part of you stays braced, just waiting for the next storm.

Today at “Heart, Mind, and Strength,” Greg and Lisa Popcak (who last year adopted a little girl from China) spoke with a mother whose six-year-old son was acting out in school (I caught only the last half of the conversation). Turns out they had been forcibly removed from their home, and the father had been forced to go to another state to find work. “Of COURSE he’s going to act out … His little world has been turned upside down!” exclaimed Lisa. They recommended a book called The Positive Child, which I plan to check out …

One of the greatest challenges of (foster) adoptive parenting is knowing how to handle the “ghosts” … and sometimes, the family you don’t get to pick.

Bad Endings: When Choices Break Our Hearts

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about choices. The ones we make (and wish we hadn’t); the ones we didn’t (but wish we had). The ones that hurt no one but ourselves … and those with far-reaching consequences that hurt the least deserving.

For example, “Orphans Hope” reports that if all the parentless children of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, they would circumnavigate the globe three times. (In most cases parents do not choose to leave behind young children — these choices are more complex and indirect, in the form of cultural and global indifference, complacency, and greed.)

Happily, many couples are responding to this overwhelming need by stretching the borders of their families, some through foster care (domestically) or sponsorships (internationally), others through adoption. Increasing numbers of families foster and/or adopt after having (and possibly after raising) their own children. However, traditional adoption has been a kind of twofold redemption.  Continue reading

“What Should I Say?” Comforting the Grieving Heart

Yesterday I posted an article from a grieving mother, who lost her baby at six months’ gestation, and whose grief was compounded by the evident joy of her sister-in-law, whose baby was due at the same time hers was to have been born.

C.S. Lewis writes about grief:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is liike being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness …. Other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or, perhaps, hard to want to take it in.  It is so uninteresting. Yet, I want others about me. I dread the moments the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me…” (A Grief Observed, p.1).

In the calling of Extraordinary Motherhood, there are ample opportunities for grief and loss. For some of us, it is the relinquishment of fertility; for others, an adoption disrupted or (in recent months) a placement lost. For others, it is the actual loss of a loved one, whether to some horrific disease or sudden accident or even permanent estrangement.

And so, I’d like to invite you to share … What have your experiences with loss taught you about dealing with the sufferings of other people? What have those experiences taught you about yourself?