While adoption is celebrated as a joyous moment for families, it is also a response to a tragedy or breakdown in a family’s life and/or community. Co-hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber speak with Kimber Graves, who works for Orphan Care Alliance in Louisville, Kentucky, on grief and loss in adoption. Apply Kimber’s practical and sage advice to your life as you discover how Kimber watched and experienced grief with her two daughters when they were adopted from China.
To read more about grief and loss in adoption, check out the following resources below:
- Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew
- Questions Adoptees Are Asking
By Sherrie Eldridge
- Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections
Edited by Jean MacLeod and Sheena Macrae
- Wounded Children, Healing Homes
By Jayne Schooler
- Parenting the Hurt Child
- Parenting Adopted Adolescents
By Gregory Keck
To watch more about grief and loss in adoption, check out the following resources below:
To learn online about grief and loss in adoption, visit the following sites:
Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years, or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tara Melber.
Lynette Ezell: Welcome back to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Can I just share with you this morning what the Lord reminded me in Ephesians 4:7? When He saves us, and He calls us into his kingdom and into relationship with Him, the truth is that grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Now I share that today because, from personal experience of building our families through adoption and biological kids and blending all that together, life can get messy and very challenging. But I can testify today, from years down the road and going through so many things, that there is grace for every messy moment for our families.
Tera Melber: That’s right. Lynette, that really leads us into what we’re going to talk about today. We are welcoming Kimber Grace to the podcast to talk about grief and loss in adoption. And Kimber is a sweet, dear friend of mine. I just adore her. She worked for Bethany Christian Services for 12 years. And we worked together, she was the post-adoption ministry coordinator when we worked together at a church in Kentucky. And she now works for Orphan Care Alliance in Louisville. And she and her husband Scott have one grown son and two teenage daughters whom they adopted from China. So, Kimber, thanks for your time and for coming to talk to us about this important subject.
Kimber Grace: Well, thank you for having me. I’m really honored to be here.
Tera Melber: So, Kimber, you always say that adoption’s celebrated as a joyous moment for families, but it’s also a response to tragedy or breakdown in a family’s life. So, all adoption begins with loss. And as adopted or foster kids grow, they are faced with making sense of that loss. So, what does that look like, grief in adoption for children from hard places?
Kimber Grace: Well, as you said, Tara, because adoption begins with loss, it’s important to have that framework of understanding as we even parent our children. Grief isn’t just a one-time emotion. We can think of losses that all of us have experienced, of a loved one, of a grandmother, of even a friend maybe, who we’ve moved away from. And there are certain times and memories, scents or songs or movies that we see that remind us of that person we lost. And it’s really not so different for our kids. Our children have experienced a loss, some in infancy, some at older ages. And they process those losses differently as they enter new stages of development. So, when we understand that children don’t have the same vocabulary or the same emotional maturing to express themselves that we do if we’ve lost someone dear to us, then we can better be able to empathize with them, understand what their behaviors are telling us because behaviors are often what communicate what words are unable to for children.
Kimber Grace: So when you look at a child who’s experiencing loss, one who is in your family and on a day to day basis appears to be happy go lucky, just going through the motions of life the way that any of our biological children might, there are certain signs that we can look for and identify that might signal to us that they are processing or understanding that element of loss from their own stories. This can look like anger, depression, denial, sometimes what even looks like defiance that we as parents look and think, “Well, this is just disrespect or disobedience,” is really loss that is coming out, grief coming out through behavior as they communicate that to us.
Lynette Ezell: That is absolutely right. And not just parents, but caregivers in their lives, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, we all need to make sure that the child feels understood, that they’re supported. I have one that will kind of pull away and be alone in the middle of a group that that child couldn’t wait to get to. And that is absolutely right, you have to have those conversations. Because grief doesn’t tell time.
Kimber Grace: Absolutely. And there are many components that make up grief: fear, shame, sadness. Pieces of the adoption story are often communicated through those survival mechanisms. So, like you said, Lynette, it could be one person’s withdrawal could be another person’s acting out, it can look like tantrums, it can look like disrespect and disobedience. And it’s really important for us to put on our private investigator hat as parents. With biological children, we take for granted that they came from a place of being valued and cherished from conception. With children who entered our families through adoption, we’re always having to wear that PI hat and look at the why behind the behavior. Is this truly childlike defiance or is this something that is being communicated to me on a deeper level where words escape them? And that can help us to identify with them and to sit with them in their grief, to display compassion.
Kimber Grace: It’s interesting how you started the introduction talking about relationships being messy, because I was reading in my devotional day, it was Paul David Tripp, and it actually started with this quote, “We dream of having perfect relationships, but in reality relationships are messy and God has mercy for that mess.”
Lynette Ezell: Oh, that’s good.
Tera Melber: That’s right.
Kimber Grace: And that’s just so important for us to remember as we look as these behaviors, and sometimes as parents ourselves want to pull our hair out because we’re thinking, “Okay, what we’re doing with children we’ve parented biologically isn’t working here.” Well, that’s a big signal that there might be something deeper behind that behavior for us to explore. And we have to open that conversation. Tara, you and I have talked before about how it’s like throwing a pebble into the lake. Because sometimes our kids will say, “I don’t know,” when we ask what’s wrong, and they really don’t know. But we have to keep those lines of communication open by helping them identify what are the feelings that you’re experiencing. Sometimes children who’ve experienced trauma have a difficult time distinguishing between anger, sadness, and we have to help them identify what are the feeling and what are they trying to express to us, what are those needs. That’s why we’re the parents.
Tera Melber: Right. And I think giving kids that vocabulary, and giving them the freedom to say, “I know you don’t understand why you’re feeling this way.” And then kind of throwing those pebbles out. “Is it because of this or that?” I was just talking to a mom yesterday, she has a daughter that’s about seven or eight. And in counseling this last week there were some new things that had come up. And since that day, they have had the worst behavior ever. They were at this really great place, and then some things were revealed in counseling, and she literally has had day on end of just the worst behavior ever. And finally mom said, “Sweetheart, help me understand what’s wrong.” And the little girl just broke down, she said, “I just don’t know. Something inside is just wrong.” So they’re just working through that, but it’s hard. It’s so hard. And things that you don’t expect are going to trigger, like when you said it could be a song that comes on the radio or a smell. If a woman loses her spouse and then five years later hears a song that makes her feel sad because she’s remembering him, we give her a lot of grace. But when a child behaves in that way, we want to say, “Knock it off,” or, “Why are you acting that way?” instead of trying to put on our private investigator hat and see if there’s something.
Tera Melber: So weird things can trigger it, and I know you have an example of that recently with one of your girls about her makeup. So, I don’t know if you would want to share that or not.
Kimber Grace: Sure. Yeah. I think you’re so right about the triggers, Tara, and I do want to share that example. Before I do that, I think it’s important for us to look at those triggers and realize there are concrete triggers, which would be things like the death of a loved one or loss of significant relationships or holidays, graduations, things that we can tangibly identify as a trigger. The harder ones for me as a mom to figure out are the ambiguous loss triggers. So they’re things like missing details when our teenagers start to complete their own medical forms, or watching a family member or a friend experience the birth of a child and-
Lynette Ezell: Yes, major trigger at our house, yes.
Kimber Grace: Oh, yes. Hearing the conversations that occur. Or another conversation piece that can be an ambiguous trigger is the adoptive family, our family, sitting around, especially because all three of us have biological children, discussing things like, “Oh, you have dad’s nose and so and so has the sense of humor like Uncle so and so,” can become a trigger for loss when an adopted child realizes and acknowledges, “I don’t have any of these visible traits that they’re talking about.” And we wonder why they might be sitting quietly during a Thanksgiving meal as the family’s having a fun conversation or a jovial interaction about what those traits are that we’ve inherited. So there are many surprising triggers, like you said.
Kimber Grace: For my daughter, she is newly into the teen years and has been excited about learning to do her makeup. And I had told her I would take her shopping to buy some key pieces to get her started, some mascara, some lipstick. And she came home from school one day and was appearing to be defiant. She had a little bit of a snarky attitude and was back-talking. And so the instinctive mom response in me is, “That’s not acceptable. We don’t talk to that way to authority figures.” But I put that PI hat on. And so I dug a little, and the sassy remarks that I was getting from her actually had to do with, “I don’t want that makeup.” She was getting ready to go to a special event at school, “I don’t want any of that makeup.”
Kimber Grace: And so as I dug a little deeper, what came out was that she had encountered some conversations, some questions from friends at school, and they were actually not ill-intended, they were just curious. But a couple of friends had said, “Well, how do you put makeup on and how can you get that mascara to work?” Because her eyelashes invert. She’s Asian, so her eyelashes are different from many of her friends who are Caucasian. And that conversation had led to her feeling singled out, different. And then someone said, “Well, just have your mom show you how to do it.” And this was someone who did not realize she was adopted. So when she came home, it was this grief trigger for her of, “I don’t even have a mom who can say, ‘This is how we do our eyelashes with mascara together.’” And the comment that finally came out after a few hours of us working together to identify what was going on was, “I love you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re not by biological mom, and my biological mom could actually be able to teach me how to do mascara.”
Tera Melber: But don’t you think, Kimber, you have to then take a deep breath and you have to, as Mom, not be offended, you have to be willing to sit and willing to figure it out. And just to be super honest, it’s really hard.
Kimber Grace: It’s really hard and yet it is so critical that we create an environment of safety in our families where our children can say things like … and this is the statement that will go right to the heart, the core of a mom and sting, “You’re not my real mom. My real mom could help me learn to do my mascara.” Or, “I wish I had grown up with my birth family.” If we respond in a way that communicates that hurts my feelings, that’s not an acceptable emotion to share, then they will find other outlets, whether it is shutting down, whether it is sharing with friends who are not mom and dad. And so one of the most important things we can do is create that safe area within our families where they can share, “This is what I’m feeling because my feelings are my feelings.” Now, how we share that, how we share that matters. Learning to do that with respect, learning not to sin in our anger, those are all important factors. But we really can’t get to that step until we allow them to understand that if I’m having these feelings, you are my mom, you are my dad, and this is the place where I need to be able to come to process this and allow you to help me work through that.
Kimber Grace: It’s also hard for us, I think, Tara, when we’re sitting in the hard, to be that good listener, to not be the fix-it parent who immediately has an answer.
Lynette Ezell: Yes, the Ezell family have learned that. The last time we had this happen, we sat on a school night, about 11:30, and looked out a window sitting on the side of his bed for 40 minutes without one word.
Kimber Grace: Oh, yes.
Tera Melber: Right. But we do have to recognize, it really is not an affront against us.
Lynette Ezell: No, no.
Kimber Grace: No, it’s not personal.
Tera Melber: It is not personal. And so we love them and treasure them and want to create that safety for them. And so you have to move past, you’ve got to. Lynette’s quote, “You’ve got to be the adult in the room,” you’ve got to grow up and say this doesn’t have anything to do with you. This is all about your parenting your child through this trigger of grief and loss, and that’s okay, that’s an okay place to be.
Lynette Ezell: And one of the ways one of ours, the first way she was able to express it, and we were holding and rocking and touching all the time, holding her all the time, and she had older sisters, but she would say, “My love tank is empty and I don’t know why.”
Kimber Grace: Yeah, that would be one of those ambiguous areas where you don’t have a specific … a child can’t identify, and so we certainly can’t identify for them, but to sit with them and be present and sometimes to weep with them, to feel their sorrow, and it may trigger in us our own grief response. Some adoptive families are formed through infertility. Some of us, who it was not infertility, but we’re looking at a broken hearted child who says, “My love tank is empty,” how heartbreaking is that for us as a mom not to be able to make that better?
Lynette Ezell: Right.
Kimber Grace: But to allow them to see I feel your pain, I have compassion for you, when I think sometimes it’s real easy for us as parents to just say, “I’m in fix-it mode, you obey me.” And it’s not easy to sit for 40 minutes in silence, is it?
Lynette Ezell: No. It’s not. It’s time consuming, and a lot of people in the house don’t understand why you all are sitting there.
Kimber Grace: Exactly. Exactly.
Tera Melber: Right. Well, Kimber, how do we respond as parents in ways that will provide kind of a both/and framework? So both the hope of the gospel in addition to practical tools for integrating the complexities of adoption and grief and loss as our kids navigate everyday life.
Kimber Grace: Well, I think foundational to all of this is of course the gospel. It is the message of hope and healing and restoration given to all of us through Christ, whether our story is adoption, whether our story is some other kind of loss, because we live in a fallen world where we’ve all experienced these hard things. So when we are underpinning our families with the hope of the gospel, we can then move out to find the tools and resources that God gives us to say, “How do I minister to my child?” And it starts with what we’ve already been talking about, and that’s being present with them, listening to them, being willing to listen and maybe get at the heart of the why behind the behavior first before we address the behavior and the consequences that would come after. And that’s hard, that was a hard paradigm shift for me. When there is defiance occurring, can I look beyond the defiance, and in this moment, like Lynette said, be the adult in the room who cannot be triggered myself so that I can then talk with them about the loss and honor the importance of their feelings.
Kimber Grace: We have to recognize those grief triggers. And so when we are able to identify certain things that trigger our children, they may not even be aware of what it is that is triggering them. So sometimes we help them, we offer grace and compassion, and then we help them put words to what they’re experiencing. And there are times they will say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or, “I don’t know,” and that’s where we have to continue throwing that pebble out and asking questions. So, if you notice every year that on your family’s … some people call it Gotcha Day, family day, forever day, on the day that you celebrate when that child joined, that they tend to be sullen or they act out, that’s a great conversation starter. So rather than addressing the behavior, you start by saying, “Do you sometimes think about your birth family? Is this hard for you to process?” And it may mean that as a family, you modify how you celebrate that forever day and recognize that what is a celebration for us also signals loss for that child as they are processing that.
Kimber Grace: Some really practical tools are just things like creating a life book so that … and a life book is not a scrapbook from your perspective as the adoptive parent.
Lynette Ezell: That’s right.
Kimber Grace: It is the facts about their story. And it can be really helpful in healing to sit down, and again, it’s throwing those pebbles maybe in an indirect manner, instead of asking a question that might be intimidating to the child, just revisiting, “Here’s your life story. Here’s how the Lord brought you to us. And let’s talk about it, let’s go through it.” My girls have enjoyed that at each stage of the game, and I now have two teenagers, and they still enjoy pulling that book out and saying, “I want to read that life book.” And I think finally summing up how we respond, we cannot overlook the importance of gathering with others. So, whether it’s adoptee support groups … we see many adoption support groups for parents, but our kids need similar support. They need to have conversations with other adoptees who are being raised with the hope of the gospel so that they can process those feelings and look at someone else who can say, “I understand. I get how you’re feeling.” Because that’s the one thing that as a mom I have struggled with, not being able to relate to some of their feelings. I can have empathy for them, but I can’t say, “I understand that.” So those purposeful relationships with other adoptees and adoptive families go a long way in gaining not only wisdom, but just connection.
Lynette Ezell: That’s absolutely right. I was thinking, Paul told the church in Corinth, 2 Corinthians 5:15, because I need this, that’s why I ca remember it, but he reminds us that Jesus came so that those who live might no longer live for themselves. That those who live might no longer live for themselves. Parenting, I want to say adoption, but no, it’s parenting, parenting is beating that out of me.
Tera Melber: It is a sanctifying journey for sure. And I think we have to recognize that all of our kids are going to respond differently, and that that’s okay. You’ve got girls that respond differently. We’ve got kids that respond differently. And that we just have to be engaged and we have to recognize that the Lord is going to grow us and grow them through the process, and that it isn’t about us. We’re no longer living for ourselves.
Lynette Ezell: That’s right.
Tera Melber: It’s about what the Lord has done to help us be sacrificial for our children’s sake.
Kimber Grace: Well, I actually was reading this week the parable of the Good Samaritan, and was reminded in that, at the very end of the section, it’s in Luke 10, where the expert of the law asked the question, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man,” and he said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” And so when we think about that mercy that is being displayed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, go and do likewise is so applicable to us as parents. To go and likewise, to have mercy and compassion with our children. When I really mess up and blow it as a mom is when I’m failing to be compassionate and to extend that same mercy and grace to my child that God has extended to me.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, that is so true, Kimber. And that’s just a wealth of wisdom to share with parents. An adoption or raising our biological kids, I’m now with four grandchildren, and I still need to remember that.
Tera Melber: Kimber, I appreciate you so much. Your friendship has been a treasure to me over the years. I’ve learned so much. You spur me on to seek hard after the Lord in my life and in marriage and in parenting. So, I just really appreciate you. And I know that you’ve got several resources that you have for us that we’ll list in the show notes that I think that the listeners will really enjoy. So, thank you so much for your time.
Kimber Grace: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Lynette Ezell: May is national foster care month. As the body of Christ, we each have a part to play in supporting the lives of children and youth in foster care. For more information about foster care and supporting foster families, go to sendrelief.org.