Sunday, July 22, 2012

What Does Grief Look Like?

Grief wears many faces. Sometimes the face looks sad; at other times angry; perhaps withdrawn; maybe confused or anxious; and yet the face of grief during particular moments can even look joyful.  When examining how any one person may experience grief, there are so many factors to consider, probably as many as the number of hairs on each of your heads (or your friend's head if you are get the point).

Grief wears many faces.

This is a true and almost overly vague blanket statement.  It needs to be a blanket statement at times because trying to pinpoint any one reason or cause will probably not lead to an accurate diagnosis.  Grief, like so many other things in our orderly universe, is a system of systems.  It comprises one's entire being: physical, mental, and spiritual.  Years of hurt and harm and pain, coupled with life experiences and passing time, add up to the daughter I look in the eyes today.  Those eyes have seen unimaginable horrors. They have had to be braver than I'll probably ever need to be.  Those eyes try to hold back the tears because life has taught them 'why bother?'.  Those eyes, sometimes filled with hope and at other times seemingly distant, as if remembering or trying to forget, are the eyes I seek to make contact with as much as possible.  The eyes I encourage to flood with tears.  The eyes that I pray will experience healing and comfort and pleasure and growth in Christ.  The eyes that I desire to grieve forward, growing and learning, yet able to grasp and unwrap the many painful experiences of the past.  

An old proverb says that eyes are the windows to the soul.   I would like to believe that to be true.  My experiences tell me that the saying is true, although I know this may leave questions concerning visually impaired individuals.  When I look into my daughter's eyes, I look deep.  I see the pain, the confusion, the hope.  I see her draw close at times and at other times push back, as if she is fearful that letting her guard down will result in more pain.  I see that her grief is very real, very raw, and yet only in its infancy.  I know we will have many grief episodes in the upcoming weeks and months.  They will wear different faces and be triggered by any number of things. defines grief as keen mental suffering or distress or affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.  When I recited that definition aloud, the words themselves made my stomach drop as if on a roller coaster; they conjured up many ill feelings and emotions.  I need nothing more than to think about losing my mom to cancer and am flooded with grief, with regret.  In many ways, I can empathize with my children's grief.  In many other ways, our grief is as unique as the people experiencing it.

What does grief look like on any given day?  

Funny you should ask.  First, let me start by saying that grief can and does look like any number of things.  We cannot forget that grief wears many faces, many masks.  My previous post was about honoring the "other woman", our children's birth families, and other caretakers their lives.  I felt a strong nudge to write that post and stayed up until 1:00 a.m. on Friday evening knocking it out.  It was almost as if God knew I was going to need to read it myself two short days later.  That I was going to have to be reminded about her birth mother because we were about to have our first real grief episode and God wanted to let me know what this particular episode may be about.  

The following is what unfolded over the past 24 hours:

We returned from an awesome bike ride around a local lake and were eating dinner, preparing to watch a family movie.  Big Sister wasn't feeling very well.  She pointed to her lower belly and mimed cramping.  (Insert:  There is nothing like physically not feeling well to introduce grief.  This is something I can relate to.  I remember the first time I got ill while away at college, running a high fever and not able to get out of bed.  I wanted nothing more than to curl up on my mom's couch and have her make me scrambled eggs, toast, and tea and to tell me everything would be OK.  However, I was three hours away from home and wanting to play the part of a secure, confident grown-up, I probably just internalized the fear, felt lonely, and hoped for the best.)  Anyway, I noticed her start to withdraw.  I gave her some Tylenol for the stomach pain, sat next to her on the couch, and rubbed her back.  Soon enough, she seemed to be feeling better.  We read, prayed, and said good night.  

Fast-forwarding to this morning, she woke up on time and we all rushed around the house getting ready for church.  It was our typical Sunday-morning-not-so-calm-thirty-minute-dash to get the kids fed and dressed, their teeth and hair brushed, and into the car fifteen minutes before the service begins at church.  (Insert:  If I could go back, I would have slowed down a bit this morning, remembering Big Sister was a not feeling well the night before, and would have remembered to start the day by hugging and kissing each child, thanking God for another day with our family.  Instead, I rushed around like a mad woman trying to make sure all the boxes were checked, forgetting to start my day with prayer and thanksgiving.  Boo to me!)  Church came and went and Big Sister did well in Sunday School, making sand art using the colors of the Ethiopian flag.  I had a meeting to attend at noon so my husband took the kids to the park where they played and rode bikes.  When I returned, he told me to go check on Big Sister because he sensed she was "off".  I sat in the dining room where I could hear her in her bedroom upstairs.  I heard a little bit of banging and stepping, but nothing worrisome.  I gave her some time, but then went to check on her.

I will share the next part of the story a bit hesitantly.  It is one of my worst fears that anything I write would scare anyone from reaching out to parent an older child.  I share our stories simply so that others going through similar situations do not feel alone.  I pray that it encourages, not drives away.  Older child adoption has blessed our family in more ways than words will ever do justice.  I see Jesus' face in every hurt and broken child, young and old, and personally feel called to older children.  There is nothing that has ever happened in our home that would paralyze us from adopting an older child.  However, with all adoptions, we have to remember the other part of the equation.  Someone endured great loss before a child was added to our family.  That pain and loss has consequences.  In the case of older children, they are bigger and more vocal and tend to act our their grief in different and various ways.  Also, please keep in mind that Sassy, brought home at eighteen months(ish) old, wrecked havoc on all of us.  Her screams of terror could be heard a block away and I was nearly at my breaking point when when her piercing shrills subsided and she allowed herself to trust me to meet her needs and not abandon her.  My point is that infants and toddlers experience grief too, they just don't have the words to tell us what is going on.  

Back to the story.

I walked down the hall and knocked on Big Sister's bedroom door.  She opened it slightly, but did not want to let me in.  She pleaded with me not to come in, but of course I had to.  She had throw all of her pictures around her room along with a small wicker basket.  (Honestly, my preschoolers make more a mess with their toys.)  She had turned over all of the picture frames on her bed (holding photos of our family, her birth mother, and friends from Addis).  They were all face down.  On the floor, her photos were throw in two directions.  To the left were pictures of her 'old life' and to the right were pictures of her 'new life'.  On her magnetic white board hung a black and white printout of a photo taken of her and her birth mother from the orphanage.  The messy room was a beautiful blessing from God.  I could visually see the struggle going on in her mind and heart.  She was torn.  Was she to the left or to the right?  Where did she belong?  What was her identity?  She wanted to escape, to not have any visual reminders that her life was split in two.  That big, life-altering, permanent changes had taken place.  There was nowhere to escape to.  This was home, and this home is now part of her identity.  

We grieve forward.  

For this first time since arriving home, she cried.  I felt relieved.  She let herself have an outlet, to allow her emotions to surface and flow freely.  She kept apologizing for the photos and I kept reassuring her that it was OK.  I told her that I knew it was hard.  That it is OK to be angry, sad, and hurt.  I reminded her that her God loves her very much; that her birth mother loves her very much; that I love her very much; that we all love her very much; that all would be OK.  She held on to me and cried, as I kept telling her I would never leave her and that we are going to be alright.  Once she calmed down, I helped her pick things up.  I put the photos from the right and from the left in a mixed pile on her desk.  All there, mixed together, in one big stack.  Then, I sat on her bed and pointed to the photo of her and her birth mom.

"You miss her?" I asked.  Oddly, perhaps I thought not understanding the question, she said no.  I asked again.  She shook her head no.  I was confused.  Then, she said something that reminded me that God is always in control.  Always in the details, big and small.

She pointed to the picture and said, "That mom...same.  I look your face, see her face.  I look her face, see your face.  Same.  Mom."  I tried to choke back my tears as I remembered Sporty telling me something very similar.  He had a very special nanny during his long stay at the orphanage and one night, when he was recalling his time with her, he told me the same thing. Almost using the same words.  He saw the same face.  The face of mom.  (I told the story about Sport's nanny in this post.)  It doesn't matter that our skin color or ethnicity are different.  It doesn't matter that our bloodlines hail from opposite ends of the world.

God is so much bigger than skin color and ethnic origins.  God cares for his children and wants the best for them.  I am continually reminded that when we step out in faith and live the Word, God shows up big time and fills in the gaps, taking care of everything we are not capable of taking care of ourselves.  Oftentimes, God shows up in ways so perfect and specific, that I would be willing to bet it would be statistically impossible to happen otherwise.  When my face needs to look like the face of another, God makes it happen.  To bridge the gap.  The heal his children.  To remind us of the hope found in him.

As Christians, we are called to the bring the joy found in Christ to the world.  To a broken world.  To offer healing and grace and hope.  Sometimes that involves facing grief in its human form to bring hope and healing to a hurting child.  Sometimes it looks like things thrown around a room.  I'll take it any day of the week.  For a child who has only been in our home three weeks to feel comfortable enough to let her guard down and throw a fit means that she is starting to feel secure.  How lucky am I to be part of her story?  Her story of hope and healing.

Thank you God for allowing me the pleasure of knowing the joy found in loving and serving you.  Help me to never forget!

Psalm 10:14
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
    you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you; 
    you are the helper of the fatherless.
Photo Credit


  1. Beautifully shared. Thank you so much for this! I am just now feeling the longing to adopt again. Perhaps God is breaking down the barriers in my heart to love even when it is difficult and messy. To continue loving through the difficulties and messes. Blessings to you! I look forward to reading more on your blog and hearing how God is so faithful. ~Debbie

    1. Thanks, Debbie! Good luck on your newest adoption journey. So is always messy. There is so much growth in the process though and God is ever-faithful to respond to our needs.