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Saturday, 23 January 2021
Loss After Loss Print
Adopted herself, an adoptive mom who is also a Christian pastor shines a light into the darkness of the deep sense of loss often experienced by adoptees

by Rev. Margot Starbuck
Durham, North Carolina

Child’s Play

My 3-year-old son clutches his dark and light-skinned “Little People” as I watch him play on the floor. He babbles a rambling narrative about the drama unfolding in the lives of the molded plastic characters. His tiny fists move the thick figures between a bright yellow school bus and a blue, still damp, bathscum-covered boat.

When I was a kid, the Fisher Price figures used to be smaller, 3/4-inch wide, made of wood. Their girth has increased, I suspect, to protect the windpipes of curious children. My son, adopted a year earlier, carefully lays a small plastic boy down to sleep, covering him with his own favorite blanket.

He announces, “He misses his mom.”

“Really?” I wonder aloud. “Where did his mommy go?”

My son tells me that he does not know.

I believe him, for I too was raised in a closed adoption.

Sinister Voices

Fresh out of grad school, my groom and I are cuddled together in front of a warm fire watching television. During a commercial he leaves for what I assume is a quick snack from the kitchen.

When the program begins again I holler, “It’s O-NN-N!”

No reply.

He hadn’t said he was leaving the house had he? I glanced out the window, thinking he might have gone out for firewood. Did he tell me about an errand? We lived across the street from the church where he worked, so perhaps he’d run over to get something. My mind scanned anxiously to fill the void.

I now know that another woman would have called out for him again. She might even have run upstairs to look around. Perhaps, noticing his absence, she would have simply continued to enjoy the show. It was, after all, his loss.

I was not that woman.

Panicky moments turned to what can only be described as terror. Emotionally bereft and physically incapable, I felt pinned to the couch. So sorely limited, I could no more verbalize my wonderings or rise to go find my husband than if I’d been a newborn. Though I’d later learn that he’d gotten to tinkering in the garage, he’d been as good as dead to me.

Had a concerned parental voice asked me, “Where did the lady’s husband go?” I would have simply spit out, “I don’t know.”


It wasn’t until I got married that I first began to face the impact of my own early losses. After a week in the hospital with my birthmother, I spent two weeks in foster care before going home with my forever family.

Forever lasted five years.

When my adoptive parents divorced, my father took a job across the country. Each parent remarried within a year or two. Both subsequent marriages ended in divorce before I’d turned 16.

Loss after Loss.

The way I weathered those losses for years was by smiling and acting as if they didn’t hurt. Though my husband was the first to weather the fissure in my protective emotional armor, now ruptured by our forever marriage bond, others close to me would also begin to experience my adult anxieties.

While waiting in a friend’s driveway to go out to a movie together I experienced the familiar absence-evoked concerns. Didn’t we say we were going to meet here at seven? Where is she? I don’t think we said we would meet at the theater....

I knew the watch-glancing anxiety while waiting alone for a church meeting I’d organized to begin. Where is everyone? Did I tell them the right place? I’m sure this is the right night....

I even felt the angst, for years, when my brother’s cell phone would cut out, leaving painful silence at the other end. Since he lived in the mountainous Northwest, it happened more often than I would have liked.

Eventually, I stopped calling.

If absence is the danger faced by all children, I had swallowed it whole.

Bathroom Breakdown

Recently Debra, another adoptive mom, and I chatted over coffee. I could tell from her weary expression that she was confounded by her daughter’s behavior. I pursed my lips and listened carefully with the trained ear of a professional adoption detective.

“Saturday morning,” Debra began, “Lindsey woke up and waddled into the kitchen wearing a dirty pull-up. I know how fragile she can be before she eats, so very gently I offered to help her.”

She continued, “We locked the bathroom door to keep the other girls out and got her all cleaned up. Because I was holding the dirty wipes and pull-ups I said, ‘I’ll throw this stuff away, and you can flush and put on new underpants. We both need to wash our hands.’ She seemed fine.”

I could tell by my friend’s tone that things were about to take a turn for the worse.

“Phil and I were in the kitchen,” she explained, “when we heard her scream. We ran down the hall toward the bedroom and found her still standing in the bathroom, unharmed. No one else was even in there! It’s like she was frozen, holding her underpants and babbling something we couldn’t even understand.”

“So what had happened?” I asked. I was on the edge of my seat.

“I don’t know! The only word we could understand was hand.”

Bingo! It was the clue that broke the case.

“Debra, I think Lindsey was waiting for you to come back and wash your hands together.”

Debra’s expression revealed she was baffled.

I knew, in my bones, that the glue holding Lindsey to the floor was more powerful than any felled armoire or cutting sword. I knew what it was to wait, wait, wait, assuming that the desired caregiver would return. I knew the disorienting confusion when the longed-for face fails to appear. I knew what it was to long for the person who is supposed to encircle you, press liquid soap into your hand, and help you get clean.

“Well she could have just come gotten me,” Debra reasoned, exasperated.

“No,” I explained gently, “She couldn’t.”

Faces of Hope in the Face of Loss

As a person of faith, my prayer for Lindsey is that her deep insides, that have come to anticipate absence instead of presence, would be transformed.

In the last six years, I have experienced redemptive “unsticking” as the Divine Face, the One who does not fail, was made known through human ones. I’ve seen the Divine Face in the face of a therapist and in the faces of prayer warriors. I’ve seen it fleshed out in the countenance of a husband whose gracious eyes say, “Of course I’d never leave you.” I’ve heard it in the voice of a brother returning an interrupted phone call. I’ve known it through the tender assurance of Christian sisters, both adoptive mothers, who were the first ones to find me, unnerved, waiting for our church meeting to begin. Through these human faces I have known God’s steadfast presence with me. I know it in my bones.

by Rev. Margot Starbuck
Used by permission.

Helping Your Child Deal with Loss
By Patricia McConnell, MSW

Imagine that you are an infant. Imagine that you experience the most terrible loss that could happen in your young life—the loss of your birth mother. As a helpless infant, you are dependent for your very survival on your mother or other primary caregiver.

The loss of this figure is literally analogous to death in the minds of young children. Remember, an infant cannot even walk or talk yet.

The terror that Ms. Starbuck describes in her eloquent article has a name. The professionals call it “fear of abandonment.” In my mind, the term is lacking because it does not adequately convey that this feeling of abandonment is equated with survival itself. Adoptees, who have by definition lost their primary caregiver, (along with anyone who has had a significant disruption or trauma) can be susceptible to this awful feeling. It is indeed incapacitating. It is almost impossible to verbalize because the event that triggered it took place before the person was verbal. This may also explain why it feels impossible to move or to take action.

As adoptive parents, what can we do to allay this fear? We know it is most likely to occur in the wake of transitions, separations, loss, anniversaries of important events, and any perceived rejection.

• Maximize opportunities to give lots of affection. Children with fear of abandonment need to know that you love them and are not going to leave them. While verbal assurances are excellent reinforcement, it is essential that the child also feel your presence and the stability of the relationship with you.

• Consider allowing your child to sleep in your room (or vice versa). Though some parents may not be comfortable with this, it can minimize the effects of the transition to sleep. The panic that can arise if the child is awakened during the night may be lessened if you are right there.

• Consider “time ins.” Though many parents are familiar with “time outs,” to a child with an insecure attachment, “time outs” can easily be perceived as yet another rejection. In a “time in” the parent explains the misbehavior, but stays with the child instead of banishing them to the corner or their room.

• Your child may sometimes have conflicted feelings regarding birth parents or being adopted. Try to be comfortable with whatever feelings your child may throw at you. Your child will then know that even if he/she is angry or sad, you aren’t going anywhere.

Originally published in Holt International Magazine, Spring 2008. Used by permission. Thank you to Holt and to the author for allowing this article to reach more families.

New Grandmother
Written by Denyse Diggins on 2009-07-26 22:23:48
As an about to be new grandmother, I have found your articles and this website to be so helpful. I believe it will keep me from feeling left out and I can understand when my children set rules and behaviors for family and friends. Thank you!

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