While she was still in Korea, our daughter went to a weekly playgroup with other kids like her, who were waiting for their forever families. When we came to bring her home, the adoption agency that had become part of her regular community gave us a little photo book with a cheerful yellow cover and English words and phrases spread throughout it like, “I love you” and “happy day.” It’s full of pictures of her at playgroup playing with friends, enjoying Korean snacks and Korean toys. It’s a glimpse of her in her culture of birth before everything changed.
She loves to look at this book. Every so often, she will pull it off of the bookcase on the low shelf spot it keeps and pore over every page of it on repeat. Even though she is young and cannot fully comprehend or explain the loss she’s experienced, it’s clear that she still feels it, no matter how happy, brave and adjusted she’s become since. Early on, I was a little afraid to show her this book and other things that would remind her of life before us. For a few weeks, I put it on a high shelf behind other big books and looked at it when I was alone, thinking about what we would say when she looked through it and wondering what she would remember of it.
Eventually, we put the book out where she can see it and reach it and show interest on her terms. We look at the book and other pictures we have now and speak simply but honestly. We don’t do this perfectly. Sometimes I feel fear sneaking up on me and the desire to try and make sure she is happy and doesn’t have to face anything that reminds her of what she’s lost is strong. I have to push back against this. Again, and again, we see how imperative it is that we welcome her whole story. A story is incomplete without all the pages. In adoption and beyond, we must to learn to welcome our whole stories, or we risk missing out on growing in grace and knowing how deeply we are loved.
When she looks at the book, she says things like, “I want go there. Can we go Korea ‘gain? Together?” She then lists each of our names and says she wants us all to be there. She naturally wants to make connections between the two worlds she has known in her short life while knowing that we aren’t going anywhere and that we are forever.
We tell her we want to go back there and yes, that we want to go back there together. Every chance we have, we try, however imperfectly, to tell her that what she grieves is worthy of the grief she feels, whenever and however she feels it.
In western Christian culture, we’ve been conditioned to hide sadness, cover up weakness and put a strong and cheerful face forward. We hide our grief for fear that others will mistake it for ingratitude. We bury our lament before it’s finished because we’ve been told there’s an open window somewhere that we should be focusing on instead. And yet, when I look at scripture, I see there is welcome space for these things. There are no time limits or cut-off dates placed over them. Jeremiah does this beautifully in Lamentations 3. While the chapter ends with hope, there’s nothing of platitude in his writing. In Lamentations 3:19-24 (The Message), he writes:
“I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:
God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He’s all I’ve got left.”
His sadness is spiritual; he meets with God and affirms the place of his hope in the very depth of it. The most beautiful art and poetry courageously rise from places of ash and loss, brokenness and grief.
I am learning from my daughter. It’s impacting the way Matt and I parent all of our kids and the way we welcome our own stories with wholeness. I watch my daughter’s small hands working together, one holding her playgroup picture book steady while the other turns pages and urges her to remember who she was and who she is. I am learning in fresh ways that grief and joy can co-exist and work together. Like two hands from the same body, they work together to lead us to our one and only hope throughout every page of our story.