On Grief: Our Failed Adoption

It’s been a little over four months since Ethiopia decided to end intercountry adoption indefinitely and I still have a hard time talking about it.  Even as I sit down now to write about it I’m stifling tears, but I’m desperate for some closure to this chapter in our family’s story, and I hope that writing will give me that.

Back in 2014, Frank and I both felt the strong conviction to be a part of ending the world’s orphan crisis.  147 million orphans around the globe.  Did you know that if only 7% of people who claim to follow Jesus would adopt, the orphan epidemic would be eradicated?  7%!!!!!  We knew we had to step up and do something.  After much prayer and research, we made the decision to start the process of adopting a girl from Ethiopia.  Deciding to adopt is full of decisions you’re forced to make.  Where from?  How old?  What gender?  How many kids?  We were met with a lot of criticism about our choice, but we had five other considerations at home and we did the best we could with the choices we had to make.  Maybe they were the right ones, maybe not – but most prospective adopting parents do not make any of these decisions on a whim or for selfish reasons.  We checked off the boxes and hoped for the best.

For the next three years, we fundraised, hired attorneys, endured home studies and background checks, got our passports, and a host of other boring but necessary things that you have to do when you want to adopt.  And then we waited.  God, the waiting was hard.  We filled the tough days and weeks and months of waiting by praying for our girl every night with the kids. We prayed for safety, rest, and that someone was meeting her practical and emotional needs until we could get to her.

We began to speak the name that we chose to add to her African one:  Francesca – after her soon-to-be father (which is actually an Ethiopian naming tradition).  We would soon discover that her name meant “free”.  So now when we talked about her, prayed for her, or prepared for her – we did so by name and with the explicit intention that we would one day help her be free of her title of orphan.

While we waited, we prepared.  We studied Ethiopian culture, bought and hung African art in our home, rearranged our kids’ rooms, researched how to handle attachment issues common among adopted kids, read about curl patterns and different ways to style African hair, and SO MUCH MORE.  There was not a day that went by that our impending adoption didn’t affect every decision that we made as a family.  I also allowed myself to grieve, which I maintain to this day is a very important part of adopting.  Adoption is born from trauma, and to not recognize the pain that creates the need is negligent, in my opinion.  I cried tears for the mama who would not or could not raise her baby, and I cried tears for my future daughter who would never again know the love and touch of the woman that brought her into the world.

A little over a year into our adoption process, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda with a group of women and spent several days working in an orphanage.  I cannot adequately articulate the heartache I felt every time I had to put one child down so that I could pick up another, and the subsequent grief I felt when we left.

Me holding baby Jocelyn.

The ratio of 20 kids to one “mama” in that orphanage made my stomach hurt.  It was as if I had the opportunity to hold the child I was waiting for and to physically experience the conditions she was living in while she waited for us.  Leaving Uganda and all of those orphans behind was agonizing.  I cried for weeks.

This guy…can you even with that smile?!?!?!

Despite my heavy heart at having to leave those babies behind, I returned home with a renewed sense of hope and purpose for our own adoption journey.  There was something very transformative for me in being able to put a name and a face with our story…even if it wasn’t OUR child I was holding.  David Platt’s words about orphans became more real to me than ever:

We learned that orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names. They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they’re not real before you hold them in your arms. But once you do, everything changes. -David Platt , “Radical”

And that was that.  Everything changed for me.  I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I had a clear vision in my mind’s eye about what our baby would look like and feel like.  I could hear her laughter and envision her sweet little presence in our home.  It made the waiting both easier and more difficult simultaneously.  It was a tough conundrum that I was now wrestling with by myself because my husband stayed behind to watch our kids while I trekked to the other side of the world to hold and love these babies.  He didn’t get the newfound perspective that my time in Africa gave me.  Three years later, he would say that while he also felt grief at our loss, this is what saved him from being on my level of heartache when our adoption fell apart.  He never got to hold “her”.

We Regret to Inform You

We always knew Ethiopia was an unstable program.  But kids were still being adopted at a somewhat steady rate, even though the number of successful adoptions out of Africa were far fewer than other places.  Our objective was always to advocate for the children that were in the greatest need.  This included signing up to parent a special needs child, as well as one from a country that did not exactly make the process easy.  We were in it to fight for a child to have a chance at growing up with two parents in a loving home, instead of an orphanage, so we chose to dig our heels in and stand in the greater gap.  Again – these choices are never easy, but it’s the only one that gave us any peace.

Even knowing how precarious international adoption could be, not gaining a family member at the end of this journey was never a consideration for me.  Frank and I both felt so incredibly sure of our role in this, so I never allowed my mind to prepare me for heartbreak by thinking about the “what ifs”, although my husband did.  I’m not really sure what the difference is, but it wasn’t until I sent the email officially closing our case that I truly allowed the grief to begin it’s relentless process.

I skipped over denial, anger, and bargaining and dove headfirst into depression.  This loss is not something that is talked about very often, because to outsiders, there was never any physical thing for me to grieve in the first place.  Compared with death or miscarriage, for all intents and purposes, I should be grateful, right?  After all, I knew of many prospective adoptive parents that had already been matched with their children that would quite possibly never see their faces again.  The United States was doing everything they could to complete those cases but nothing was guaranteed.

We never made it that far.  We didn’t receive that email with our child’s name, photo, and medical history.  We didn’t have court dates scheduled or plane tickets purchased or a crib waiting in an empty room.

What we DID have was a picture of our family that will never come to fruition.  We have a swingset in the back yard that our children still swing on, but that swingset looks different now because it was built with the intention to also hold Baby Francesca.  Everything in our house looks different because for SO LONG, there was another family member in our minds that would be a part of it.  Is the grief from mourning the loss of an idea any less painful than the loss of the real thing?  I’d like to argue that it is not.

We still have hard days.  I still see a child on TV that looks like what I’d envisioned would be ours and I have to stifle tears.  We are slowly but surely returning to what our lives were before we stepped out on that limb.  We are taking down most of our African art because it’s just a little too painful to look at right now.  Maybe we will put it back; maybe not.  I don’t know much about why this happened, but I do know that God does not waste our tears.  I trust that His love for me and my family is enough to keep us stepping out in faith and attempting to do hard things that don’t necessarily return dividends.  This experience will NOT stop me from saying yes to something that may cost me everything, especially if it’s THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

In the meantime, we are still mourning, and still healing.  And God willing, we will continue to be sensitive to His ever-so-soft voice when He tells us to go and do something big and risky out of love for His people.




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