Wednesday, August 29, 2012
When Grief Goes Unrecognized
So it didn't surprise me when I cried while sharing a personal piece of writing for the first time with a classroom full of other aspiring authors. Putting myself on display always makes me nervous, plus I had written about my private thoughts and feelings. I just needed to get used to talking about myself and I would be fine.
Only I wasn't. During my first semester in graduate school, I broke down in tears several times while reading my work out loud. Every time it happened, I felt more than embarrassed. I felt flawed. There must be something wrong with a woman in her forties who can't read a few paragraphs without going off on a crying jag.
Over the next year, I worked very hard at maintaining composure whenever I had to read my own writing. I learned to focus on the sound of the words rather than their meaning, so that I could make it through a piece with dry eyes.
But then I worked on an assignment directly related to adoption. At the end of the semester when it came time for each of us to discuss our projects, I literally broke down sobbing in class. I was so sure I had gotten a handle on my emotions, but there I went again, crying like a little girl. What in the world was wrong with me?
After my humiliating presentation, the woman seated beside me leaned over and whispered, "It's the grief." The grief. I hadn't thought of that. She and I had been in the same critique group in the class, and in order to explain my interest in adoption, I had shared some of my own story. She also happened to be a counselor. And she immediately recognized what I never had, that I was still grieving the loss of my biological family.
Why had I not realized this before? I had certainly longed for my birth relatives even as a child. I remember consciously admitting to myself that I wanted to find out about them when I was in my teens. I also remember feeling lonely and depressed and being angry much of the time, though I didn't know what I was so mad about.
Even though reuniting with both of my birth parents answered many of the questions I'd had, I still carry around this weight that until recently I wasn't able to name. Now I know it's the grief. It's the little girl inside of me who is still crying over what she lost, who still wishes she could have grown up with her own biological family. It doesn't matter to the child me that the grown up me understands why I was relinquished and adopted. The child me was never able to admit she lost something important, so she never went through the typical grieving process one does when they miss someone who was dear to them.
In a way, knowing my birth parents has made my loss more profound. It was easier to accept the course of my life when they were just dream people I imagined. It was easier to blame my hypersensitivity on other things. Now that I know how my birth relatives look and sound and behave, the life I missed out on has become a sort of alternate universe where I can never go. My grief is no longer something I can hold in. When I try to ignore it, it bursts out and makes me take notice.
I'm hoping that since I now understand why I've been so fragile, I'll be able to deal with my emotions openly rather than bottling everything inside as I've done in the past. Admitting the magnitude of my loss to myself was the first step. Talking about it feels like a good second step. All I can do is keep taking steps.
Karen Pickell was born and adopted in Ohio in the late 1960s. She reunited with her birth mother in 2005 and with her birth father in 2007. Her husband is an adoptive father of two children, now grown, from his first marriage, one of whom was adopted from Korea. Karen and her husband live in Florida with their two biological children. Karen holds a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University in Georgia; she has published poems, essays, and stories, and is currently drafting a memoir. She previously served on the board of directors of the Georgia Writers Association, as editor for the Georgia Poetry Society, and as associate editor of the literary journal Flycatcher. She blogs about writing, adoption, and other topics at www.karenpickell.com.