Op-Ed: How I Learned to Stay Present While Living in the Mystery of Grief


“Is he your first?” people ask when they see me with our son and I don’t know how to answer.

“Not really,” I say, which confuses people. “We were foster parents,” I add, which often confuses them even more.

My husband Eric and I brought our foster daughter Coco home from the hospital when she was three days old and weighing less than five pounds. For ten months, our home was the only home she knew until the state of Idaho reunited Coco with her birth mother.

A year and a half later, Eric and I adopted our son. We were chosen by his birth mother to be his parents. We were in the hospital when he was born. During our very first conversation with our social worker at the adoption agency, she said, “Tell me about your grief.” I assumed she was talking about the fertility struggles experienced by many people entering the adoption process.

“We didn’t have any fertility problems,” I told her.

“I know,” she said. “I am speaking of the loss of your foster daughter. I am speaking of your disenfranchised grief.”

I’d never heard that expression before, disenfranchised grief, to describe what I’d felt since Coco left our home—a grief that’s not overtly acknowledged, not socially accepted, not publicly mourned. Relief came with the language for it.

We live in a small mountain town and after Coco was reunited with her birth mother, most of our community has supported us in our grief, but not everyone. “Where’s the baby?” a woman once asked me in the supermarket, and when I told her that Coco was no longer with us, that she was back with her mother, that I was robbed, the woman said: “But you always knew she was going, didn’t you?” – as if knowing should have somehow eased our pain.

“That heartache will make you a better adoptive parent,” our social worker said at that first meeting. She explained that it would connect us to the sorrow our child might feel over the loss of their birth parents and could help us understand the sorrow the birth parents feel over their decision to put their child up for adoption.

Social scientist Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to mean “the unclear – and often unconfirmed – absences in [people’s] Life.This can include people whose loved ones go missing in a natural disaster and whose bodies cannot be found, people caring for loved ones with dementia – and the experience of living through a pandemic.

It also applies to parents who are grieving the loss of their children, regardless of the circumstances behind the loss.

Some of the most frequently asked questions about parenting – is he your first Do you have children? is he yours – should be redesigned to be more open. Questions without yes or no answers — How was motherhood for you? tell me about your family What is parenting like? – Give those experiencing a wide range of emotions more space to respond. They create space for us to talk about what we are going through.

When Coco was with us, her mother had received help from the state, including financial assistance and support from social workers and mental health professionals, so that she could eventually be reunited with her daughter. But after reunification, these supports were abolished and their homes became too dangerous again. Child Protective Services removed Coco from her mother’s home a second time in the year after their reunion. Knowing this adds another layer to our unknown, more ambiguity to our grief.

Our son is now the same age as Coco when we had to give her back to her mother. He plays with the same toys, learns to eat with the same bowls, spoons and sippy cups. He sleeps in the same crib.

Coco lived with us for 286 days. Day 287 in our son’s life will be a whole new parenting experience for me.

Most of us weren’t taught how to stay present while living in the mystery of grief — or how to ask other people about their experiences with it. I sometimes wish we lived in a culture where grieving people wore different colored clothes, where we were marked in some way, where our loss was made visible. But then I remember everyone would wear the same thing.

“Is it your first?” a new nurse asked Eric and I at our son’s last wellness check-up.

“No,” Eric and I said at the same time. And then: “Yes.”

Sarah Sentilles is an Idaho-based writer. Her latest book is Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours. Op-Ed: How I Learned to Stay Present While Living in the Mystery of Grief

Caroline Bleakley

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