My beautiful, sweet mother died last week at the age of 90 years old. She passed while I was on a plane on my way to see her, after I struggled with a brutal bout of COVID, finally cleared to go and be by her side as her health rapidly deteriorated over the past weeks. She suffered from late-stage dementia, and for quite some time now, I was in a kind of limbo where I had already mourned the loving, brilliant mom that she was while also trying to prepare myself to say good-bye to the “new” mom who was getting sicker and sicker and less aware of her surroundings.
In a way, her death was the fifth death of a parent I’ve had to go through. The timing of those deaths was peculiar, as I hadn’t learned of the first two until much later after they’d occurred. The first one to go was my birth father, who died 32 years before I learned about it, the second one my birth mother whose death I did not learn of until 8 years after it happened. Then there was my adoptive father 12 years ago, and now, Joan Audrey Bohl who died twice —first when the dementia robbed her of her mind and memory, subsequently rendering me a stranger when she would fail at times to remember who I was and why I was visiting. There she was another mom who had no idea I was her son. In those moments, in a most sinister coincidence, she was like my biological parents who relinquished me and existed in this world without any specific knowledge of me.
What all of this means to someone like me—a relinquishee and adoptee who now has two sets of deceased parents–is that I must face twice(?), five times(?) a yet-to-be determined amount(?) of grief and confusion. Add to that losing my adoptive mom to dementia, and there is plenty to process, a great deal of loss, and certainly much to grieve. I am, of course, not blaming any of my parents for dying or getting sick, and I’ve made peace with my biological parents for giving me up a 62 years ago. But it would be disingenuous to say that I am no longer affected by these losses and that my mother’s recent death doesn’t trigger some new layer of grief where all of those people who contributed to my existence must be acknowledged in how they shaped my life. And so, I think about mothers. The mother I knew and the mother I’ve never met. And then the mother I knew who no longer knew me. I think of fathers, the one who had never even met me, and the one who raised me and provided me with a life filled with opportunities. And I of course, as a father, I think about my children.
What does it all mean? What does it mean to be known and to be connected to people—whether through biology, or through love– and what is the legacy of such losses?
Those of us who experience the loss of parents communicate this succinctly to our family and our friends and society—succinctly because we know what it means and others understand what it means. But what about those of us whose loss is layered and continuous? For me, it means that it takes longer to heal, that more energy and time is needed, and it is something that will have to be revisited several times over a lifetime. I know I am not alone, yet there are few of us who understand this complexity and/or are able to communicate this intricacy.
Two percent of U.S. adults are adopted, which means there are only two percent of us who have directly similar experiences. Even relinquishees and adoptees who never (re)connect with their birth parents— because of legal obstacles or out of choice or because it’s too late—are familiar with those echoes of grief, or better yet, missing something that we didn’t even know was missing.
Adoption and grief go hand in hand. From the very beginning separation from birth parents causes loss that must be examined and that continues to need to be examined—for all parties involved. There are complicated emotions always present: abandonment, frustration, anger, love, feelings of rejection, and/or feelings of not being understood. The grief is for what could’ve been, the grief is for what never was: for the parallel universe that exists only in imagination if we ever let ourselves go there. And the grief is for what will never again be.
I don’t know what my mother knew or felt during her final moments. I’d like to think that she passed peacefully and that she had a sense of her life, and maybe a sense of me, however that may have looked in her mind. She was with me in my thoughts—as the plane hurled through the sky—and I hope that I was with her in hers. She knew that I loved her, and I am hoping she died knowing love. But I’m writing this mostly for myself and for others like me—because I want to acknowledge the complexity of grief that a person separated from family feels. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” says the famous quote. The faithful ones believe that yes, because God/ the universe heard it. But it is not just god/ the universe who can be a witness. I had no clue that my biological parents died in 1983 and then 1996—but acknowledging their deaths all those years later was what made the sounds of their departure echo in my psyche deeply and profoundly; echoes which reverberate again, now, with my last parent’s departure, and that likely will for some time to come.