Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Ultimate Separation

My good friend at the Meltingpot blog wrote a recent post titled "Death be not proud..." in which she addressed our customs/traditions around death and mourning. She posed the questions, "How do the people in your family and/or culture deal with death? What are your rituals and do they help you process your grief?"

I posted my brief response on her blog - because for an adoptee (or is it just for me personally?), death is a extremely difficult thing to process. She asked me to elaborate - so here it is: death is the ultimate separation.

Let me take you into the world of an adopted baby. Imagine spending forty weeks in a warm, comfortable womb (if you are lucky) and then having to come into the world in an indescribably intense birth (whether it's natural or c-section...). That birth is an experience that you must process: from one whole unit into two individuals. Quite a heady thing for an infant. Now add the separation that comes as you are handed into another person's arms - somehow, instinctively, you know that this is not your mother. You realize that this is not the same heartbeat you heard every day for forty weeks. The voice, too, is different. Where is that familiar voice and those familiar sounds that you grew used to in your first weeks of life? Where's my mother? As an infant, you must grapple to overcome this feeling of loss and separation. You somehow deal with this grief by "picking yourself up by your emotional bootstraps." In that "fight or flight" instinct, you decide to flee the emotional pain and a part of your emotional self shuts down...even dies.

Now fast forward about twenty years. Or thirty. Or forty. Whenever you experience the first death of someone close to you. All of those latent, subconscious coping mechanisms are awakened: you experience the same separation, pain and grief all over again. That's what it can be like for an adoptee to experience death. It's that profound. The closer the relationship with the adoptee, the greater the separation and grief.

I fully understood this when my father passed away about ten years ago. What made this separation even more shocking was the fact that I had just seen him a few days before his passing. Yet I was half way around the world when he died. The months following his death were incredibly surreal. I was in a daze. I don't think that I even truly registered the DATE of his death until about six months later, when I called my mother on his birthday. She noted that he passed on Groundhog Day. It was an extremely challenging grieving process - one that took at least a full year or more. I constantly questioned myself, "Why is this so hard? Am I the only one who's feeling this way? Is this a normal way to grieve?" What made it especially difficult is that I was also physically separated from my family, as we all lived in different countries at that time.

The good news is once I realized that death forces me to relive my primal adoption separation, I was able to process grief in a more "normal" way. Or at least I understand better what's going on for me emotionally, and I don't have to shut down or shut people out. My father's death brought a lot of self-awareness into my life and for that, I thank him.

With my job, I actually attend memorial services often. Perhaps it's an alum of the school or a former teacher. But one thing is for sure: whether it's someone I knew personally or not, I will always feel the pain of separation as I contemplate how the individual is no longer with us in this world. It brings a tear to my eye every time.

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