After Angelina’s Message

Today I’m going to pick up where I left off on the day of Angelina’s message.  I know it seemed like we were at such a lovely, tidy happy ending when we found out her friend had been adopted and if this were a Shirley Temple there wouldn’t be more to the plot, but there is much more to unpack.

Angelina’s memories and grief opened up on a day when my husband works late due to an evening service at church.  While balancing her grief I was also feeding, changing, and doing all that other caring mom stuff for the our other three kiddos.  The pictures of her old baby house brought the regression train pulling into our station and Angelina had ridden it straight back to infancy.

As I whipped up some pb&j sandwiches and sliced a couple apples, she slowly slid to the floor from the kitchen chair and snuffled into the living room where she proceeded to lay on the floor, mewing like a tiny infant and swatting with limp, beseeching hands at her little sister.  From the doorway I helped put words to her emotions, “Angelina, you are feeling sad. It is okay to feel sad. It is okay to miss your friends.” And then I had to gather up a head-banging Roman and focus my entire attention on feeding him, all the while my head and heart were whirling with questions about Angelina’s past, a past which, till now, had seemed like a forgotten dream.

Dear Della took it upon herself to nurse Angelina’s spirits. She gathered up pillows and blankets and cocooned Angelina, who was still laying listlessly on the floor. Della then concocted a nurturing gruel at the play kitchen and set up a pretend meal for her big sister.  I think playing in the midst of regression is one of the absolute best ways to approach all the challenges a regressing child brings to a family.  It was helpful for Angelina to be able to pretend to be a baby without mom stepping in a saying “act like a big kid” but also without mom being the one to coddle and coo over her infant behavior.  It was also helpful for sweet Della to be able to participate in the current development and not feel helpless on the sideline.  In some ways children may be able to intuitively help lead other children through grief better than adults.

When dinner was ready I called out “let’s stop playing for a while and come have dinner”. Food is always a motivation for Angelina and she perked right up to come eat. She ate happily throughout the meal, chatting with her sister about their plans to find and nurse lost kittens, but as dinner came to a close and the bedtime routine started, the next wave of grief/regression surged.

This one day out of the week is always the hardest bedtime anyway because dad, who is undeniably the fun one, isn’t home to help get everyone ready for bed.  Angelina let me know how things were going to go right off the bat by refusing to change into pjs, flopping on the floor of her room screaming that she could not do it.  I let her be while I proceeded to get the other three kids in bed.  With everyone else settled, I was able to give my full attention to Angelina.

Before going into her room I thought about what needed to happen in that moment, and what needed to NOT happen.  I knew I was tired from a day of caring for kids, I knew I was stressed from the waves of emotions over the past few hours, I knew I had fairly little reserves and would not have backup from my husband for at least another hour. What needed to happen was that Angelina needed to see that life here was stable.  What needed to NOT happen was I was NOT going to lose my cool and shout.  I was also not going to lose my patience and do things for her that she is fully capable of doing for herself.

I knocked on the door and then went in. Angelina did not look at me but she had stopped screaming. I sat on the floor and, while looking at my knees said, “It is time for bed. I know you can put on your pjs.” And then I sat there, looking at my knees, waiting for her move. Without turning to look at me, she began to mutter a chant that this was not her home, we were not her family, and she wanted to go back to her friends. I said “It is okay to miss your friends. It is okay to be sad. Right now it is bedtime. Time to put on your pjs.” By nature I do not have much patience for intentional ignorance and stupidity, but I do have immense patience for grief. This is an innate gift which has been strengthened over the years while working as an occupational therapist with people learning to live after traumatic brain injuries.  For me, this moment was a therapy session in which the only goal was to have Angelina dress herself. In my mind I’d assessed that we’d be sitting on the floor for about 45 minutes, a totally reasonable therapy session time-frame.  Thirty minutes later, after I repeated that same script every few minutes, never veering into the many excuses and insults Angelina flung out, pjs’ were on.

Ever since I told you about Angelina’s rocking, I’ve rocked Angelina in a gliding rocking chair while singing the same songs and praying the same prayer. After she was in her pjs, I walked over to the chair, sat down, and asked if she wanted to rock and sing.  Without a word she climbed into my lap and we rocked and sang. During our prayer I included a prayer for her friends.  With the prayers finished, I carried her to bed as I do every night. On that night, for the first time (though certainly not the last), she insisted on sleeping in a crib like a baby instead of her big girl bed.  I’m sure there are endless layers of psychology going on with the crib thing, but in the moment reality and logistics helped guide the outcome. We have two cribs, both being used by toddlers, there was not an empty crib readily available and I was certainly not about to go take toddlers out of their cribs in order for their 9 1/2 year old sister to use it. Nope.

I did not say “you are almost 10 and 10 year-olds do not sleep in cribs” because up till she was transferred to the new orphanage at age 8 1/2 she DID sleep in a crib.  In many orphanages in Ukraine, children with disabilities sleep in cribs their entire lives.  Instead I said “You can sleep in your bed or we can make a nest for you on the floor.” (I’m fine with my kids choosing to sleep on the floor of their room if they want.  It’s exciting and gives a sense of independence without making bedtime routines a battle.)  She chose to sleep in her bed, calmly said goodnight and melted into the goodnight hugs. As I closed the door gently behind me, relieved everything had settled down, a torrent of inhumane screams slammed against the door. I slid down to the floor against the closed door and waited, unsure what to do.  My last reserves of patience had gone into the past hour and the well was dry. Angelina was safe in her room, this was a time when my all was not enough; in that moment nothing I did would be enough to stop the grief.  And even if I could, is it wise to stop grief like a wound sewn up with the infection still under the tissue? I do not know.

After sitting by the door long enough to hear Angelina’s screams diminish to muffled sobs, I went to make a pot of tea and cry my own quiet tears of grief and exhaustion.  I had known all along that Angelina probably hadn’t started to grieve her past, I had known more upheaval was probably on the horizon. Knowing what things may come may make it easier, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy.

I share these things, these hard post-adoption stories, for families who live this reality but may feel they are alone or doing something wrong.  I like think, in the moment, the fact that Angelina has been able to express her grief is a sign that we are doing something right. She is processing emotions that have never had the security to be shown before.  It’s really hard on all of us, and I really wish life were easier than it is, I really wish the knowledge that her friend was adopted and safe made her entire past one neat little package of closure, but that has certainly not been the case.




8 comments on “After Angelina’s Message

  1. Each Sunday, as we have since you and Timm began this adventure, “Timm and Hannah Heath and their children” are named when the congregation prays for “the sick and those who face extraordinary trials,” praying that “their faith not fail, but rather grow strong in the grace that comes through Jesus Christ,” which prayer always concludes “in the name of the One by whose stripes we are all healed, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

  2. Emotions are such strong and powerful things. And having to mask those things for years and years probably leaves immense pain behind when one is finally able to let that pain and those emotions out, in a loving environment where family is willing to help process that pain, even through regression, rather than tell one to hide their feelings and “get on with life”.

    I don’t claim to know your family, but it seems that Angelina has come a long way and I can see her doing great things. She has much further to go, but she will get there in time. Her compassion for others is obvious, even when it may seem like institutionalized behaviors may set her back a little. I know she is going to go so far in life, as well as the rest of your family.

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