I am very excited to introduce you to Laurie Wallin, Living Power Coach, adoptive mother, and featured guest on our radio show June 20 at 8PM EST, The Dynamics of Blended and Adoptive Families!
Grief is part of life. It comes with the end of a relationship, or of anything else enjoyable and familiar. Maybe a lost job, family move or a betrayal. Or, for those like me who live in blended families, grief is part of every day in our homes. My blended family was formed through adoption of two kids from foster care. Yours may have come in other ways, but however it came, blending families brings grief.
What do we grieve in blended families? One or more of the following:
Loss of our first family, even if it was dysfunctional or messy.
- Loss of the place we called home.
- Loss of the neighborhood we lived in.
- Loss of dreams. (Nobody dreamed their first family would fall apart. Or that the new one would have its own set of problems!)
- Loss of stability (or the perception of it) and the life we were familiar with.
People expect you to grieve the loss of a person you love. There are groups, books, and community support for that. But what about us as we grieve a loss many don’t understand? For me, it looked like this:
A well-meaning friend says, “You must be so HAPPY to have your new girls. How wonderful that you’re a family!”
I reply, smiling in obligation, “Yes. . .” While inside I’m thinking, Too bad my kids yell at me, beg me to see their “real mom” and tell me their life would be better with her. Every day.
Moments like those left me asking:
Why are my new kids treating me so badly? How come love is NOT enough in our family?
Turns out they were doing that because kids grieve too. And they’re no prettier about grieving than we are – in fact, it’s harder for them because they don’t have the words to express what they’re feeling like adults do. Instead, they do things like:
- Argue with us or their siblings over silly things
- Get aggressive about things that seem like no big deal
- Break trust with others by lying or stealing
- Become withdrawn or seek out destructive friendships
- Whine or complain of physical problems (stomach aches or headaches)
- Change their eating – eat a lot, hoard food, eat very little, get really picky
- Develop fears, worries or even phobias that affect their daily lives
Kids wear their grief feelings on their sleeves rather than telling us about it. And this adds one more grief to our pile of struggles as moms in blended families: we grieve their pain, and if we’re honest, we grieve the extra work it takes from us to be detectives and help our new kids. It’s even harder when we’re new as “mom” and we’re trying to get to know a young person who’s real life and character may be hidden behind the very ugly reality of grief.
The amazing – surprising – news is this:
When you support a child who’s grieving, you open the relationship to a deeper bonding than any developed through play and time’s passing alone.
To come alongside a child in their loss tells them something very important about you: You REALLY care about them. You respect them. You’re willing to love them through the ugliest moments in their lives. That kind of deep acceptance is a foundation for years of connection.
So what does “supporting a child who’s grieving” look like?
- Give them permission to think – and talk with you – about their first mom. You’ll put years into a child and of course you want the recognition for that. The best way to do that is meet them where they are at right now. We must recognize the significance of our children’s first mom and help them connect with her in meaningful ways. That will look different for each child, but it’s our job to occasionally bring up the subject. Statements like “It’s your birthday. I wonder if you’re thinking about mom right now?” or “Look at those beautiful eyes. They’re just like hers.” We do that in our house and it gives our kids permission not to ignore the first part of their lives or feel guilty for the grief that comes up, even years later.
- Help them recognize their grief feelings and behaviors. Things like chronic aches and pains. Changes in diet. Changes in friends. Anger and aggression. Set limits with things that damage people or property, but beyond that, give them words for what they feel so they can learn to choose those instead of challenging behaviors. When my girls rage or bicker incessantly, it’s my cue to start observing their behavior out loud with statements like “Wow, that was a big reaction to something not so big. I wonder what’s behind that? I think I’d be sad (or mad, or frustrated, or hurt…) about… (whatever you suspect it is)”
- Teach your kids to recognize grief signs in their bodies. As an adult, you may recognize tense shoulders as symptoms of emotion, but kids will simply feel yucky. Share where anxiety lives: head (thoughts, headaches), stomach (changed appetite, nausea, pain), heart (increased heart rate/breathing), shoulders (tension). Live your own feelings “out loud” as you go through your day so they see it modeled. Things like “That guy just cut in front of me on the freeway – that scared me and made me mad. My heart’s really racing!” The more we model, the more they adopt those healthier ways of coping.
All this presupposes one thing: you know how to grieve in healthy ways too. If you don’t, give yourself a gift: get involved in a Grief Share group, check out helpful books from the library, find online support groups (like Peggy’s great site here!), or connect with a counselor or coach to help you find your way.
Allow grief run its course. Ignoring it will only make it more intense. Like Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going” because better times await on the other side.
On the Web: lauriewallin.com
Facebook community: Facebook.com/LivingPowerLifeCoaching
Because of Laurie Wallin’s blended family and the issues it brings, she writes on grief, loss and ways to thrive through it on her website, My Living Power. Laurie offers coaching on grief, transition and stress (both parents and teen or older aged kids) and would love to support you with tools and resources to get unstuck with grief and help your family thrive.