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Dealing with Death


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Dealing with Death

  1. 1. Dealing With Death by Mirah Riben The Greeks told the story of the minotaur, the bull- headed flesh- eating man who lived in the center of the labyrinth. He was a threat- ening beast, and yet his name was Asterion -Star. J often think of this paradox as J sit with someone with tears in her eyes, searchingfor some way to deal with a death, a di- vorce, or a depression. It is a beast, this thing that stirs in the core of her being, but it is also the star of her innermost nature. We have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not over- look the star...Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of dark- ness...the soul becomes greater and deeper through the living out of the messes and the gaps. -Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul Those of us who have been helping birthmothers search since the late 1970's, remember that for many years we never even thought about the possi- bility of any of our children be- ing dead. We knew that adoptees had to be prepared to find a grave at the end of their search, but not birthmothers. That was then. Sometimes I think it's be- cause we have all aged. We were young mothers when we started out, our children at home just babies and our surrendered kids barely teens yet. What harm could have come to such inno- cents? Then two birthmothers discovered that their babies died in infancy. Nothing's ever been the same since. Now, we cannot in good conscience not tell a perspective searching Mom to expect any- thing and everything... to be pre- pared for the worst possible outcome. Our members have found kids who have been abused; adoptive parents who got restraining orders; troubled kids who moved in with their birthmothers. Kids have been found in homes totally opposite of what the agency had told the birthmother in terms of ethnic- ity, religion, education and so- cioeconomic class. Irish babies in Puerto Rican homes, interra- cial children in lily white homes, an orthodox Jewish child with Catholic Germans. One child was placed with fundamental re- ligious parents and not allowed to listen to music, another was living in a car to escape his drunken adoptive parents. We have found children who were virtually "thrown away" and left at boarding schools or foster homes. And these, though not the "better life" we had been led to believe, were the good ones. The ones that were alive. Finding a deceased child is becoming more and more com- mon place. Since the beginning of 1995, we've heard of three or four birth mothers who searched and found that their children had died before they were found. They were barely out of their acci- dents, suicides, murdered all be- fore they were found. Those whose children are alive live with the fear that "but for the grace of God..." It could be any of our kids.
  2. 2. I cannot imagine what it would be like to never see your child. While I have the joy and peace of having met my daugh- ter before she chose to end her precious life, I do, sadly, share membership in the club of mothers of deceased children. I would like to share what's got- ten me through, in the hope that it might be of help to another who mourns. First and foremost...I get by with a lot of help from my friends! My triad friends. They don't have to have experienced a death to understand and to allow you to just be able to talk about it freely with no dimin- ishing of your love for a child you may never have "known" - no matter how subtly- that we hear from "others" who don't know. My personal guardian angel, a birthmother who lost her surrendered son and an- other son she's raised, initiated me into the "club" which wants no more members, but which will welcome any who need us with open arms and broad shoulders. Other help that I got to get through my 27 year-old daugh- ter taking her life within two weeks of the death of my mother was a very compassion- ate and understanding therapist, medication, and reading from Kirshner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kirshner wrote this book in or- der to help himself and others deal with disastrous situations regarding illness and loss of loved ones, without losing faith in God. His message was of great help to me in a secular, emotional way, as well. Today, many schools of psychology are recogmzmg that we cannot treat the psyche separately from the spirit and the soul. Losing my mother and daughter within such close proximity of one another, I felt a tremendous sense of having lost both my past and my fu- ture. I felt disconnected from the human race. I also lost the hope of my daughter "some day" marrying, having children of her own and perhaps wanting the relationship with me I had long hoped for. I lost the ability to believe that placing her for adoption had been "in her best . "mterest. In many ways, the living can cause us a great deal more pain and be more cruel than the dead. Like many of us, I had worked very hard to rebuild my life after having lost my first daughter to adoption. Now I had to mourn her loss yet again. During the years of my mar- riage I rebuilt my self-esteem which had been sorely damaged by the experience of surrender- ing a child to adoption. Just when I felt empowered enough to leave an emotionally abusive marriage, I lost custody of the three children I had breastfed and full-time mothered. As I was trying to recuperate from the loss of my marriage and cus- tody of my children...came these two deaths back to back. I remembered feeling like I did as a kid at Jones Beach. Just as you'd pick yourself up from one wave knocking you 6 down and wipe the salt water out of your eyes...boom! other wave would come and knock you down again! I asked what had I done to deserve such torture. I wondered what karma I had brought with me into this life which required me to suffer so. Now every time I feel these depressed "why me" feelings I recall Kirshner's book. God did not take my daughter's life or have my children not live with me after my divorce to "pun- ish"me or to teach me anything. God gave us all free will and there is chaos in the universe. Things just happen. What God gives us is the faith and the abil- ity to cope with what hand we draw in the game of life. I'm very grateful for my spiritual beliefs because they keep me from beating myself up with feelings of low self-worth. I consciously reject any thought that I - or any of us- deserved what happened be- cause we are "bad." Instead, I consciously affirm that I am a good person because I have coped with greatc,~versity, not given up, not become bitter, not lost my faith, and try to help others. I also find no solace in dwelling on anger. Am I angry? Yes, I've been in touch with my anger, I'm not suppressing it. I'm angry that I was lied to as we all were when we were told this would be "best" for our kids and for us, that we'd forget and get on with our lives. I'm angry that my daughter was put in a loyalty tug-of-war by her adoptive par- ents and not allowed to know all the love that was here for her. But dwelling on my anger will not change anything. Channel-
  3. 3. ing my rightful indignation to help change agency policies might help someone else. It also has never been within my capacity to think of suicide as a "sin." I have always believed that anyone who re- sorts to such a drastic end to their depression, is no different than one who succumbs to any other terminal disease. I know that my daughter is at peace and I regretfully respect her deci- sion. It also helps me to know that some people, such as some Asian Indians who believe in re- incarnation, believe that suicide is an acceptable and even honor- able way of alleviating oneself of bad karma from a past life and moving to a new life through re- birth. July 15th was Alicia's 28th birthday. For the first time in many years I was free to visit her on her birthday, knowing she would be there when I got there, and confident that she couldn't refuse to let me speak to her! I didn't have the worry of whether to get her a gift or just a card, and if a gift, what do you get someone you don't really know? Would she like it? Would it fit? Was it overbear- ing or too cheap? Would she keep it or return it? With all due respect for those who long to have such "problems" I was glad to be free of the many times I'd agonized over these questions. I also don't have to worry any longer that she might some- day marry and have children that I would be kept from knowing. In many ways, the living can cause us a great deal more pain and be more cruel than the dead. I have not as yet tried to contact her in the after- life, but I am leaving that option open. No matter what we find at the end of a search, it's never going to replace our lost babies, the years we lost raising them or the guilt we feel for having caused them the pain of feeling abandoned. Even the best, most seemingly "story book" reunions, are racked with diffi- culties. Some of us have to live with what society told us was "best" and others of us have to live with the results. No birth- mother will ever just go on and forget as if nothing happened. We'll never again be what we were before. We'll be different, we'll be a bit more cynical and less believing of what's "best", but we'll also, in the end, be stronger! As Nietzsche says: That which does not kill us strengthens us. Looking for answers The following is a letter I received from a birthmother which exemplifies a very com- mon concern I've heard ex- pressed repeatedly since the day I first learned of Alicia's death: "J learned recently with shock and sadness of your daughter's death. Being a "long timer" in the move- ment like yourself, J can fully ap- preciate all that you have gone through. I have my own distinct fears of my son's demise and pray that he can avoid a duplication of his birthfather's suicide, but J am powerless at this time to influence that. J wonder how you are managing to get through this. You have a large and caring supportive circle, as J have here in B oston. We look for answers where there seemingly are none. I'm sure you have found some, and that they are truly needed. 7 J hope you will at some point be able to write about your "answers" as it would be so helpful to those of us who wait and fear our children's self-destruction which we are pow- erless to influence for one reason or another. May God bless you in your resolve to your daughter's death, and may your answers somehow bring you strength and some comfort. " So many birthmothers ex- pressed the feeling that "But for the grace of God, there go 1." I was not surprised at all when I learned, because on some level I, like most of us, lived with the ever-present fear of the very real possibility...not necessarily of a suicide, but that she might die without us ever having reached any resolve. Our fears are not un- founded and to add to it is our total powerlessness, as the letter from my friend says. All teen- agers are at increased risk for depression, suicide and acciden- tal death. Children of divorce and adoption are at added risk. As parents, we are limited in what we do even for the chil- dren who live with us, and far less for the ones who don't. We can do nothing but worry about the ones we have no contact with at all. But no matter what our level of contact there is one thing we can do: love them and make every effort to let them know that they are loved. If we have contact, de- pending on their age, we may want to share their family his- tory with them, if it includes su:cide and/or depression. I never had the opportunity to tell Alicia that she inherited a pre-disposition to substance abuse from her father which
  4. 4. eventually, indirectly took his life and that there is some depres- sion and suicide in my family. My youngest child, Adira, now 16, knows all the family history, including now the fact that her half-sister took her life at 27. We spoke aboUt her dis- appointment and great sadness that she never got to know her sister before she died. I assured Adira that had Alicia not had all of the problems she had, she would have wanted to know her. I believe that Alicia's drinking and other problems kept her in a state of shame which prevented her from ac- cessing the loving support that awaited her from me and her sister. Adira and I also spoke about her fears regarding her family history which have been played upon by her vengeful fa- ther. I was quite open and hon- est and told her that her grandfather had taken his life and that I thought she should know that there is some depres- sion in the family, just as she should know if there were can- cer or heart disease in the fam- ily. I validated that it was "scary" but eXplained that knowing, just like knowing about any other illness, simply makes one able to be more aware and vigilant about symp- toms and therefore be able to seek medical help sooner. As for our surrendered children, we are as powerless in this regard as we are in all oth- ers. It is the powerlessness that is most frustrating and magni- fies our well founded fears and concerns. Our surrendered children or their adoptive par- ents often welcome our contact only after problems and pat- terns have already been estab- lished. In their formative teen years, when their feelings of re- jection are forming and when they would benefit most from our contact, we are most often not able to avail ourselves. When we do make contact, it is hard for our surrendered chil- dren to trust that we love them, especially depending on the messages, both verbal and non- verbal, they received at home and in society. Looking back with the hindsight of knowing the end of my daughter's life, I have not one thought of one thing I could have done to have pre- vented it, except to have not sur- rendered her. Everything after that was out of my hands, no matter how much I cared and tried. The only "answer" I know is to help prevent other tragedies to other people by educating the powers that be of the high price that family sepa- rations take. To work for fam- ily preservation and place 8 children only when there is no alternative for them, and the need for openness and honesty when separations are the only recourse for the well-being of the child. My other "answer" for all the birthmothers who have ex- pressed their fears and concerns tha t their child could succumb at any moment is a difficult one to hear: Let go and let God. I know that I did everything pos- sible under the circumstances. The problem is the surrender, and since we cannot undue that, there is little else we can do but love them and pray. Mirah Riben (aka Marsha Riben) is a birthmother, freelance writer, author and activist. She co- founded Origins, a search and sup- port group for women who have lost children to adoption and isfor- mer Director-at-Iarge and current nominee to the board of the Ameri- can Adoption Congress. The author of shedding light on ...The Dark Side of Adoption, Riben's second book When the Bonds Break is soon to be released.