Now that Massachusetts and other states have closed schools for the rest of the academic year, we know that our children, abruptly separated weeks ago from the physical presence of beloved teachers and friends, are immersed in an extended goodbye that won’t conclude with the usual end-of-year school rituals to help them process the separation and find a sense of closure.
This post reframes an earlier blog, previously titled “Why Saying Goodbye Is Hard for the Adopted” and published in 2017, to reflect the COVID-19 crisis in order to provide insight into why the current situation is particularly difficult for adoptees and to encourage family conversation.
Saying goodbye can be difficult for all of us. The thought of not seeing someone we care about can be painful as well as distressing. COVID-19 has added another layer of distress, abruptly separating us from loved ones physically, limiting our contact to video or phone calls. As all of us adhere to “social distance” standards, we wanted to share this blog which reminds us to check in with our children and loved ones, and to remind them they are not alone in the difficult feelings.
Normally when I think about the topic of parting, I envision toddlers being dropped off at preschool, only to have a meltdown as the caretaker says goodbye and leaves the classroom. Crying may occur and the separation becomes intense for both the child and the caregiver. Both the child and the caregiver often feel deep emotions when saying goodbye.
For the adopted person, saying goodbye can be intense at any age. Old feelings of loneliness, separation, and abandonment can come flooding in. Leaving may trigger many of the difficult emotions that we have carried with us for so long.
The adoptee may be confused by the overwhelming amount of feelings that a goodbye can trigger. The pain can even become physical, presenting as stomach aches, headaches, anxiety, anger, or depression. Leaving or having someone important leave can prompt all of these symptoms, even when we know in advance that a departure is inevitable: vacations must end, summer camps must close, visiting relatives have to go home. The shock of unexpected and abrupt departures during the COVID-19 epidemic adds a layer of complexity reminiscent of the trauma all adoptees have experienced, regardless of their age of adoption, when they were separated from their birth mothers. These and other endings or transitions that we experience can spark different reactions.
How can we help ease this pain when our adopted child or loved one must say goodbye? Caregivers may not even recognize the pain of loss as it is happening and may miss the signals when their child is hurting or acting out as a way to simply cope with the pain of loss.
First, have a frank discussion and acknowledge that saying goodbye or leaving can be painful and sad. This can help tremendously. Allowing the child, teen, or adult to express their sad and raw feelings of saying goodbye can help to normalize what they are experiencing. You are saying to them, “I understand,” “I get it”.
To start the conversation, the caretaker might say, “It looks like saying goodbye to ________ is tough. How are you doing with this?”
Just being there and showing an understanding of what they might be feeling can help to ease the pain. Sometimes just listening and saying nothing when they respond or taking the lead of the child can be the most comforting. When we feel understood, respected, and cared for, we can begin to feel whole again.
Written by Jennifer Eckert, LICSW
Boston Post Adoption Resources