On the Road to Healing: A Child Life Specialist Coping with Grief in Adoption

Coping with griaf in adoption

Guest Blogger: Lesley S. Phillips, M.Ed, CCLS from Hudson River Healing, LLC

When I began as a child life specialist, more than a decade ago, I never knew the skills I was learning were skills I’d need as a parent one day. I grew up in Western NY, but went to Chicago for grad school. I worked on the south side of the Chicago in a children’s hospital. My work focused mainly on infants and toddlers, and I spent part of my time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I also spent time working in an outpatient clinic doing developmental screening tests. Most of the time, kids got better and were discharged from the hospital. But sometimes they died. The death of a child was like no other loss I’d ever known. The worst loss one could face. It was emotional work, but very rewarding as I was able to support families. I enjoyed the NICU the most, holding the preemies, providing developmental stimulation and comfort. My whole life, I knew that I wanted both to work with children and someday have my own. My boyfriend and I became engaged and got married. We decided to move back to New York state, to be closer to our families.

Once we moved to NY, I landed a job in Manhattan, working in a hospital’s Family Resource Library. I eventually became a Senior Child Life Specialist, working in Pediatric Cardiology and the Pediatric Intensive Care Units. Lessons in grief and loss were learned firsthand. I sat with mothers and fathers as they were told their child was dying. I helped families plan memorial services for their children. I helped explain to children that their brother or sister had died. It was hard, but I felt good about the support I could provide.

While I was helping others with their grief, I silently grieved my own grief. I learned that my husband and I could never have our own biological children. The pregnancies and babies we dreamed of would not become a reality. As we struggled through years of infertility treatment, I was also working with many newborn babies. The emotional pain was really tough on me, but I became stronger. Our marriage became stronger too.

We decided we would adopt. We proceeded to adopt a little boy from a Russian orphanage. He was three, almost four years old. All of my skills and knowledge came into play as we helped him adjust to life in a home, outside of an orphanage. It was a difficult transition for him. He had to learn a new language, and everything he knew, was gone. He was grieving for his caregiver, his friends, his life that was left behind.

I decided I needed to stay home full time, and left my job. He needed me. To help him, I did what I knew as a child life specialist. He loved to engage in pretend play, and we would play “hotel” and “airplane” where he would reenact leaving the orphanage and coming to America. Many people think children should be grateful for being adopted. Being in a family should be something children should embrace after growing up in an orphanage. This is not always the case. He wanted parents, yes, but he did not know what that really meant. It wasn’t his decision to move across the world and be forced to learn a new language. It was hard for him. But he was resilient and strong too. With time and patience, he adjusted to his new life. We would often paint, and I knew one day when he painted a mural, that he was making a transition. He was at peace with his new life. He painted an ocean with a bridge, and a mountain. There was an apple tree on one side. He said it was New York, and that he was “all done” with Russia. I reassured him that yes; Russia was “all done”. There was a look of relief in his eyes I’ll never forget. He probably had wondered if this was only temporary, and if he had to go back one day. He was so happy, and kept saying, “All done Russia”. What I learned as a child life specialist in helping children process grief, I used at home. Art and play therapies were essential. We also reached out to other professionals. Our son needed speech therapy and an aide in preschool. Knowing how to navigate the Early Intervention process helped too.

Two years later, we began the process to adopt a little girl in Russia, for our son to have a sibling. After a very long wait, over two years, we traveled to meet her. We spent a week with her and bonded with her. After that week, we were to return home to await our court date in Russia to finalize her adoption. Before our court date, President Putin banned all Americans from adopting Russian children in retaliation for a law that President Obama passed, the Magnitsky Law. Since we hadn’t yet had our court date, we could not finish our adoption. Even though we had met and bonded with her, Russian officials would not allow us to finish. Even though legally she was not our child, in our hearts, she was our baby. My son carried her photo in his backpack to school each day. In his heart, she was already his sister. He was grieving again. We were the only people that had visited her in Russia. We promised her we’d return. My husband and I had yet another loss. We grieved for months. Our families were supportive beyond measure. Some friends were too. But many people just didn’t get it. This is what is referred to as disenfranchised grief. This is a grief that is not acknowledged by society. I felt like my child had been kidnapped from me. It was like a death, but she still was there, I just couldn’t get to her. Some people thought we should move on, adopt another child, but we couldn’t. We had bonded with her. Our greatest supports were the other families that we met that were in the same situation as us. They got it, because they were living it too. We tried many angles to work with our government and the Russian government. My husband met with the Russian Ambassador in Washington DC. I even traveled to Moscow and did a press conference on their state run television. Eventually, we were told that she was placed with a Russian family. At least she wasn’t still in an orphanage. We knew then we could move forward, and that for our son, we had to.

We decided to adopt domestically, and now have a beautiful little girl. Our family is complete, and our Russian baby will still have a special place in our hearts. My son finally has a little sister, and we can’t imagine life any other way. I have recently launched my own business helping children cope with illness and loss. In September of 2015 I opened Hudson River Healing, LLC. I provide home visits for children experiencing grief and loss.   As I help children and families cope with some of life’s toughest experiences, I can draw upon my own life lessons and help others. Although I haven’t had a child die, I have grieved the loss of children and also helped my son through his grief. I often think that my son and I are healing each other. My skills as a child life specialist helped me to be a better mom. And now my skills from my life experiences and losses are helping me to be a better child life specialist.

To learn more about Lesley and her practice, check out Hudson River Healing, LLC and follow her Facebook page.

Lesley Phillips

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