Today our cat caught a bird. Angel spots her batting it around in the garden and we mobilise for our usual rescue mission. Angel is that kid who, at three, would rescue wasps from spiders webs.
We manage to wrangle the bird from the cat and get it into a bucket before taking it to our usual safe release spot; a small area of green across the road. The bird is the worse for wear, but alive. We go to check on it an hour later and it’s dead. Angel is beside herself. We talk about it having a ‘good death’, in peace away from the cat and that its spirit would have left its body.
We cuddle on the bed and watch clouds pass, deciding what animal they could be. Angel is still sad so I ask if she thinks it would help if we bury the bird and have a funeral. ‘Yes!’. We wrap the bird in kitchen towel and bury it with a flower and then hold hands (I tell hubby he has to come too) and Angel recites a poem.
This seems to do the trick. It is miraculous and makes me realise the importance of rituals. Of course, any loss for Angel echoes all her other losses. Not just her birth mum and dad and two sets of foster carers but also their homes, their extended families, their animals and everything that was familiar.
She went through a stage when she was terrified of us dying (well when I say stage, it was about a year and still crops up from time to time). This was sometimes just mummy, sometimes mummy and daddy and sometimes it extended to our whole family, her friends, toys and the dog! I tried to explain that this doesn’t really happen except in war; that you can’t lose absolutely everything you love in one stroke of a brush and then it hit me; actually it happens in war and adoption. If you’re lucky, like Angel, you don't lose your toys, clothes or usual meals. We even took her duvet and bedding with us from her foster family but whatever you do, however best you can make it, your child is going to go through a massive grieving process.
When you try to explain this to well meaning people who exclaim how ‘excited and happy you must be’, they sometimes even say (if your child is young) ‘but it doesn't matter because she won’t remember’. This is unfathomable to me. Even if you just look at it from a scientific point of view, they now know that a large percentage of your neural pathways and cortisol levels (the flight or fight hormone) are laid down before you are 3. This means that whatever happens in those first three years is going to have a profound effect.
Put another way, if a woman is drugged and raped, can you imagine saying, ‘but it doesn’t matter because you can’t remember?’
Sorry, I feel I’m becoming a bit ranty now and if you are reading this you are probably not one of those people but in case you need help explaining it to someone else, let me tell you another story about Angel.
She is three, we go to a local school fete where she has a massive meltdown. That night, as I did every night when she was little, we recount her day. When we get to the bit about the fete, I say, ‘And then you had a massive meltdown, which is really not like you. Have you any idea what that was about?’
Angel - Mummy, I’m missing people but I don’t know who they are anymore
My heart lurches as I realise she is losing her early memories. How scary and sad it must be to realise you are missing something but not know what it is anymore.
We had always kept a picture of Angel with her foster family next to her bed and often gone through and named them, particularly when Angel was clingy, which meant she wasn’t feeling good. We also did this with her Life Story Book and it always seemed to make her feel better. Anyway, one morning she came into our room with this picture and said, ‘Mummy I don’t want this picture in my room because I don’t know these people anymore’. But she didn’t give it to me, she slid it very carefully behind the mirror on our chest of drawers so it was safe but hidden from sight.
There is a lot of putting old memories anyway and getting them back out again in our house and we see this as a really good way for her to process feelings.
It’s bedtime. Angel is being difficult. We read ‘Listening With My Heart’ but she can’t really hear it. She is angry about us getting her to eat some vegetables at dinner, angry about us not letting her bang her leg against something while we watched a movie…really, she is just angry. Her way is to act out in a way we don’t like so that we can rein her in, which proves that we don’t like her and that she is bad. Depending on how bad she feels, this can lead to her saying is a ‘stupid f-wordidiot kid’, right through to we don’t love her, we don't want her and she wants to die.
I guess if you’ve been rejected by everyone you’ve ever loved and relied on, before the age of two, this is what you internalise. I’ve come to realise that there aren’t any ‘bad kids’, there are just kids ‘feeling bad’.
This made it very difficult to tell her anything when she was little as even just saying something like, ‘Can you tidy up your toys,’ could illicit her turning in on herself and curling up in a corner. It was exhausting as it usually occurred when you were slightly annoyed about something anyway and then you had to summon huge compassion and understanding to coax her out of her corner before you could even get to the thing that needed to be addressed.
Eventually, I had a long chat with her about how we would always love her no matter what. We may not like some behaviour but her behaviour isn't who she is and who she is, is perfect. She was only about 3 so we came up with the phrase ‘mummy and daddy are always going to love you’ and agreed that if we had to tell her about a behaviour we weren’t happy with or needed her to do something, we would remind her of this at the same time. This was revolutionary and is still in use today.
When we first introduced it, sometimes I would hear her whispering to herself in bed, ‘mummy and daddy are always going to love me, mummy and daddy are always going to love me’ over and over.
Anyway, back to our tricky bedtime. I am trying to get her to tell me how she is feeling as she whooshes around the room unable to stay still or articulate herself, when she starts singing:
I am going to die tonight
I wish I was going to die tonight
I want to die tonight
You don't love me
You don’t want me
I’m in the wrong home
I wish I was in another home
Daddy doesn't love me
Daddy doesn’t want me anymore
I’m no good
I wish i could leave this stupid house
I listen, heartbroken that she is feeling so bad. I’ve got nothing in my arsenal for this, I’m tired and spent and nothing I have said previously is cutting through so I just watch and listen and give her the space to express what she needs. Eventually welling up, she says ‘I wish I could have stayed with my birth mum and dad’. ‘I know it’s hard and it’s not fair,’ I say moving towards her as she finally stops and curls up into a ball under a blanket. I rub her back as she cries.
Me - I know it's hard and really sad that they didn't keep you but actually they weren't in a good place and wouldn't have been able to look after you very well and I feel you were always supposed to be my kid. Like, I didn't end up carrying one in my belly because the universe had a better plan and that was you.
She pokes her head out of the blanket and lets me stroke her hair. It's 10pm. We’ve been at this for an hour. I suggest she sleep with me tonight and that daddy can sleep in the spare room. We cuddle up and finally she sleeps.
Next morning in bed I ask, ‘How are you feeling?’
Angel - Oh yeah, I’m not dead (she says chuckling). Mummy, I have completely forgotten everything I said last night. I can’t remember anything!
Well thank fuck for that, I think, hopefully a day of respite!
A few days later I have another chat with her and ask if the idea of meeting her birth mum is stressing her out.
Angel - Yes, a bit.
Me - OK, well why don't we just park the idea and talk about it in a year and if it still feels stressful then, we can talk about it the year after that, all the way until your 18. And even then, you don’t have to meet her, you could wait until your 30 or you can choose never to meet her at all.
‘30!’ she exclaims giggling a bit.
Later I tell hubby, ‘Yeah well, I always said it was to soon’, he grumbles.
I point out to hubby that now she can access all the reasons why she doesn't want to meet her birth mum, as well as, all the longing. She also isn’t able to bury her anger or sadness under the guise of it not being fair that she can’t meet her and she’s been able to access a part of herself that was in the shadows. That has got to be positive.
‘It’s been a rough ride for a few weeks,' I say, ‘but the rough ride started before we introduced the idea’. He grudgingly, concedes.
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